There is no question that Robin, the new biography by culture reporter David Itzkoff, is comprehensive and well researched, a tour de force about the life of comedian Robin Williams. The problem is that this well-sourced book is achingly sad, and it’s not only because we all know how the story ends. For all the highs Robin Williams had in his life, he plumbed a lot of depths even before his suicide.
Robin will make you question how much you really want to know about the public figures you admire. Robin Williams was a comic genius. When he burst onto the comedic stage—long before he appeared in Mork & Mindy—fellow comedians were astonished. They’d never seen anyone that quick witted, that rapid fire, that funny!
Even in college, Robin was a rocket. One of his fellow performers said: “We started challenging him. Do a bohemian priest. Do an orthodox rabbi. Do a peasant out on the farm with his crops. You couldn’t keep up with his mind, it was going so fast. He was going off on all these tangents.”
But Robin had also had his problems. He grew up a wealthy WASP, as the book points out, but had a withholding father who did not support his comedy career. Robin, despite moving around a lot as a kid, had such an ordinary upbringing that he seemed almost ashamed of it. He hid his background from others and disguised his true personality behind a medley of voices and personalities, many of them ethnic. Early on, many people, upon meeting him, assumed he was Russian or flat out never heard his actual voice.
As as his celebrity mushroomed, Robin became a serious drug user. How serious? He was with John Belushi hours before Belushi was given the speedball cocktail of drugs that killed him. Robin had left by then and insisted to others that nothing happened when he was there. But the book makes it very clear that Robin inhaled cocaine during his early manic years. He would tape Mork & Mindy all day long and then, even though married to his first wife by then, he’d hit the comedy and cocaine circuit, often not bothering to stop at home before going back to take another round of the sitcom.
And then there was his alcoholism. Robin had a major problem with alcohol. He’d clean up, rehab, and get clean again for years. Then he’d relapse. At one holiday dinner, his adult children said he was barely functioning and they had to put him to bed. It is this inside look at Robin, gleaned from interviews with his children, his ex-wives, friends, and fellow performers that is reason to keep reading. Robin is the definitive biography of this troubled performer.
Near the end of his life, Robin was signed by CBS to do a network show called The Crazy Ones and Pam Dawber, his loving co-star from the Mork & Mindy days joined him for some stunt programming in an effort to resuscitate the failing series. Like everyone who knew him well, Dawber could see Robin was devolving in his latter years. Dawber said she’d go home and tell her husband: “Something’s wrong. He’s flat. He’s lost his spark. I don’t know what it is.”
This was not long before Robin began having very serious health problems that went misdiagnosed until his autopsy. Doctors thought he had Parkinson’s Disease when he actually had Lewy Body Dementia. How badly did this affect him? When one colleague urged him to get up on stage to do some standup, he told her he no longer knew how to be funny.
That’s not to say there weren’t wonderful aspects to Robin’s life, because there were many. His triumphs in films like Good Morning, Vietnam and Good Will Hunting. And his friendships with doomed actor Christopher Reeve and comedian Billy Crystal stand out. Both loved him and he loved them. But they were rare. As the book points out, Robin hid his true personality from nearly everyone. But while many fellow comedians didn’t know quite what to say to Robin near the end, Crystal did and offered him a lot of help. His concern at Robin’s moment of need is moving and heart-warming.
In the end, one feels that maybe it’s better not to look behind the curtain. Maybe, when we think of Robin Williams, we’d be better off watching Mrs. Doubtfire and enjoy the person Robin Williams wanted us to see, even if it was hiding the truth.