The laughs ended in August 2014 when Robin Williams killed himself at 63. His death not only raised questions about how and why it had happened, but also prompted reassessments of his extraordinary life and career. F or anyone with the slightest acquaintance with popular culture over the past four decades, he seemed to be everywhere, from stand-up to TV, movies, and late-night talk shows, with an uncanny sense of the zeitgeist matched by few others.
Now, Dave Itzkoff presents a full and revealing portrait of one of the most beloved and original comedians and actors of our time in Robin (Henry Holt and Company, $30). Illuminating both the man and the performer, Itzkoff draws on more than one hundred interviews with Robin’s family, friends, and colleagues, as well his own encounters and interviews with Williams over the years. Included are insights from fellow comedians, actors, and collaborators such as Billy Crystal, David Letterman, Pam Dawber, Dana Carvey, Barry Levinson, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jeff Bridges and Bobcat Goldthwait.
Among the topics covered and the news-making revelations offered are:
- The largely untold story of Robin’s family background and his privileged but lonely upbringing in the upscale suburbs of Detroit, where he entertained himself with make-believe and toy soldiers. As Itzkoff shows, Robin was indelibly shaped by both his father—a stern, self-made auto industry executive—and his glamorous, eccentric and funny Southern mother.
- How Robin was first exposed to improvisational comedy and acting through a stray course at prestigious Claremont College, and later honed his talents at the humbler College of Marin. Sharp-eyed mentors there eased his way into the elite acting program at the Juilliard School in New York City, where his fellow students included Christopher Reeve, who became one of his closest friends.
- How Robin burst into local prominence in San Francisco and Los Angeles during the stand-up comedy boom of the 1970s, and quickly became known as a rising star. Candid interviews with his first wife, Valerie Velardi, who has not spoken on the record in years, reveal how he began to indulge heavily in cocaine and alcohol, and how his hidden vulnerabilities, self-doubt, and deep loneliness helped to fuel his addictions.
- The improbable circumstances that got Robin cast in a guest-starring role as Mork from Ork on the hit television series Happy Days after Henry Winkler’s Fonzie character literally “jumped the shark.” (Producer Garry Marshall’s young son loved Star Wars and said TV needed more aliens.) That one appearance was such a sensation that it soon resulted in Robin getting his own ABC sitcom, Mork & Mindy.
- How Robin’s substance abuse led to a personal crisis, and to John Belushi’s hotel bungalow in Los Angeles on the night the Saturday Night Live star died of an overdose. Belushi’s death convinced Robin to swear off drugs and alcohol for the next 20 years, but his sobriety could not repair the damage he had caused to his first marriage.
- How Robin’s failure to win an Oscar the first three times he was nominated weighed heavily on him, until he finally took home an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Good Will Hunting.
- Robin’s own unflinchingly honest assessment of how he relapsed into alcoholism, which ended his two-decade-long marriage to his second wife and close collaborator, Marsha Garces. He then had to struggle simultaneously with addiction, divorce, and open-heart surgery.
- The most complete and balanced account of Robin’s decline and death. Drawing on official autopsy results, Itzkoff concludes that Robin’s suicide was not a result of depression or substance abuse, as had been widely assumed, or from Parkinson’s Disease, as his own family had originally believed, but from a little-known and often misdiagnosed condition called Lewy Body Dementia.
- Previously unpublished tributes from Robin’s private memorial service, including remembrances from his three children; his close friends Billy Crystal, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Eric Idle.
- Details of the bitter legal conflict over Robin’s estate. The courtroom battle exposed long-simmering tensions between Robin’s children and his third wife Susan Schneider, to whom he had been married for less than three years.
As Itzkoff notes, there is no actor or comedian today who can be considered Robin’s protégé or his heir, although he inspired many performers. He had many admirers but no imitators—no one who tried to do what he did the way he did it. When he died, his reputation for joyfulness and humor stood in stark contrast to the sad and solitary manner in which his life came to an end. Inevitably, people asked, Who was he? What was behind all the accents and characters, the blurs of motion and flashes of energy? How much did he truly reveal and how much did he keep hidden?
“Some part of him would be present in every set and stand-up role he played,” Itzkoff writes, “but in their totality these things did not add up to him. The real Robin was a modest, almost inconspicuous man, who never fully believed he was worthy of the monumental fame, adulation, and accomplishments he would achieve. He shared the authentic person at his core with considerable reluctance, but he also felt obliged to give a sliver of himself to anyone he encountered even fleetingly. It wounded him deeply to think that he had denied a memorable Robin Williams experience to anyone who wanted it, yet the people who spent years by his side were left to feel that he had kept some fundamental part of himself concealed, even from them.” [p. 3]
With ROBIN, Dave Itzkoff gives us a comprehensive and revelatory portrait yet of a performer loved and admired by millions for his generosity of spirit, his quickness of mind, the laughter he sparked, and the hopefulness he inspired. Nearly four years after the passing of Robin Williams, it will be eagerly read by anyone seeking to understand who he truly was.