Dave Itzkoff’s Robin gives us Williams in all his comedic glory and underlying sadness – a beloved figure whose end came too soon.
I had YouTubed Robin Williams thirty minutes before news of his death broke. It was one of those Internet rabbit holes you willfully go down to distract yourself. Nothing notable at the time pointed me in the direction of Robin Williams. He populated my childhood via Hook, Aladdin, and Mrs. Doubtfire so fittingly he became a timeless source for childlike fun. It wasn’t just that he was funny – there was a kindness to his humor, a sort of humanity that was magnetic to us as children, and as adults as well. His earnestness in making you laugh made you want him to stay on screen longer. You didn’t want to be deprived too soon of the warmth he gave you. It was one his more random performances I typed in: “Robin Williams sings ‘Blame Canada,’” from South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut that had been nominated for an Oscar for “Best Song.” The randomness of this performance by Robin, who did not sing the original version, was because the original singer had committed suicide. There was no irony I knew of yet in this. It was the last half hour of him being alive in my world. He sang, danced, and took noticeable delight in making the Oscar audience laugh. Then it was over.
One of the first things that popped in my mind after hearing of his suicide was his performance in Death to Smoochy, a black comedy where he plays disgraced children’s TV star Rainbow Randolph who loses his job and descends into anger and self-loathing. Though it was considered one of his lesser cinematic efforts, I couldn’t help but marvel at how authentically Robin was able to have Randolph naturally go from cheerful to despondent; a man who contrived happiness for the sake of his audience and fell to pieces when it was taken away. Sure, bits of his character’s antics were purposefully over the top and crueler than Robin was in real life, but the foundations of internal despair were there, hidden beneath his rainbow jacket he refused to take off. It was only then I realized how these traits must’ve been engrained in Robin’s very being. Smiling for us to keep the darkness suppressed. Thanks to the new biography Robin, we get a fuller, empathetic portrait of the man who harbored both light and dark, but who far preferred for the former. And we’re all richer for it.
Author Dave Itzkoff, culture reporter for The New York Times, who had interviewed Robin in the past, turns over as many stones as he can in figuring out a guy who “shared the authentic person at his core with considerable reluctance.” Robin’s signature rapid-fire comedic style, rattling off of voices and characters faster than the audience’s collective mind can catch, entertained anyone and everyone he spent even a few minutes with. But there was also a quieter, more reserved Robin that few knew. Itzkoff begins Robin with a young Williams alone in his spacious attic waging imaginary wars with his collection of toy soldiers in the his new home in Bloomfield Hills, a wealthy suburb of Detroit (Robin’s father moved the family around the country for work, leaving Robin unable to make lasting childhood friendships.) “It was his sanctuary from the world and his vantage point above it. It was also a terrible, lonely refuge and its sense of solitude followed him beyond its walls.” It was a childhood habit that manifested itself into a character trait well into his adulthood. When he wasn’t on, which he put considerable effort into through his manic style of comedy, he was truly off. Robin’s famous collection of lively voices helped him fill much of the crippling silence.
Thanks to Itzkoff’s obvious enthusiasm for Robin’s work, Robin is the type of biography where the subject is even more impressive after reading. Itzkoff excitedly presents each new phase of Robin’s acting career – from improv shows in San Francisco to Juilliard in New York back to San Francisco then to Hollywood – as exhilarating episodes on his way to an ultimate destination: superstardom. Reading along, it all seems inevitable that Robin would not only catch a break, but strike gold. He had quick wits from his improv experience, a booming voice from his classic training at Juilliard, and boundless energy few, if any, could match. Television producer George Schlatter remembers about Robin: “He knew drama. He knew Shakespeare. And he knew the street. It was impossible for that much knowledge and talent, professionalism, and ability to be piled up into this one little guy.” But with Robin, it was possible.
The passages describing the movies and roles that made Robin a household name are worth the four hundred plus page read on their own. The character of grown up Peter Banning in Hook rekindled in Robin a need to be closer with his children. Steven Spielberg, Hook’s director, left Robin a farewell letter singing his praises: “I don’t think I’ve ever met in my life any actor, producer, or other director who is as dedicated, as involved, as passionate, and as hardworking as you have been on Hook . . . you have done nothing but grow and explode out of that comic canister into one of the best actors in America today.” Around the time he was filming Hook, he was also doing his voice work as the Genie for Aladdin. Robin was ecstatic to be playing a character that was untethered by limitations, able to be as freewheeling as possible. The dialogue was written specifically with Robin in mind, with room for ad-libbing, which Robin did instinctively on every film. Mrs. Doubtfire, about a down-on-his-luck actor who is heading for divorce from his wife so he disguises himself as an elderly female housekeeper to spend more time with his children, struck a personal cord with Robin. He himself had been divorced from his first wife Valerie and wanted to have a normal family dynamic for their son Zak. Robin made sure the film ended with the parents not getting back together, instead learning to accept their differences but still remaining loving parents to their children.
