Robin Williams was everything you hoped he’d be,” says Tylor Norwood. “That was the word around town before I started this project – he is literally that guy.” Norwood is a documentary filmmaker whose latest project, Robin’s Wish, offers an eye-opening look at the end of Williams’s life, and the disease – Lewy body dementia – that led directly to his death, from suicide, back in August 2014. Built around a series of revealing interviews with Williams’s widow, Susan Schneider Williams, and a close-knit group of friends and collaborators, the film is an attempt to “right the wrongs that were done to his legacy by people who don't understand what happened to him”.
Norwood speaks over Zoom, from a Costa Rican eco-lodge. His usual home, though, is just a few miles away from where Williams lived for much of his life, in Paradise Cay, California. “Robin was just a local guy,” he says. “Everyone had this respect and admiration for him, because it's Robin Williams. In the local community, people were just devastated when he died. The idea that this was somebody we counted on... He was a local son, he went to high school in the area, he was a local in the truest sense. So people were just in shock. I think they did really get protective over him when the media descended into the town, looking for anybody who had information.”
Lewy body dementia, also known as dementia with Lewy bodies, is a progressive and degenerative disease of the brain, similar to Alzheimer’s. Symptoms include depression, insomnia, paranoia, tremors, and cognitive impairment. It was not until his body was autopsied that Williams was correctly diagnosed, even though doctors say it had taken over all parts of his brain, that it was astounding he could even walk upright by the end of his life. As Robin’s Wish makes clear, however, its effects were already evident to himself, and to those close to him. The comedian whose manic, effervescent creativity had made him a star, and whose work in films like Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society and Good Will Hunting had immortalised him in cinema history, found himself unmoored from his very identity.
Schneider Williams kept “obsessively detailed” notes about her husband’s condition, reveals Norwood, making it easier to piece together a precise and detailed timeline of Williams’s decline, which began intensifying, from early symptoms such as heartburn, stress and sleeplessness, around October 2013. “Robin's case is actually something that could really easily be understood,” he says. “It's a medical thing, and it could happen to anyone. The thing that happened to him was this neurological disease that's not curable and not treatable and happens to 1.4 million people a year. So it was a one-way ticket, but Robin faced it as well as anyone could. Which is with compassion, with love, with understanding.”
The film keeps the circle of interviewees small. Shawn Levy and David E Kelly (the creator of Ally McBeal and Big Little Lies) are pretty much the only collaborators to be featured, having directed Williams in the Night at the Museum franchise and The Crazy Ones respectively. Their affectionate contributions mostly just confirm testimony from Williams’s wife and others; that towards the end of his life, he was struggling to perform as he usually would, physically and mentally. Otherwise, the interviewed subjects are mostly non-celebrities – including his neighbour, whom Williams would visit, and ask for a hug, on the night he died. “I still cannot believe that this film has that story in it,” says Norwood. “The depth of that, the simplicity of that, the humanity of that – I didn't want to weigh that down with a bunch of celebrities who people might be more interested in. This didn't have anything to do with the megastar.”
In the immediate aftermath of Williams’s death, misconceptions spread like a fungus, with tabloid media indulging lurid speculation about his motivations for killing himself. It was not until months later, when the results of the autopsy were published, that the real cause was made public. “The way he left the world was very jarring for a lot of people. And then the inaccurate, spotty reporting that happened after that only made it more difficult,” says Norwood. “I mean, it's the job of the media to come up with something. If Tom Hanks died tomorrow, you may have to come up with 1,000 words not necessarily knowing all the details. So I sympathise with them but it's a damaging process.
“There’s a big number of comedians that die from suicide,” he continues. “There’s this narrative that runs, that they’re kind of sad clowns. They can make us all laugh and sing and dance, but as soon as they leave the stage, they’re deeply morose. There are the John Belushis and Chris Farleys of the world that didn’t get help in time. But Robin Williams was one of those people who corrected that. He found Alcoholics Anonymous. He found cycling. He found meditation. He found a way to continue to be there in the way that he wanted to be.”
Maybe, suggests Norwood, there should be stronger protocols in place for how to report on suicide, especially on celebrity suicide, where there is immediate pressure to explain what has happened, often while the facts are still unclear. He points towards procedures adopted by the US military, having interviewed four-star military generals about Williams’s work with troops overseas: “The military has a total protocol for what to do when there's a suicide. And they don't say anything until the coroner's report comes out.
“If only we had a national or international process of saying: ‘Someone passed from suicide. We need to let medical experts go ahead and do their work and let some sort of investigation happen.’ It's something the military enacted not necessarily for humane reasons but for morale reasons. It gives them a process that people can fall into that allows for healing at the end, when everything is known. And it allows you to not intensely cling to any narratives in the early days.”
The retelling of Williams’s interaction with the military is one of Robin’s Wish’s most moving parts. We hear how generous he is with his time and with his spirit. Throughout his career, his daft, eccentric comic energy was always tempered with this sense of something more bittersweet; he was an actor who could communicate great depth without sacrificing his sense of humour. In Robin’s Wish, Schneider Williams describes the time after her husband’s death, when she would occasionally look through his bedside table, hoping to feel some sense of him in the ephemera he left behind. Finding his diary, she read his inscription on the first page: “I want to help people be less afraid.”
“He wrote that as a sort of prayer,” says Norwood. He didn't ever expect anyone to read it; I think he'd rather no-one ever read it. It was something very personal to him. But to know that's where his mind, and his heart, and his intentions were... Whether it’s Hook or Good Will Hunting – it's all to help us be a little less afraid.”
'Robin's Wish' is out now on Amazon Prime
When life is difficult, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at email@example.com, or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.
In the US, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 800 273 8255 or chat online for help.