ROBIN, by Dave Itzkoff. Henry Holt and Co., 529 pp., $30.
How would you explain Robin Williams to someone who’d never seen him? Say, an alien from another planet? (He did play one on TV.) Now you could just hand them Dave Itzkoff’s new biography, which does the deed in its mere three pages of prologue. Everything of Williams that Itzkoff describes, pinpoints and promises there is fulfilled in his ensuing page-turner, divided neatly into three sections titled Comet, Star and Supernova.
There’s that space theme again. Yet Williams’ meteoric rise — in “Mork & Mindy,” ABC’s 1978 instant-hit sitcom of an interplanetary visitor vexed by humans — takes up only 25 of Itzkoff’s 440 bio pages (augmented by credits, copious source notes and index). The metaphor endures throughout. A first glimpse of Williams’ unique talent did and does feel like encountering some unknown species. His hyper energy. His joyful likability. His flash-fast wit. His playtime parade of personalities. When he metaphorically soared as Mork or scampered through his solo club antics (“stand-up” is too leaden a word), he bounced off the walls, doing anything to surprise and delight us.
Itzkoff finds its roots in Williams’ childhood hours spent alone in the attic of his well-to-do family’s suburban Detroit mansion, romping in the “playground of his mind” with a formidable collection of toy soldiers, creating literal armies of characters to amuse himself. By the time his busy parents moved to California, and their son elected a theater class at Claremont College, his platoon of personalities was emerging to others, to be appreciated and even adored. By the time he hit Juilliard’s theater school, and made friends with soon-to-be “Superman” star Christopher Reeve, “he was like an untied balloon that had been inflated and immediately released,” Reeve once recalled. “To say that he was ‘on’ would be a major understatement.”
Williams’ spontaneous creativity and zest, propelled by a lonely-boy desperation to feel loved, soon found a perfect home in the 1970s’ exploding comedy club scene. Itzkoff says the “anarchic approach” of a new “riffing style,” each moment free of setup or context, was ideal for a guy whose agent recalls him “walking around with all his nerve endings completely exposed.” Williams was just a “giant puppy” (as fellow comic Jim Staahl puts it) who immediately endeared himself to audiences by having “such a gigantic heart” (says “Mork” co-star Pam Dawber) that they loved him right back.
Itzkoff brings all this alive through the dogged reporting one would expect of a longtime New York Times culture writer. He knows when to use Williams’ words, from interviews by the author and others, even from Williams’ handwritten script notes. He deftly weaves in evocative quotes from friends/family/peers (crucially, from fellow comic and human observer Billy Crystal), and taps written research sources (script excerpts, letters, official documents). Topping it off are Itzkoff’s visceral descriptions of Williams’ effervescent performances. He distills the recipe for the renowned Robin Williams cocktail: “his generosity of spirit, his quickness of mind, and the hopefulness he inspired.”
That puppy-dog warmth makes it all the more dispiriting as Williams’ career devolves, mostly through post-TV film work with so few highs (“Good Morning, Vietnam”; “The Fisher King”) and so many lows (Itzkoff doesn’t even try to cover them all). The book’s middle section becomes a litany of mistakes and disappointments. Williams’ needy propensity for drink, drugs and women chips away at his work, marriages and parenthood. The book’s third section finds Williams advancing (or, more truly, declining) into baffled middle age. Two marriages wither. Friends pass on (Reeve, Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters). Sobriety comes and goes. Work is a refuge; but it isn’t good. As Williams’ heart breaks, so do ours.
His August 2014 suicide at just 63 was shocking. Then we learned he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. That was amended, post-mortem, to Lewy body dementia, a brain protein buildup that messes with a person’s sense of self. And there was nasty family litigation over Williams’ estate.
Yet Itzkoff has somehow prepared us well for all of this, keeping us clued into so many aspects of Williams’ life, with finesse and foreboding, but no showy sentiment. His writing is simply imbued with Williams’ special intimate connection. “He was so fearless,” says one early clubgoer, “that you were afraid.” Even a space alien could feel it.