I posted this review on my original Blogspot version of this blog on August 30, 2018. It appears here exactly as it was posted then.
Sorry about the lengthy intro to this review. If you just want the review, skip down a few paragraphs.
In August 2014, Bill and I had just returned to Germany so he could start a new job as a government contractor. That summer was one of the most stressful and horrifying of my life so far. Weeks before our international move, my father died somewhat suddenly. And just after our return to Germany, I got the news that my mom had breast cancer (she had surgery and is fine now).
Robin Williams’ suicide on August 11, 2014 was just one of many traumas during the summer of 2014. I remember being absolutely shocked to hear about this man, who had been such a big part of my young life, had suddenly killed himself. From his time as Mork, the gentle alien, on Mork & Mindy to his standup routines featured on HBO, to his many wonderful movies, I had so many memories of watching Williams be a genius. And now he was suddenly gone. He was 63 years old.
Robin Williams as Mork.
I seem to have a knack for being in Europe when legends die. I was in Europe when Princess Diana was killed. I was also here when Michael Jackson died. I lived in Europe during 2016, which was when a whole host of legends passed away, and last week, we lost Aretha Franklin. Still, I was pretty blown away when I heard about Williams’ suicide. At the time of the announcement, many people thought he had simply been an addict suffering from depression. Quite a few people were angry about the suicide; some even went as far as to call Williams a coward. They didn’t know the truth. Robin Williams suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, the same neurological disease my father suffered from during his final years. Having seen it firsthand, I really can’t blame Williams for what he did. It’s a horrible way to live, and ultimately die.
When I saw that Dave Itzkoff had written an exhaustive biography about Robin Williams, I decided I wanted to read it. I downloaded Robin in May of 2018 and just finished it last night. It’s taken me a few weeks to get through Itzkoff’s book, mainly because it’s quite long and detailed. Also, I don’t have the attention span I used to have. Back when I read real books, I’d whiz through them in a matter of days. Now, I read most things on my iPad and get distracted by social media, games, or email. Add in the fact that I usually read in bed and you might guess that sleep often also interrupts my reading sessions.
I see that I bought Robin just five days after it was released. It was also just weeks before celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain killed himself. When Bourdain died, many people compared his situation to Williams’ situation. Although they may seem similar on the surface, I truly believe Robin Williams’ decision to commit suicide was caused by a very real neurological illness. I have seen Lewy Body Dementia in person. It really brings the “crazy”. Not only do sufferers lose their physical faculties, they also have hallucinations, experience paranoia, and lose the ability to articulate their memories, even though they still have access to them. It really is a special kind of hell.
I don’t know if Williams killed himself because of acute symptoms of the disease or because he got a glimpse of what was coming. What I do know is that I can hardly blame him. In fact, his death was probably a blessing, not just for him, but also for those who love him. I can speak firsthand about how hard it is to see someone you love turn into a stranger who has lost all ability to take care of themselves.
Anyway… about the book
Robin is an extremely detailed accounting of Robin Williams’ life. Itzkoff knew Williams, having interviewed him for the New York Times. I get the sense that they were friendly, if not outright friends. At the end of the book, Itzkoff reveals that he and Williams shared a love of comics and Williams had even invited him to go shopping for collectibles. The author notes that many celebrities, hoping that the reporter will be kind to them, will try to ingratiate themselves. In Williams’ case, the offer to go shopping was genuine and based on a real desire to get to know the man who shared his love for comics.
In Robin, Itzkoff starts at the very beginning, detailing Williams upper class but lonely lifestyle. His parents each had sons from other relationships– two half brothers, with whom Robin was close. However, Williams himself grew up by himself, playing in attics in empty mansions and attending private schools. It was during those years that Williams found his voice as a comedian, which he later parlayed into standup routines at open mics in the San Francisco area.
