“Robin” by Dave Itzkoff

Genre:          BiographyRobin
Publisher:    Henry Holt & Company
Pub. Date:    May 15, 2018

The author, Dave Itzkoff, is a culture reporter writing about film, television, and comedy for The New York Times. Itzkoff writes this book as a combination of straight reporting and insightful analysis.  This is a bittersweet biography; the author portrays the artist, Robin Williams, not as a tormented soul who ends his own life, but more as a tender man desperate for talent validation.

We all know that Robin was a comic genius.  But not many, including myself, know that he had a great memory (some would say photographic).  He could show up on sets, late and hung-over, often in the same clothes from the night before, to discover that the writers made major script changes while he was out partying.  While other actors struggled and fumbled to remember the new lines, Robin would just glance it over once and proceed to nail it.  This skill flabbergasted many over the years.  From his breakthrough television role on “Mork and Mindy” to his long movie career, his stage shenanigans fascinated his audiences, especially when he switched characters on a dime.  He was the king of improvisation.  In the author’s (and my) opinion no other stand-up comedian came close.  Just watching him perform, the man could exhaust you.

Like most biographies, the book begins when Williams was a child.  The son of a well-to-do executive who had two older half-siblings who did not live with him growing up, Robin had a somewhat isolated youth, especially since his family frequently moved.  He spent hours alone creating imaginary characters in his mind.  It was in his teen years when the family moved to California, that he found acting.  Over the decades, he learned to harness his manic talents and became a household name to be endeared by all.   The author left me sadly wishing that Robin could absorb that his audience truly did love him.

According to the author, Robin was actually a sweet and shy man known for his caring nature.  He was kind to people even while he fought his own darkness.  He met Christopher Reeve when they both were studying acting at Julliard.  Robin was politely asked to leave the school because there was nothing else that they could teach him.   His style of improv was simply too bizarre for his teachers to understand.  After Reeve’s accident, Robin helped pay for his medical equipment.  He remained a loyal friend.  When the Reeve family went on their first vacation with Chris in a wheelchair, Robin joined them just to keep his dear friend’s spirits from spiraling downwards as they often did.

Robin was also consistently honest about himself.  While most celebrities go into a hospital for “exhaustion,” Robin was truthful about his demons. Whether in his stand-up acts or during interviews, he openly discussed his troubles with depression and addiction.  He eventually conquered his addictions, but his self-esteem remained low throughout his life.   He thought of himself as an ugly man since he was not the epitome of a movie star.  Robin had hair tufts throughout his body.  He did indeed have a hairy body, which embarrassed him.  I couldn’t help but think his insecurities over his looks were so adolescent.  But then again, in ways, the author shows that he never really grew up, preferring the company of children to adults.  Off camera, he could play with his child co-stars endlessly.  If he was in the company of a five-year-old, he became five-years-old.  I confess, this reminds me of myself.  Personally, I find it delightful to be able to connect with a child on their level.

He might not have seen himself as a handsome man, but women sure did.   He wasn’t a faithful husband for two of his three wives.  There were too many female temptations around him.  He was a bit of a promiscuous player.   However, he was an excellent father to his three children.  After Robin’s death, it was his adult children who insisted that it couldn’t have been depression that caused their dad’s suicide.  They are confident of this since they knew that even at his lowest he would never hurt them in any way.  They were all in constant contact with him, they adored him and he adored them.  What his fans learn via his family, is that in the months before his death Williams was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  He couldn’t remember his lines while filming his last movie.  Can you imagine how this must have felt for a man with a photogenic memory?    However, not until the coroner’s report, three months after his death, did we learn that he was actually suffering from a little-known but deadly brain disease, Lewy Body Dementia (LBD.)  LBD is a neurological disease that is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson.  It was LBD that was causing his paranoia and confusion.

The author’s best writing moments are when he describes LBD symptoms.   The last year of Robin’s life, the actor suffered from tremors, insomnia, impaired senses, and extreme anxiety.   He had difficulty reasoning and was often hallucinating.  When coherent, he told many that he was losing his mind.  Sadly, he was.  The disease was eating away at his brain.   Throughout all of this, Robin remained clean and sober while searching for a possible cure.   Reading how this gentle and sensitive man suffered put tears in my eyes.  Itzkoff wrote an in-depth, impressively researched biography on the life of Robin Williams.  At times, I felt the book is packed with too much detail on his career.  There are dozens of pages with footnote citations.   I feel that the author was torn between writing a scholarly research paper or a compassionate book on the actor.  He tried to do both and I believe that he mostly succeeded.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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