Dave Itzkoff – 2018
Biography – Highly Recommended
Few entertainers have been as unique as Robin Williams. He fits no mold. His comedic talent didn’t stem from pain experienced at younger years, which may be why his comedy riffs spanned a rainbow of topics and types. His acting career wasn’t born to fill a void or emptiness in his life. His father was a boring but organized Ford Motors executive, and his mother was a model and actress who wore mini-skirts into her late 70s. He was the stability, she was the artist, and together they created something special.
Fortunately, Williams was as honest and upfront with writer Dave Itzkoff for his biography Robin as he was on stage or film. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to be as honest with himself or his family when it came to his substance abuse and other vices, but let’s back up a bit.
He spent a great deal of his childhood alone or with servants in several big houses on wide, expansive properties. Most kids might have seen this as an advantage and used the land for sports, playing with friends, and other fun things, but these homes were usually secluded from other homes. Instead of filling his time and play space with friends or swing sets and the like, Robin filled it with imaginary people doing imaginary things, including soldiers waging imaginary battles all the better to foster his creativity with signature voices, accents, and physical expression.
He hadn’t planned to attend the famed Julliard School for performing arts, but it would be hard for most anyone to ignore a full scholarship. The manic yet entertaining behavior and his inability to follow protocol and directions shortened his four-year offer to only two, but they were so new and original that they launched him from being a street performer to an audition to appear on Happy Days as Mork, an alien searching for intelligent life on Earth. What really launched his career was a comedy show that appeared on HBO in its early days when everyone was flocking to it.
Itzkoff, a veteran writer for the New York Times, carefully documents the assorted rises and falls throughout Robin’s career that ranged from early Shakespearean theater, television, stand-up, film, Broadway, and more, and there is an interesting and disappointing surprise when you add it all up: there were far more falls than rises.
If you’re like me, Williams seems nothing less than a stellar performer with an unmatched range of talents, so how did we arrive at that when only five of his 72 films were considered “hits.” I admit 72 films is a terrific body of work, but he only received critical acclaim for Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumani, Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, and Good Morning, Vietnam. I mean, yeah, I would trade my left arm for five hit films, but the artistic attacks he suffered for the other 69% of his films was more harsh than necessary, and that would crush most any artist.
A breakdown of his comedy shows would likely show a similar percentage of failed jokes and bits versus the ones that are well received. However, the level of hilarity on the good ones probably balances out the higher number of bits that fall flat. Additionally, both of his two stage performances were considered flops. For all the energy and screen time he was given, it seems very little of it was liked, and that’s sad.
You can debate his film success all you want. Personally, I consider at least ten of his film performances to be excellent, but it’s not likely he would have cared about my opinion, or would he have? It was not at all a surprise for Williams to be seen hanging out with regular people either sitting with strangers in comedy clubs or just walking and talking on the street. So it’s likely he actually would have cared what we think as opposed to so-called critics. And it was his fear of disappointing those regular people that fueled his substance abuse.
One of the most interesting parts of the book was also one of the most unfortunate. I wasn’t fully aware of the circumstances of his death, specifically the details discovered from his autopsy. That was partly because his family had no public comment on the matter, which slowed anything from appearing on social media. For the most part, he was loved, and he was missed, and few if any people were about to criticize him after his death. He was given enough of that – too much of that – before his death. And it’s sad to think it might possibly have contributed to his death.
Robin might cause you to rethink your current opinions about Williams. Your respect might increase, might decrease. Either way, you’ll find it is well worth reading.