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BOOK REVIEW: Robin – The Definitive Biography of Robin Williams by Dave Itzkoff

| 29 September 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Robin – The Definitive Biography of Robin Williams by Dave Itzkoff

Pan Macmillan
May 2018
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Biographies & True Stories


Robin Williams was a contradictory star. He had a larger-than-life stage persona even though he was an introvert at heart. A hilarious man who could improvise with lightning-fast speed, he was also wracked by depression and addiction. Robin is the first biography about this late, great genius and while it covers a lot of territory, you get the sense that such unerring genius requires a slightly more creative biography than just a mere chronological rendering of his life and career, no matter how well-written it may be.

But who was he? Except for that one stray moment when he had spoken a few tentative words in his surprisingly stately voice and then metamorphosed into a French undersea explorer, Robin had never let the audience see his true self. Some part of him would be present in every role and stand-up set he would play over the next thirty-five years, 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.

Dave Itzkoff is no stranger to the world of Williams. The New York Times journalist profiled and interviewed the late comedian. He also wrote Williams’s obituary for that newspaper. So it makes sense that he would take the next step and pen Williams’s biography. One thing that is certainly apparent from this lengthy volume is how meticulously-researched it is.

In this book Itzkoff pieces together Williams’s complete history. It begins with his intense and lonely childhood where he was raised as an only child even though each of his parents had a son from their previous marriages. Williams didn’t meet these siblings until he was around ten-years-old. His father was an executive at the Ford Motor company and was away a lot. The family moved around frequently and a lot of Williams’s childhood was spent imagining new worlds and characters, and finding ways to amuse himself.

In the eyes of his lifelong friend Christopher Reeve, the bond between Robin and [his son] Zak was crucial in helping Robin to reconnect with his own childhood. “When you see Robin play with any child, you see the child immediately understand him,” Reeve said. “The child in Robin is so open and approachable and immediately apparent.” And Reeve observed, Robin’s humor was rooted in his youth, the sense of solitude he felt and the voices and stories he created to entertain himself. “He’s very aware, real grown up, but still in touch with the child in him,” Reeve said. “Throughout his life, he’s always felt alone with his imagination.”

Williams would go on to study acting at Juilliard in New York. That was until he was unceremoniously dropped part-way through his course. He was also developing his interest and skills in improvisational theatre and stand-up comedy. But it was a cameo on the television series Happy Days, which would ignite Williams’s career. His character, Mork the space alien would prove so popular he was given his own spin-off sitcom.

From what he [The Fonz’s Henry Winkler] saw of him, Robin—who had been outfitted in a red jumpsuit with a silver triangle on the chest, silver gloves, and silver boots—was very clearly running away with the [Happy Days] episode. “You would say something, no matter what the script said, and he absorbed it,” Winkler said. “It was almost as if he sucked it in like a sponge. And then he would spit it back out, but then it would have been Robin-ized. It’s an intangible. All of a sudden, you’re amazed. You’re amazed by the speed. You’re amazed by the clarity. You’re amazed by the originality.”

Over the years Williams would graduate from television acting and have a film career. Williams’s professional life was peppered with highs and lows. The former included winning an Oscar for Good Will Hunting and a Grammy for his comedy album. But there was also the release of stinker films like Popeye and The Angriest Man in Brooklyn. Itzkoff doesn’t gloss over things and he avoids turning this book into a hagiography. He describes Williams’s successes just as much as the crippling disappointments.

It was how Robin had been taught to live since childhood: nothing is permanent, transition is constant. Anywhere can be home and anyone can be family, and you can always start over again in a new place, with new people. Though it might seem a strange, even insensitive attitude to some, it reflected the essential way Robin saw the world. Reality was a medium that he could shape and manipulate, not some fixed and rigid thing; the temperament that made him spontaneous and capable of astonishing comic insight also made him unconcerned with traditional boundaries and accepted norms.

Robin Williams wasn’t infallible and Itzkoff certainly doesn’t present the star as a perfect man. Williams’s three marriages are described here as well as his infidelities. He was a devoted father but he was also plagued by a need for approval and a depressive nature; and these in turn, fuelled his drug and alcohol addiction. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and committed suicide in 2014 where his autopsy revealed he actually had Lewy body dementia.

Mrs. Doubtfire, in which Robin played a struggling, soon-to-be single father who assumes the disguise of a golden-haired female housekeeper so he can spend more time with his children, was perhaps the perfect distillation of his life up to that point. It was the cinematic embodiment of the philosophy he’d learned from his own upbringing, through two marriages, and now his own experiences as a husband and father: family is where you find it; all are welcome and no-one ever loses their membership. Beneath the movie’s farcical, cross-dreaming premise, Mrs. Doubtfire exemplified how intensely Robin loved his family—his children, especially—and the lengths he would go for them.

Williams’s fans may already know about the comic’s life so they may not find much new material on offer here. What is unique however, is the results from the interviews Itzkoff performed with some of the star’s family, friends and colleagues. He had some excellent access to some key players and for those that didn’t agree to be interviewed, Itzkoff has used the archives to fill in the gaps about different things. The inclusion of these new and old quotes from such important people certainly makes for a richer and more thoughtful biography.

“He’s a comic, and all comics want to be Hamlet, come on. You want to show that you’re not just a clown—that inside that clown is a profundity, a deepness, a darkness. You suffer. And I think all comics always end up writing their autobiography, and trying to show how much pain they went through in their life.”

Robin is a book that certainly celebrates the generous spirit of Messer Williams. He was a comedian that touched the hearts of so many and gave us all so much while at the same time he made sure that he hid various things away with a vault-like privacy. With Robin you feel like this is quite a comprehensive and fascinating account of a comic and one where you can learn a lot about him. But at the same time there are some things that will be forever unknowable about this unique and misunderstood artist and funny-man. Vale Robin.

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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