Watching the new HBO documentary Robin Williams: Inside My Mind filled me with ambivalence: I felt nostalgia for his brilliance as a comedian and actor, but also deep-seated sadness about the way his life ended, and the stark dichotomy between his private and public selves. I remember Williams for his wonderful manic energy as the Genie in Aladdin, as Mrs. Doubtfire, or as the teacher in Dead Poets Society — all movies I desperately loved growing up. But I never knew how little the person in any of those roles, or even in his life as a stand-up comic had to do with his private self.
The Robin Williams of the documentary is a man who craves connection and is always creating characters — not just because he loved to entertain, but so that, by creating these zany characters, people would respond to him. From his first appearances at comedy clubs, his energy is immersive, chaotic, and frenetic. He pinballs around the stage like a comedian who’s been launched out of a rocket. These early performances are amazing. But most startling to me was a brief scene showing Williams before and after those comedy shows. Beforehand, he sits off-stage, completely calm and still, almost zen-like. And afterwards, he’s shown totally depleted — mentally, physically, completely. It’s as if all that wild hilarity he performs onstage has sapped him of every ounce of energy, and he’s left looking like a shadow of his usual self. The disparity between these personas — the Williams we see on stage, in clips of him fooling around on set before the director called “action,” and the Williams we see at home, is stark. It’s almost unconscionable to imagine that the calm, quiet man who’s shown in peaceful scenes with his first and second wives and children could ever be the same wild comedian.
The documentarians spoke to Steve Martin, Williams’ friend and fellow comedian/actor, and one particular thing he said stuck with me: “Robin was more comfortable onstage than off.” Seeing how desperately he craved the attention of an audience at work, but how reserved he was at home showed me someone whose selves were almost too different to be harmoniously united in a single person. Offstage, at home, he seems strikingly vulnerable, quietly playing with his kids in the backyard, and retreating into nature at his vast estate in Northern California, away from the hectic buzz of his work life in Los Angeles.
Onstage, he transforms, becoming a wild jester, instantly becoming the person his audience seemed to want from him. “If I’m not entertaining, I’m not succeeding,” Williams says at one point in the film. Contemplating Williams’ tragic end (he committed suicide after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease), I found myself thinking more about the bifurcated way he lived his life. We talk a lot at Thrive Global about the importance of bringing your whole self to work, and successfully integrating your work with your life. Williams, despite his tremendous success and the joy he brought to so many audiences (including me!), lived the exact opposite of those principles. The self he brought to his work, and the self he lived at home were so different as to very nearly be two different people. And despite the manic genius of his comedy and the brilliance of his acting performances, it’s clear that the toll of those two selves was enormous… and deeply, bone-achingly exhausting. I don’t think I’ll ever look at his comedy the same way again.