Williams’ big break came in the form of Mork & Mindy, an adorable sitcom that aired in the late 70s and early 80s. I was a young child in those days and I loved that show, which also starred Pam Dawber. Williams played Mork from Ork, a kind-hearted, gentle alien who had come to Earth to learn about the ways of mortals. Every week, at the end of each episode, Mork would communicate with Orson, his boss on Ork. He’d deliver that week’s theme mallet/moral, often with witty aplomb.
During and after Mork & Mindy, Williams started making films. The first one I remember seeing him in was Popeye, which was released in 1980. I actually remember seeing that one, probably in the theater. Itzkoff writes that Popeye was one of a number of films Williams did that wasn’t all that popular. But when Williams hit the right project, there was magic. I want to say it started with 1989’s Dead Poet’s Society, which was a huge hit. He went on to make a string of other good movies, as well as a few that flopped. Itzkoff offers some good analysis about the vehicles that worked, as well as the ones that were less successful.
Williams had three wives. His first wife, Valerie Velardi, bore their son, Zak. While Williams was married to Valerie, he hired Marsha Garces as a personal assistant. They ended up falling in love and Williams divorced Velardi and married Garces in 1989. Garces had a knack for helping Williams pick out projects. She kept him stimulated and organized his life. She also had his daughter, Zelda, and son, Cody. Twenty years after he married Garces, the marriage fell apart. Williams’ last wife was Susan Schneider, an artist and fellow alcoholic who had sort of a healing effect on Williams. He married her in October 2011.
As lovable as Robin Williams was to so many of his fans, he did suffer from many demons. Williams struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, and anxiety. When he was sober, Williams was unstoppable. When he was under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or mental illness, he crashed into misery. Williams would use his experiences in his comedy routines and characters, making him likable and relatable to many more ordinary people who had struggled with the same things. I appreciated that Itzkoff took the time to explain Williams’ demons and why they helped make him a better performer, even if they also tortured him.
Another important message from Mork… I have to admit, Mork was probably my favorite incarnation of Robin Williams.
Robin Williams was also a good friend. Itzkoff includes a very informative section on Williams’ relationship with the late Christopher Reeve, who was his roommate at Juilliard. The two made a pact that they would always be there for each other. When Reeves had his horseback riding accident in May 1995, Robin and his second wife, Marsha, where there for him immediately. Robin even dressed up like a Russian doctor and made Reeves laugh at a time when laughter seemed impossible. Williams was also friends with Billy Crystal, who would call him on the phone impersonating people like Ronald Reagan. He was friends with Bobcat Goldthwait, too, and appeared in a couple of Goldthwait’s movies. Williams would go to open mics, even when he was very famous, and hang out with young comedians just getting their start. He’d be one of the guys.
Robin is basically well written and loaded with details and information, as well as pictures and an extensive reading list. I really think Itzkoff did a good job capturing who Robin Williams was, reminding me that Williams was a warm, funny, real person who was incredibly unique and irreplaceable. But he also reminded me that Williams was fallible and did have his disappointments and failures. As amazing as Williams’ talent was, he was still a man.
Some readers have pointed out that this book has some factual errors. I’m sure an obsessive Williams fan would be able to point these out better than I can. I liked Robin Williams, but I wasn’t someone who studied his life on that level.
A criticism I could personally make is that this book is very long– to the point of being exhaustive. It took me considerable time and effort to finish this book, and I’m usually a pretty speedy reader. If you prefer brevity, Robin may not be the best book for you. I see on Amazon.com, many people had the same complaint I have. This book could have used a talented editor to help pare it down just a bit. 440 pages is a long haul, even if a book is enormously fascinating. On the other hand, as a writer myself, I can understand how easy it is to get bogged down in minutiae.
Overall, I liked Robin. I learned new things reading this book and got an appreciation for who Robin Williams was. If I were going to assign a rating, I’d probably give it 3.5 stars out of five. If it had been maybe 100 pages less, I’d bump it to four stars.
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