One of the more heartrending passages in Dave Itzkoff’s terrific biography of Robin Williams gives us a portrait of the icon as a small child, at home in a 40-room estate in a wealthy suburb of Detroit. Itzkoff, a New York Times culture reporter, delivers the image in the first chapter of “Robin,” and it haunts every subsequent page of the book, from Williams’s rise as a dazzling comic till the bitter end when, at 63, depressed and sick with Lewy body dementia, he takes his own life.
Little Robin is playing alone in the attic of the house, one of many his family passed through as his father climbed the corporate ladder at Ford. Accustomed to isolation as the only child in the home, the hyperimaginative boy staged elaborate battles among his toy soldiers, each of whom he’d given a distinct personality and voice. Later in life, he’d invent such characters for his protean standup act, leaping from one voice to another to win the laughter and love of his audiences. But in his formative years, he created characters to stave off loneliness, to surround himself with friends. It was a survival mechanism that led him to fame and fortune.
We see that lonely boy inside Williams throughout his life, as Itzkoff’s reporting keeps bringing us back to the quiet, wounded side of the man best known for hyperactivity and joy. He had two half-brothers, each of whom he loved; he had three wives and three children, all of whom were supportive of him until his death; he had a few extremely close friends, including Billy Crystal and Christopher Reeve; and, at many points in his uneven career, he had the world in the palm of his hand, collectively astonished by the speed of his improvisational wit — and yet that desolate, self-soothing boy still lurked within, always in need.
It seems as though almost everyone who got to know Williams encountered his introverted, insecure side. According to Frank Kidder, who ran a standup workshop in San Francisco when Williams was learning the art in the 1970s, “He’d do a monster set and then come sit down and ask us in that little voice, ‘Did I go over?’ ” According to fellow comic Martin Short, “He reminded me of Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince: wistfully surveying a world to which he felt he didn’t quite belong.” Even after he’d won the Oscar for “Good Will Hunting,” he’d gauge his self-worth according to box office returns. “Dad’s happiness was correlated very much to how he was doing, career-wise,” his older son, Zak, says. “When there were films that would be less successful, he took it very personally.”
I’m not saying that “Robin” is a bummer, by any means, or that it’s just another tears-of-a-clown story. Itzkoff’s a better writer than that, and he gives us a man whose life was a series of triumphs and tragedies, addiction and sobriety, marriage and infidelity, depression and stability.
Some of the best material follows Williams into the standup scene, as he leaves Juilliard and moves to San Francisco, where his father had retired, to focus more on comedy. We get to relive that feeling of first watching Williams riff his way into the cosmos and back, expanding the definition of standup to accommodate his brand of skillful chaos. Other comics, including David Letterman, left Williams’s shows both amazed by and envious of his brilliance. (Later in his life, the anxious Williams felt his own twinges when Jim Carrey became a hit.) In the clubs, Williams got to spend time with one of his idols, Richard Pryor, and he developed a taste for cocaine, which was so prevalent backstage that, he once noted, he almost never had to pay for it. When he finally broke through to the mainstream, Williams would nonetheless continue to pop into small clubs for a surprise set, to indulge his first love.
Itzkoff also writes fascinatingly about how, once Williams made it to TV and the movies, the screenwriters and directors — particularly those on the animated “Aladdin” — dealt with his most famous asset: unmoored improvisation. For “Good Morning, Vietnam,” he’d write notes for material the night before shooting (with his second of three wives, Marsha, assisting him in finding 1960s topics), and then perform it as an on-air monologue by his radio DJ character on set the next day. Director Barry Levinson found a way to reconcile Williams’s spontaneity with the extremely planned-out world of a movie set.
Williams knew he couldn’t rely solely on riffing and tried to compensate for his lighter roles on the likes of “Mork & Mindy” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” with more serious efforts such as “Dead Poet’s Society.” At moments he seemed to have found a balance, but increasingly his serious films were marred by an excess of quirkiness or schmaltz — most notably “Patch Adams” in 1998, which became an icon of big screen treacle. “I hate that movie,” Williams once told critic Roger Ebert. Williams struggled to find the right scripted material for most of his life, and in his last years he signed onto a mediocre David E. Kelley sitcom, “The Crazy Ones,” simply for the paycheck. Itzkoff captures the ebb and flow of Williams’s career beautifully, with respect and with honesty.
He also captures Williams’s final stretch before his 2014 death with respect and honesty, as Williams, misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, suffers paranoia, hallucinations, and blank moments. On the set of his final “Night at the Museum” movie, noting that Williams was in bad shape, his makeup artist suggested that he stop in at a local comedy club to do some standup. “I don’t know how to be funny,” he answered, in tears. It’s a tragic finish to a life that was both miraculous and troubled, told in an artfully shaped, fact-filled book that honors the truth of his life.
By Dave Itzkoff
Henry Holt, 529 pp., illustrated, $30
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