It’s no surprise to discover that the late, lamented Robin Williams, man of a million other men, was a multi-layered personality: school-age recluse, joke-stealing stand-up, on-off dependent, hit-and-miss husband, loyal friend, appreciative father, and above all, estimable multi-talent.
Such were the comic and actor’s major modes, according to biographer Dave Itzkoff, the dutiful journalist tasked with what even better biographers, borrowing from those who knew Williams intimately, might have classified as the impossible: painting a still portrait of this human perpetual motion machine.
So ubiquitous did Williams become – particularly in his peak period, the mid 90’s, when the successive box office hits were of such size they positively dwarfed the flops – we all forgot just how fast, fiery and funny his style first struck us. Johnathan Winters, Williams’ comedic role model, had been out of view by the time his biggest fan had left three rewarding but frustrating years at Julliard to return to the home of his adolescence, San Francisco, to chance the burgeoning, competitive world of stand-up comedy. A new class of solo comic – Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Jay Leno – was rising to the fore, Baby Boomers raised on the innocuousness of 1950’s popular culture – TV sitcoms and rock’n’roll – only to be plunged, come young adulthood, into the edgy surrealism of the 60’s. The result was a new style of public icon: the smarmy-faced survivor, caught between establishmentarianism and hipness, who could work in either a suit or a sweater, inviting you to join him in this post-protest, pre-Reagan riddle that was the middle of the decade. Social issues didn’t seem that big anymore but there was still little margin in your parents’ way of life. We were collectively “coming down,” only we didn’t know where to. Small wonder Williams’ catchphrase at the time, a purloined commentary that became the title of the first of his four Grammy Award-winning comedy albums, was Reality…what a concept.
Martin, with his naïve-cool persona and his sidebars of outright silliness, was as wild (and crazy) as it got – until Williams. Itzkoff begins his account at the tail end of a long night in a San Fran comics’ showcase. The audience is completely laughed out – and yet, here comes, at gig’s end, this hairy, sweaty “Russian,” who, after a few obligatory malapropisms (“Thank you for the clap!”) re-awakes the faithful by going into whirling dervish mode, boldly venturing off the stage to morph – from immigrant to drag queen to uptight classical actor – both verbally and physically at lightning speed. By the time his fifteen minutes are over, the room, a harbinger for Hollywood, will be abuzz.
It was a style of performance Williams would give ad infinitum. Till the self-inflicted end of his life at the age of 63, long after 35 years as a bankable film star, he continued to play, sometimes billed, sometimes not, at clubs and arenas across the continent. “Irrepressible” is a cliché when touting comics; here, though, it’s the mot juste.
This bottomless appetite for audience adoration, according to Itzkoff, was born of a fundamental loneliness. The Freudian bad guy is Williams’ father, an overworked, under appreciative automotive exec, who, when Williams was growing up in suburban Detroit, paid scant attention to him. Thus the lifelong performing, thus the lifelong psychotherapy sessions. Both served to assuage but neither could spiritually placate poor, perpetually plagued Williams for longer than a few short years. In between, there were debilitating bouts of addiction – cocaine mostly, the sensorial plaything of the 1970’s nouveau riche – a stickler of a propensity that would eventually resurface, labeling Williams forever not simply as “comic” but “tragi-comic.”
The corollary was Williams’ vivacious, supportive mother, “Punky,” so loved that Williams gave her nickname to every subsequent woman of seriousness in his life – and there were many, in spite of his frequently noted B.O., including three strong-willed wives. Each willingly played support system, only to be usurped by their successor. But their real rival was mass adulation. Restless souls make for restless marriages.
Serendipitously, one of Williams’ merciful gaps from his troubles took place when he was becoming a family-friendly commercial commodity. The young had always responded to his humour and he, in turn, had always responded to them (to the end of his life, he collected and played with toys.) First came Aladdin, then, after a falling-out with Disney, self-produced showcases such as Mrs. Doubtfire. It was a magic time in Williams’ life: proper, profitable vehicles and the welcome respite of domestic functionality. He was indulging his serious side, too, distinguishing himself in roles requiring depth and restraint, the best being his unforgettably delicate turn in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King and his Oscar-winning supporting performance in Good Will Hunting. As Itzkoff notes, it’s no surprise that the root of both roles is dealing with the pain of loss, again echoing the childhood abandonment that was Williams’ Rosebud.
This biography is nothing if not thorough. It’s a model, in fact, of investigative journalism. Itzkoff, who knew Williams from previous pieces he had penned, talks to all the right people, quotes from all the right critics, and reveals from all the right documents. But perfunctory biographical practice straight jackets a subject like Williams (is the book’s cover, showing Williams with a hand over his mouth, supposed to tip us off?) For all that we admire about the work, we want a writer who, like his inspiration, can let seriously loose, even if just occasionally. That said, Itzkoff does rise above the bar in the book’s final chapters; try remaining emotionally unaffected over the chronicle of Williams’ slow, sad slide.
That said, Robin will likely remain the definitive literary portrait of this 20th century Pagliacci for a long, long time. After all, Williams, in death as in life, on stage as in person, is an extremely tall and tricky mountain. Few can scale, as he did so admirably given the weight of his psychological pack sack, such incredible heights.