David Letterman marveled that he could fly. Steve Martin labeled him a genius. Billy Crystal said he used to leave him long messages on his answering machine in various accented characters. But beneath all that lightning-quick comedic energy, Robin Williams was a soft-spoken man who too often visited the dark corners of his mind. That’s the tragic takeaway from Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, a fascinating documentary that premiered on Friday, January 19, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (It will debut on HBO later this year.) The film, which includes rare footage and interviews, offers fresh insight into Williams’ life story. Here are five examples:
1. He Owed His Big Hollywood Break to Star Wars
The original Star Wars was such a pop culture phenomenal Force in 1978 that its intergalactic themes bled into other Hollywood projects — including the wholesome 1950s-set family sitcom, Happy Days. One day, the show’s creator, Garry Marshall, told execs to write in a new “spaceman” character to appease his young Star Wars-obsessed son, Scott. A staffer recommended a San Francisco comic and Juilliard grad who often stood on a side of a road with a hat asking for money. The guy was Williams. The character was a wacky alien named Mork from the planet Ork. Williams was such a hit in the episode that he got a standing ovation from the studio audience, and soon, he landed own smash ABC spin-off, Mork & Mindy.
2. He Sobered Up Because of a Brush With Death
In the early ’80s, Williams spent his days on the Mork & Mindy set and his nights drinking and doing cocaine on the Hollywood party scene. During one club-hopping night in 1982, he ended up hanging out with his friend, Saturday Night Live alum John Belushi, at a Chateau Marmont bungalow. Belushi overdosed within hours of the encounter. (Williams’ costar Pam Dawber, who played Mindy, was the one who broke the news to him on set the next morning.) Shaken by the death, Williams vowed to quit drinking and carousing. In his words, “It sobered the s–t out of me.”
3. He Didn’t Leave His Wife for the Nanny
This was a scandal with a capital S: Williams had left his wife of 10 years, Valerie Velardi, for his young son Zachary’s nanny, Marsha Garces. But as Velardi shares in the documentary, the two had already “drifted apart” and separated by that time. Press-shy, Velardi didn’t do any interviews to refute the story and says she felt guilty for letting the narrative become etched in stone. Williams and Garces married in 1989, and had two kids, Zelda, now 28, and Cody, now 26. They divorced in 2010. (FYI: Williams’ son, Zach, 34, speaks on camera in the film and says Williams was the kind of dad that “got his hands dirty” but spent half the year away from home.)
4. He Gave Mrs. Doubtfire a Wild Streak
A master of comedic dexterity, Williams constantly went off-script while filming. The documentary features NSFW outtakes from several of his works, including Sesame Street (he was mean to Elmo!), Patch Adams (his costar, a young Phillip Seymour Hoffman, cracks up in the background) and Aladdin (as the morphing blue genie, he did biting impressions of Marlon Brando and boxing promoter Don King.) In the most amusing clip, he goes off the rails while dressed up as the kindly, elderly English nanny in 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire. Think the scene in the kitchen where Virginia Doubtfire tells her employer (played by Sally Field) about her late husband’s passing. Williams describes the death in outrageous detail, down to poor old Winston visiting America for the first time and getting hit by a stray Budweiser truck. Ha!
5. He Was Devastated By a Medical Diagnosis
Former costar Dawber recalls that when she filmed a 2014 guest spot on his short-lived CBS sitcom, The Crazy Ones, he was not as sharp as usual and seemed like “a wax figure.” It’s Crystal who reveals that Williams — who lived for delivering outstretched laughs for his fans, family and friends — emotionally reeled after a Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis. (The degenerative disease of the central nervous system often causes trembling and stiff movement). He died on August 11, 2014, from self-asphyxiation. He was 63. Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind ends with a clip of the 1989 drama Dead Poet’s Society, his professor character reminding his students to seize the day.
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