Like most kids growing up on a diet of Disney movies, I first knew Robin Williams as the voice of the genie in “Aladdin.” Later, I grew to know him as John Keating in “Dead Poet Society,” Parry in “The Fisher King,” Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” and Sean Maguire in “Good Will Hunting.”
After Williams died in August 2014, I binge-watched YouTube clips of Williams’ appearances on late night talk shows and watched “World’s Greatest Dad” on Netflix, searching the movie for clues to Williams’ depression.
By Dave Itzkoff.
544 pp. Henry Holt & Co. $30.
May 15, 2018.
Why did a man loved by so many kill himself? I wanted to know. Williams’ death reminded me of that of Richard Cory’s from Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem (My “John Keating” had introduced me to this poem in my high school’s version of the “Dead Poet Society”).
We’ll never get the answer to this impossible question. But The New York Times‘ culture reporter Dave Itzkoff attempts to explain our “whys” in his biography “Robin.” A posthumous biopsy revealed that Williams had Lewy body dementia, a disease that “frequently presents with Parkinsonian motor symptoms and a constellations [sic] of neuropsychiatric manifestations, including depression and hallucination,” according to a surgical pathological report.
Itzkoff, who interviewed Williams previously (and remembers how Williams met Itzkoff at Williams’ favorite comic book store in New York City after the reporter expressed that he loved comics), is more interested in answering “who,” rather than “why.”
Who was this man that we loved?
He was a man we felt like we knew, who could make you laugh with his voices and characters, but “he was more like an illusionist, and his magic trick was making you see what he wanted to see — the act and not the artist delivering it,” writes Itzkoff.
Through extensive interviews with Williams’ family and friends including William’s son Zak Williams, ex-wife Valerie Velardi, half-brother McLaurin Smith-Williams, sister-in-law Frankie Williams, “Mork and Mindy” co-star Pam Dawber, comedian Dana Carvey, and “The Tonight Show” hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman, Itzkoff tries to chronologically piece together the mystery behind Williams’ public life and death — from his childhood playing with toy soldiers and moving from Michigan and Illinois to California to his marriages and rise in stand-up, television and film.
Williams emerges as a mostly tragic hero in Itzkoff’s book, one “addicted to laughter” and compared to “a giant puppy” — who was too eager to please and couldn’t say, “No,” even as it destroyed his career, health and relationships at times.
“If he could give you some of his time to help you enjoy your day or feel better about yourself, he would, and he gave pieces of himself to many people,” wrote Itzkoff.
But despite Williams’ kind and gregarious nature, Williams could also be an intensely private man that even those closest to him never fully knew.
“They believed there was some part of himself that he withheld from them; everyone got a piece of him and a fortunate few got quite a lot of him, but no one got all of him,” wrote Itzkoff.
Perhaps Itzkoff never gets to the bottom of who Williams was, but the book contains many pieces of Williams — pieces that you don’t want to end because once it does and you read through the last three chapters in tears, you feel like you just lost one of your favorite actors all over again.
Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of “Robin” by Dave Itzkoff from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review.