Everyone has a favourite Robin Williams movie moment. It might be him covered in prosthetics dancing with a vacuum cleaner in Mrs. Doubtfire, or riffing with a magic carpet in Aladdin. It could be him putting Matt Damon in his place in Good Will Hunting, or saying thank you to his pupils in Dead Poet’s Society. Heck, it might even be him singing in Popeye.
But the real revelation in Robin’s Wish, a new documentary charting his last days, is how much he loved his neighbours in the small Californian enclave he lived with his third wife, Susan. So much so, in fact, that John, an unassuming bloke who lived down the street (who told Norwood he used to be a CIA accountant), was the last person other than Susan to see him alive.
“He became like a father figure to Robin Williams and then on [his] last night alive, Robin goes to this guy’s house and asks for a hug,” says the movie’s director Tylor Norwood.
“That was one of those interviews were the room gets really heavy. That guy will never tell that story again to anyone. It was a really important moment in understanding where [Robin] was in his spirit. He was someone who was weighted down with the chaos and the nasty things working against his mind, but his spirit was clean and clear and he just wanted a hug from a guy that he loved…”
When news broke that Robin Williams had killed himself in August 2014, the natural reaction was to ask: ‘Why?’. Yes, the 63-year-old had battled substance abuse and mental illness in the past and the world was more than happy to accept those demons had come back.
After all, why else would someone as talented and beloved as Williams want to take his own life?
But his widow Susan had other ideas. She knew those pat answers weren’t the whole story and that the problems which had been surfacing on the sets of his last couple of projects – TV show The Crazy Ones and Night at the Museum 3 – were signs of something deeper.
It was only after his autopsy that she found out the truth. Williams had undiagnosed Lewy Body Dementia, an incurable brain disease that causes severe psychiatric symptoms like paranoia and hallucinations. And even though it was less than two years since her husband died, she wanted people to know what she knew.
Watch a trailer for Robin’s Wish
“Susan came to me and said, ‘do you want to make a film about Lewy Body Dementia,” says Norwood. “I said, ‘no, I don’t want to do that at all!’ A film about science with a bunch of doctors and medical animations, I don’t think anybody really wants that.”
But as a Williams’ fan, the director’s interest was piqued and he sat down with Susan to talk about her life with Robin and what it was like dealing with the issues he faced.
“It wasn’t about the horrible symptoms of this disease, it wasn’t about the horrible end Robin had, it was really about the idea of not knowing,” he says. “That Robin spent the last two years of his life not knowing what was happening to him. And that his wife, as his closest friend, but also his caregiver, they were both stuck with this idea of not knowing.”
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But while he wanted to make the film, his job wasn’t purely to assuage Susan’s survivor’s guilt. So he and his team went about finding “the best witness for each part of the story”. It wasn’t easy – the tabloid speculation around Williams’ death still stuck. Monty Python star Eric Idle, a close friend of Robin’s, was going to be in the film and then pulled out.
“I think a lot of people worried about that bad reporting that had been done, that this would slot in next to that,” explains the director. “Then they would actually be doing a disservice to Robin.”
The result includes input from his neighbourhood friends, some of his oldest buddies from the comedy circuit, as well as his Night at the Museum trilogy director Shawn Levy and The Crazy Ones’ showrunner, mega-producer/writer David E. Kelley, sharing for the first time their experiences of working with Williams as he began to deteriorate.
“To be clear, Shawn Levy and David E. Kelley have nothing to gain from being a part of this,” says Norwood, clearly still chuffed that he got them in the documentary. “They’re doing projects with Nicole Kidman and Ben Stiller. If those people looked at this movie and it got bad reception or if I did a poor job…the idea of what it meant for them to put their reputations behind this difficult story can’t be understated.”
“I think we did a really good job of in the end having 17 people who really knew Robin coming forward and saying, ‘this is the part of the story that I can add to’,” he continues. “That made it a complete record. That was the thing that I think kept it from being Susan’s version.”
Those who are not part of the project are Williams’ children. “We reached out to them,” says Norwood. “They declined to be part of the film. Then it was about creating something that I hope they can watch and it brings some value to them.”
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So after embedding himself in Robin Williams’ life for so long, what did the director learn? Well, despite all the inevitable questions and the guilt over his death from those closest to him and the insidiousness of Lewy Body Dementia, Norwood still thinks about that hug.
“That for me was really clarifying,” he says. “This was not a guy who left the world angry. That’s a beautiful thing.”
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Robin’s Wish is out now on Digital and On Demand on all major platforms. For more information please go to https://www.robinswishfilm.com/
Watch: New film examines final years of Robin Williams' life