When reports first started to surface in 2014 that Robin Williams took his own life, the narrative quickly become that of the sad clown: a brilliant comedian tortured to a tragic end by his own demons.
But that never sat well with the people who knew Williams best.
After his death, doctors discovered the real issue: diffuse Lewy body dementia, “a spectrum of disorders that impair cognition, sleep, behavior, and movement.” In fact, one doctor claimed Williams’s case was one of the worst he’d seen.
The news galvanized Williams’s widow Susan Schneider Williams into spreading awareness of LBD hopefully to spare others of inaccurate diagnoses.
Susan reached out to documentary filmmaker Tylor Norwood through a mutual friend with the idea of making a doc about LBD.
“She doesn’t tell me anything about Robin. She just goes, ‘Hey, I want to make this film about Lewy body dementia. Are you interested?’ And I was like, ‘No, not at all!’ I had no interest in making a hardcore science doc,” Norwood says. “But I’ve got Robin Williams’s widow on the phone—let’s try and dig a little deeper here.”
After Susan shared her personal account of how the disease slowly devastated Williams in his personal and professional lives, Norwood knew that was the story in which he could house educating people on LBD.
“In the beginning, she was going to stand back. She’d never come forward with the very personal details about this,” Norwood says. “But I said, if you’ll go there, if you’ll step up and say these things, I’m in.”
Robin’s Wish is as much of a celebration of Williams’s life and career as it is a course correction on his legacy. While Susan hit the interview circuit after Williams’s post-mortem diagnosis explaining LBD, Robin’s Wish is a much deeper dive into a disease that is quite common but underdiagnosed. According to the National Institute on Aging, LBD affects more than one million people but because the symptoms can resemble Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, it often flies under most doctor’s radars.
“There are the Chris Farleys and the John Belushis of the world that are cautionary tales of we all wish they would’ve gotten help sooner. But with Robin, there was no way that was going to happen,” Norwood says. “A lot of the comedians I talked to, that was a huge thing for them: If we can take somebody out of that category of being the sad clown, if we can do that for one of the all-time greats, let’s do it.”
In what’s understandably the most emotional part of the doc, friends and family recount Williams’s final hours, which to Norwood illuminates the kind of person Williams truly was.
“I became really interested in this idea of the moments in our life that are the hardest define who we actually are. There’s almost no way to make an argument that this wasn’t Robin Williams’s greatest challenge, facing an incurable brain brain disease that was chipping away at a super power,” Norwood says. “So the idea of getting to see these moments, like his last bike ride with one of his closest friends. The idea that on the night he left this earth, he went and asked for a hug from [his friend] across the street—a lot of these details Susan didn’t even have. So there was this sense of putting together this record of a guy trying to just make peace with all of these things.”
“He never got bitter,” Norwood continues. “He never got angry. Robin Williams wasn’t the guy who was going to go burn down the neighborhood the last night he was alive because he felt like things were unfair. He went and asked for a hug from one of his close friends. He said goodnight to his wife. And he realized that there just wasn’t much left on the earth for him. He was about two weeks from going into an inpatient program that he likely never would have come out of. And that’s just not how the guy wanted to live.”
But perhaps the most telling insight into Willams came when Susan opened his bedside table for the first time since his death. Inside was his alcoholic’s anonymous book and on the first blank page he wrote, “I want to help people be less afraid.”
“That was something that was transformative for me because then you’re looking at everything he ever did,” Norwood says. “He wrote that in 2012 as a little silent prayer in the night to himself. He never planned for anyone to read that. He was looking forward, like, ‘What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’ But for me, as a storyteller, that’s what he was doing from the beginning. He was giving us all these moments of being fearless.”