Robin Williams – In 1922, legendary comedian W.C. Fields had this to say about fellow comedian and vaudevillian (and Ziegfeld Follies co-star) Bert Williams when he passed away that year: “He was the funniest man I ever saw, and was the saddest man I ever met”.
Those remarks that was uttered by Fields nearly a century ago about Bert Williams can ironically be applied to another comedian sharing the same surname: Robin Williams.
During his productive career as a comedian and actor, Robin Williams has charmed and entertained millions of fans around the world with his manic, runaway train-style of stand-up comedy, his critically-acclaimed performances in such movies as “Good Morning, Vietnam”, “Dead Poets Society”, “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Aladdin”; and of course, the role that launched it all, that of the visiting alien from the planet Ork on the ABC hit sitcom “Mork and Mindy”.
Yet through all those memorable performances – and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” – Robin Williams lived a life that was filled with so much emotional and physical pain, whether it be endless self-doubt, a constant drubbing from critics, drug addiction and alcoholism, and finally, a diagnosis of Lewy body dementia – a severe degenerative neurological disease – that compelled him to take his own life in August of 2014 at the age of 63.
Robin Williams was, sadly enough, a living embodiment of the tragicomic nature of the comedian, yet he was such a complex individual as much as he was an entertaining one. However, it was his eldest son Zak who somehow managed to comprehend the true nature of his father at a memorial service that was held a little more than a month after his death:
“Eater of cold chicken breast, drinker of espresso, lover of bumper stickers. I’d like to speak about the man who was a paradox. The alien. I feel the overwhelming joy he brought millions, and I felt his abject loneliness. He was at once so superhuman and yet so very human. But I don’t think he ever felt he was anything special.”
With the massive biography Robin by New York Times cultural reporter David Itzkoff, we finally get to crack that eggshell to discover the human and superhuman sides to the man who gave us Mork from Ork, Adrian Cronauer, John Keating and the Genie, with all the sadness and complexities that went with it.
To put it succinctly, Itzkoff has done an tremendous job of giving his many fans a much clearer picture of the public and private Robin Williams through contemporary press accounts and reviews, and countless interviews with friends, colleagues (within the comedy and film communities), surviving family members, as well as introspective interviews that Williams conducted with the press throughout his lifetime. The end result is probably one of the most deep biographical treatments of the comedian as tragic figure since Albert Goldman’s “Ladies and Gentlemen … Lenny Bruce!” and Bob Woodward’s John Belushi biography “Wired”.
Born a child of privilege (his father was a high-ranking executive at the Ford Motor Company), Williams decided early in life that a career in show business (particularly in comedy) was more preferable than being a lawyer. Through his studies at the prestigious Julliard School in New York (in which one of his classmates was the late Christopher Reeve), and then paying his dues as a street mime in San Francisco and as a manic, free form stand-up comic who became a must-see at the legendary Comedy Store (rainbow suspenders and all).
But it was in 1978 that Williams’ manic style of comedy made him a star: first in a guest shot as Mork in an episode of Happy Days called “My Favorite Orkan”, and then expanding the role that fall on the series “Mork and Mindy”, which he dominated until its run ended in 1982.
What Itzkoff argues is that the key reason Robin Williams became such a comedy superstar on “Mork and Mindy” and later in many of his best known starring movie roles was that the directors he worked with (especially Barry Levinson and Chris Columbus) gave him the necessary breathing room to allow him to improvise several scenes, and use the best routines in the final cut. However, Williams’ tendency to practice his wild style of improv comedy could at times be a detriment to the production he was working on, which was evident when he performed with Steve Martin on a Lincoln Center production of “Waiting for Godot”, which led to the production’s abbreviated run.
The book also paints a portrait of Robin Williams who was a mass of pain, self-doubt and chemical dependency, not to mention a man-child who revelled in his collection of toy soldiers and found pleasure in shopping for comic books, not to mention taking many critical pans of his later movies quite personally (especially his Broadway debut in 2011 in the serio-comic play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”, which although he gained the much-needed critical praise, was passed over for a Tony Award nomination).
“Robin” is probably the definitive biography of a man whos goal in life was to just make a lot of people laugh with his own brand of comedy. And through his stand-up specials, and memorable movie performances, Robin Williams became one of the most beloved comedians/comic actors of his time. Yet because of his delicate, fragile personal side, Robin Williams was like his showbiz namesake from a century ago: he was the funniest man you ever saw, and was the saddest man you ever met. But thanks to David Itzkoff’s fascinating book, you can readily understand why he was both.