Robin Williams and I both moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco at the tail end of the 1970s and were hired for our first jobs in TV to work on the doomed reboot of “Laugh-In.” I sat in one of many cubicles in an isolated office with a large, inexperienced writing staff. He was in front of the cameras, the breakout star of the cast.
He visited my cubicle a few times, but we didn’t communicate much. Once during a show hiatus, though, when I was visiting my parents in San Francisco, I saw him walking ahead of us on the street. After I yelled out his name, he turned and shouted “Sister Comedy!” and then ran over and gave me a hug. The warm feeling that gave me remains to this day.
Otherwise, we didn’t maintain a friendship. He was a busy show-business star on the rise, and, to be honest, I found him hard to talk to. There was an impenetrable wall inside him somewhere. Or, as our mutual friend Dave Letterman once put it, “He’s like a guy within a guy.” So apart from what I gleaned from public gossip or the personal anecdotes of mutual friends, some of whom he dated, I never knew much about his real life.
Which brings us to “Robin,” this immersive, intimate and incredibly detailed new biographyby Dave Itzkoff. It’s a revealing, warts-and-all portrait of a man of great talent trying to design a career and a life while being buffeted around by a cacophony of contradictory voices and impulses. At almost 500 pages, the book is the result of exhaustive research and fan-like devotion.
Williams was the son of a Ford executive father and a socialite mother who traveled together a lot, both for business and pleasure. As parents, they provided the comforts of wealth and a genetic strain of alcoholism with which Williams would struggle for most of his life. “I didn’t realize how lonely Robin had been,”his mother said many years later, finally acknowledging that her son “had some very lonely years. You think you’re being a wonderful mother, but maybe you aren’t.”
Williams’s world-class improvising talent may have begun as a brilliant child’s solution to loneliness, but his move to L.A. instantly brought him the attention and companionship he was seeking. I was a stand-up neophyte in the late 1970s and witnessed how his ability to make a comedy monologue look like a free-form, spontaneous joke cyclone stunned everyone. Characters! Voices! Accents! Improv! Williams was so good at spewing out an endless stream of new material that it took multiple viewings to discern where he was hiding the structure in this magic trick. Show business began to fall all over itself looking for ways to incorporate his unique abilities.
I was also there when comics started to complain that he had lifted lines from their acts. Once I even heard one of my own lines go whizzing by. When confronted, Williams explained that this was just a guileless behavioral tic over which he had no control once the comedy spigot had been turned on.
Most of us were unwilling to buy his excuse. But now, viewing that moment through the wider-angle lens of Itzkoff’s biography, I can see how the endless stimulus, showbiz pressures, relationship tumult, desperate neediness, burgeoning family responsibilities, and drugs and alcoholengulfed a guy in his 20s. Williams was launched into a life remarkable for its highs and lows: A Grammy for best comedy album! A terrible divorce! A happy remarriage! A People magazine exposé! A sold-out tour! A fall off the wagon! The birth of a child! A lawsuit about herpes! A Broadway hit! Open-heart surgery! Big movie successes followed by other films so widely despised that their titles (e.g., “Patch Adams”) became shorthand for terrible.
“I’m trying to play characters that allow us to look at who and what we are as a species,” Williams once said, explaining his artistic decisions.
“Robin Williams, enough already!” complained a reviewer in the Los Angeles Times. “Enough with the compassionate roles. . . . Remember being funny? Maybe you could try that again.”
“Dad’s happiness was correlated very much to how he was doing career-wise,” says his son Zak, who seems to have pursued a life the opposite of his father’s. “When there were films that would be less successful, he took it very personally. He took it as a personal attack. That was really hard for us to see.”
“People expected too much of him,” his longtime friend Billy Crystal explains. “They wanted him to plug that burst, that comet, into every movie, and it just wasn’t fair. Then, when he would do a more sentimental piece, they would just crucify him as sappy, and it would crush him.”
By the time Williams won an Oscar for his role in “Good Will Hunting,” he was so discombobulated that, he later recalled, “I forgot to thank my mother, and she was there. Even Freud would go, You must work on zis.”
In time, he found himself at the mercy of those all-too-common, uncontrollable insecurities. Itzkoff says that Williams worried “that his position in the comedy world could be usurped at any moment by a younger, up-and-coming star.” His longtime makeup artist Cheri Minns recalls how he “got completely freaked out about Jim Carrey, that he was going to take over. [His wife] Marsha had to step in and tell him, ‘There’s room for other people. You don’t have to freak out. There’s room.’ ”
Itzkoff also includes those Robin Williams moments that wouldn’t be tolerated now. Pam Dawber, his co-star on “Mork and Mindy,” recalls: “I had the grossest things done to me — by him. . . . I was flashed, humped, bumped, grabbed. I think he probably did it to a lot of people.” But she adds, “I never took offense.” Despite his sexual overtures, she still refers to “that magic” he had.
In the end, Itzkoff describes Williams’s last act through reporting that’s detailed enough to allow us to make some sense of his despair. I guess it’s better to understand that, when he took his own life, he’d been transformed by the throes of dementia. Sadly, that doesn’t make the tragedy any easier to bear.
Merrill Markoe is a humorist, television writer and the author of several books. Her audiobook “The Indignities of Being a Woman” will be released this summer.
By Dave Itzkoff
Henry Holt. 544 pp. $30