As you read Robin, you learn how his movie selections were always motivated not by money, but by roles he believed enriched his soul. Any career missteps or box office bombs were written off by Itzkoff as Robin searching for each film’s substantial humanity. Robin often found himself in unwinnable situations as far as critics were concerned. In his comedic roles, critics punctured him for more: “A brilliant mimic, the actor never runs out of wacky voices, but where is his own voice?” And when he took on more serious roles, critics wondered why he seem so subdued and where the laughs were. Three of Robin’s Oscar nominations, one of which he won for Good Will Hunting, came from his more serious roles, but his critics, and some of the audience, never seemed pleased with them.
“People expected too much of him,” recalls friend Billy Crystal. “They wanted him to plug that burst, that comet, into every movie, and it just wasn’t fair. Then when he would do a more sentimental piece they would crucify him as sappy, and it would crush him. He took that personally.”
The last few years of Robin’s life were pockmarked with career disappointments and personal lows. He was divorced from his second wife Marsha and sunk back into alcoholism after being sober for over twenty years. Though no one knew it as a certainty yet, it was apparent his best days were behind him. It took an emotional toll on Robin. He became noticeably thinner which caused enough concern for Robin to visit the doctor, where he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Things got worse for Robin before they were given a chance to get better. Itzkoff’s account of Robin’s last days are heartbreaking to say the least – a tragic telling of how a purveyor of three generations’ worth of smiles and laughs had succumbed to mental illness. His death to this day leaves many puzzled as to how a man who brought so much joy to others could keep little for himself. Billy Crystal put it: “the speed at which the comedy came is the speed at which the terrors came.”
Thankfully, Itzkoff doesn’t conclude Robin on a note of helplessness. The book’s final chapter sheds light on Robin’s misdiagnosis and theories surrounding his suicide. His actual disease went unnoticed and inflicted more damage than what was originally identified. Though you could hardly call it happy news, these findings Itzkoff presents are more comforting than the idea that Robin, in his right mind, found life unlivable.
Given the recent news of of the tragic suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, mental illness, in its many deceptive shapes, fools us into believing even the most enviable of celebrity lives couldn’t possibly be saddled with depression. Never in a million years as a child did you expect Robin Williams to be living with deep-rooted sadness. It didn’t seem a real thing. We’ve come of age to learn, unfortunately, that is not the case. Books like Robin move the needle forward in not only treating mental health issues once they reveal themselves but also recognizing them early. Robin grew up a lonely child, playing alone in his dark attic, devising up his own imaginary world, pining for encouragement, an arm around his shoulder. His death should teach us more than his darkness – it should teach us how to better brighten someone else’s. Throw an arm around the shoulder of someone who seems in need of it. Move the needle a little more forward. The difference may not be quantifiable, but it could reshape a person’s world to let in a little more light.
Why you should read this book: I’ll venture a guess and say that if you’re reading this, you grew up with Robin Williams’s movies – and felt personal loss from his death – and if that’s the case, this is essential reading. Robin’s intellect, talent, kindness, generosity, sadness, and demons are are laid bare here. Itzkoff gives you the Robin you knew and the few bits you didn’t; he doesn’t spare the unflattering details but he always does it with the appropriate amount of empathy. Robin’s comedy was him suppressing his sadness, making his work more tragic yet still fascinating. His talent was so rare it left almost everyone in awe of his work: “He couldn’t work in our format,” recalls an actor from Robin’s early days. “His speed, his wit, and his acuity were cramped. His talent was to be Robin.” As long as we live, there will never be another Robin Williams so hold close the one we were lucky to have and read this definitive account of his singularly unique life.
Not long after the news of Robin’s death, a friend of mine called me up to ask if I wanted to grab a drink. “I don’t know,” he said. “I feel like I gotta talk about it.” Few celebrity deaths register on an intimate level with those who never knew them – but not Robin. This felt different, like your childhood home burned down and you never knew it had caught fire. I needed that drink too. We met at the bar and talked about the movies of his we loved. Good Will Hunting was my friend’s bible. I mentioned my Death To Smoochy revelation. We didn’t argue the points, which we usually did with such topics. It was more of a confession. Just random Robin Williams anecdotes that we remembered from our childhoods. We had plenty of them for plenty of rounds.
It was a Monday night, which was karaoke night. At the other end of the bar a pair of kids, already sauced up by the slurring of their words, dedicated their next song to Robin Williams. They selected “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin. A few verses in and they were butchering the words, hopelessly unharmonious with the music. But it wasn’t out of disrespect or even their drunkenness – it was a difficult song to sing for anyone, sober or not. The lyrics, if you’ve ever read them, were not fit for to be sung casually at a bar, but with gusto and different voices and tones and speeds not found in your average drunk. It was a song only Robin Williams could sing (though James Monroe Iglehart on Broadway makes it his own.) It was then I realized how truly set apart he was from his contemporaries, how his style could never be matched, how his arraignment of talents could never be found in any one individual. It was a cheesy, drunken moment I had when I thought to myself, “We’ll never have a friend like him” but it was true – still is. My friend and I sat in silence and listened to the drunk kids’ sloppy yet heartfelt homage to Robin. We had nothing more to say on the topic. All that was left was to grieve. I took another sip of beer and made a mental note to YouTube that song before I went to bed that night.