The sad, funny, tragic life of Robin Williams (and why Pam Dawber forgives him)
Few biographers can get away with a title that is but a single word. But here it works, once you rule out the songbird. Everyone knows who Robin is, or was. Robin Williams made sure of that.
Among the revelations in Robin (Henry Holt, 544 pp., ★★★½ out of four) by New York Times journalist Dave Itzkoff:
► Robin Williams repeatedly groped and flashed Pam Dawber, who played Mindy, during filming of the 1970s sitcom Mork & Mindy.
► His increasing bizarre behavior near the end of his life could be attributed to a devastating brain disorder, diffuse Lewy body disease, whose symptoms can include hallucinations and major and sometimes violent personality changes. This diagnosis came from analysis of the actor’s brain tissue after his 2014 suicide. He was 63.
Williams’ friends and family grew increasingly concerned about his behavior in the last months of his life. He clearly was depressed, often didn’t recognize people he knew, or “had a thousand-yard stare going.” He also was increasingly paranoid. The night before his suicide, he grew fearful that his collection of designer wristwatches was in danger of being stolen, so he stuffed some of them in a sock and took them to a friend’s house for safekeeping.
Robin Williams performing his stand-up show, Weapons of Self-Destruction, at Town Hall in New York on Nov. 23, 2009.
This latest biography of Williams is an engaging and intimate chronicle of the cultural icon who took America by storm 40 years ago. Then 27, he was a hyperkinetic comet, alternatively aglow and dim, but whose pace never slackened. His Oscar-worthy triumphs, like Good Will Hunting, would be followed by world-class flops, such as Death to Smoochy. There were more of the latter.
But box-office busts and savage reviews didn’t diminish his appeal, much less his zeal to try again. Despite mounting health issues in the last years of his life, Williams appeared in four movies in 2014. (A fifth came out in 2015.)
Besides 69 movie credits all told and his inimitable stand-up routines (many for worthy causes), Williams acted on Broadway, garnered Grammys for his albums, and earned Emmys for his work on television. He was nominated for four Oscars, winning once.
In 1978, he roared onto the entertainment firmament, aptly enough, as Mork, a visitor from the planet Ork. He seemed otherworldly in real life, too.
Itzkoff has done his research, including interviews with friends, family, and glitterati — as well as with the subject himself, whom the author first interviewed in 2009 for a newspaper story. The two stayed in touch.
Spoiler alert: This is not a funny book. Off stage, comics rarely are a bundle of laughs: As Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out, “Humor is the mistress of sorrow.” But Itzkoff has both covered here. There are moments when the reader will laugh out loud.
Sometimes it is just plain silly and other times right on the edge, as in this post-9/11 riff on a plan for three religions to share Jerusalem: “Jews will get Hanukkah, Passover. Christians will get Christmas and Easter. And the Muslims will have Ramadan and that other holiday, Kaboom.”
Robin Williams and Pam Dawber starred in the sitcom "Mork & Mindy." (Photo: Gerald B. Wolfe/ABC)
Williams was often over the edge in his private life: doing drugs or drinking to excess periodically, and sometimes committing adultery. (He was married three times.) Dawber told Itzkoff how Williams would grope her: “He’d look at you, really playful, like a puppy, all of a sudden. And then he’d grab your (breasts) and then run away. And somehow he could get away with it. It was the seventies, after all.” The two remained friends.
Indeed, Williams had many friends, including comrades in comedy such as Billy Crystal, Richard Pryor and David Letterman. He could be charming and generous as well as shy and retiring. He was one complicated dude; the author attributes this, in part, to a childhood that featured frequent moves and affluent but distant parents. His imagination oftentimes was his only companion.
What Williams could not get away with was simply being himself. He craved affirmation. He desperately needed to stay busy playing someone else. Itzkoff writes, “It was so much easier for him to be other people than it was to be himself.” He often spoke in accents. After their first meeting, Dawber thought he was Russian.
Williams’ life can be read as a cautionary tale about the travails of fame and fortune. Toward the end of his life, Williams was still concerned about his finances despite making as much as $15 million per movie. He had wanted to call one of his last comedy tours “Remember the Alimony.”