The Sweet Smell of Excess

Robin BY Dave Itzkoff. Henry Holt and Co.. Hardcover, 544 pages. $30.

The cover of Robin

If an unstoppable stream of verbal and vocal pyrotechnics is your definition of comedy genius, Robin Williams had no peers. Nonetheless, he was hardly the most original or emblematic comedian of his generation. Andy Kaufman was, although any votes for Steve Martin—the first real post-counterculture comic, anticipating Kaufman more than is commonly recognized—will be counted.

David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld—both at home with an affectlessness 180 degrees removed from Williams’s frantic style—were undoubtedly more influential in the long run. Even his close friend Billy Crystal bettered him as an entertainment pro, mainly because Crystal was a much shrewder judge of what his toolbox of old-school showbiz talents was good for. And those are just the white dudes, who no longer dominate the field the way they did in Williams’s heyday.

Instead, he’s become, quite simply, the most touching of the bunch. That’s how suicide can redefine even a nonfan’s perceptions. Four years ago, the genuinely shocking news that Williams had killed himself at age sixty-three transformed him literally overnight into someone we’d all failed to appreciate sufficiently while he was still around. Critics—this one included—who’d written caustically in his lifetime about his mania for overdoing whatever he did suddenly felt like something the cat had dragged in. Call it John Lennon Syndrome, which even Paul McCartney begrudged for turning him, in effect, into the Beatles’ answer to Billy Crystal.

It isn’t biographer Dave Itzkoff’s fault that he can count on the audience for Robin (Henry Holt, $30)to bring its own incense and treacle to a story he’s too good a writer to try passing off as either the life of a saint or an instructive (to whom, after all?) cautionary tale. No newcomer to the subject, Itzkoff clearly feels privileged to have profiled Williams for the New York Times in 2009 and to have spoken with him multiple times on other assignments afterward. But he’s got the tough-minded reserve to save up his confession that Williams was a “hero” of his for the acknowledgments section, and you don’t often catch him substituting sentiment for research.

Nor is this the kind of celebrity bio that leaves readers impatient for the protagonist’s fame to kick in and boldface names to start speckling the text. Williams’s formative years provide Itzkoff with some of his most fascinating material, mainly because young Robin’s upbringing was not only relatively affluent but almost ridiculously goyish, right down to his chosen high school sports: wrestling, soccer, cross-country track. That gave him plenty to overcompensate for in a field crowded with people who’d been outsiders from birth. “So much of comedy is standing on the margins, looking at the majority and poking fun at them,” one early collaborator of his told Itzkoff. “He was a Wasp, and he was a wealthy Wasp. It’s not that funny being a Wasp.”

Dad was a decorated World War II navy vet turned peripatetic Ford executive, meaning his son had to assimilate new schools and new companions every time the family moved. (Interestingly, Williams thought of joining the Foreign Service early on, which would have made the vagabondage permanent.) In the familiar “Greatest Generation” mold, Rob Williams was also capable, decent—and emotionally reticent, making paternal approval a probable nonstarter no matter what Robin did with his life.

Robin Williams, The Juilliard School, New York, 1973. The Estate of Diane Gorodnitzki.
Robin Williams, The Juilliard School, New York, 1973. The Estate of Diane Gorodnitzki.

His mother was the frothy one: a “Christian Dior Scientist,” Williams called her. “The craziness comes from my mother,” he also said. “The discipline comes from my dad.” (If so, Dad’s share of the DNA was often undetectable to others, including Williams’s eventual manager Jack Rollins, whose initial verdict on his future client was “The talent is endless; the discipline is nil.”) Williams wasn’t above exaggerating the lonely-boy side of his early years, often calling himself “an only child” despite the two half brothers from his parents’ previous marriages. He also sometimes claimed he’d had no friends, although Itzkoff rounds up testimony from a number of them. Nonetheless, he was apparently happiest staging elaborate battles with and inventing personalities for his vast collection of toy soldiers.

Revelation came when Rob Williams, by then retired from Ford, relocated the family to California in 1968. Robin was seventeen. “Like going from Sing Sing to a Gestalt nudist camp,” was how he described his year at Claremont College, where he enrolled almost idly in a theater class and was soon a founding member of a campus improv group called Karma Pie. After flunking out and then moving on to the College of Marin’s theater program, Williams was eventually accepted at Juilliard, where he palled up with one of his unlikelier lifelong friends: actor Christopher Reeve. The faculty wasn’t entirely unhappy to see him go, since his gifts were as haphazard as they were undeniable.

At this point, the story becomes more familiar. Williams returned to the West Coast and soon made his bones as a stand-up comic, initially in the Bay Area and then at LA’s Comedy Store. If he wasn’t quite an overnight sensation, he came close. “My memory of him is that he actually flew in—the energy gave one the impression that he was levitating,” was how David Letterman, then an aspiring comic newly arrived from Indiana, recalled Williams’s Comedy Store appearances.

Inevitably, TV soon beckoned—though not The Tonight Show, still the comedy world’s ultimate benison then. (The show’s booker judged him too erratic.) Instead, Williams joined the cast of an abortive Laugh-In reboot and then the similarly short-lived The Richard Pryor Show before the creator of ABC’s Happy Days, running low on gas five seasons in, cooked up a fantasy episode about a naive-but-curious space alien and hired him to play Mork from Ork.

The ensuing spin-off series, Mork & Mindy, premiered in the fall of 1978. It’s hard to remember now what a phenomenon the show was in those insipid but frolicsome days, when the Big Three broadcast networks still virtually monopolized the mass audience. Because the premise let M&M’s star show off his panoply of odd voices, high-speed flights of fancy, and compulsive pop-culture riffing in an attractively childlike guise, Williams swiftly became the kind of national darling whose face was on lunch boxes and magazine covers alike.

Yet it’s also easy to forget how short-lived Mork & Mindy’s vogue was. Thanks in part to some ill-judged cast and concept retoolings, the show tobogganed in the ratings in its second season and limped off the air just two years later. Williams might very well have ended up as the same sort of Me-Decade flash in the pan as, say, Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman, the mannish boy to his infantile adult. Although his comedy tours and albums kept him lucratively in the public eye as he gradually shed Mork’s space outfit, his big-screen career nearly fizzled early on, thanks to a series of misfires ranging from Robert Altman’s Popeye to Paul Mazursky’s only middlingly successful Moscow on the Hudson.

Only 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam, which brought back Williams the motormouthed improvisational spritzer in a newly evocative context, salvaged his fortunes by becoming his first huge box-office hit. (Told “I think it’s going to be good” by Johnny Carson during a Tonight Show appearance, Williams answered, “I hope so, and if not, I’ll be on a game show.”) It also earned him his first Oscar nomination, with a second coming just two years later for Dead Poets Society—the movie that marked his shift from whirling dervish to Hollywood’s go-to guy for puckish humanism, with his elfin eccentricity now used to both mitigate and surreptitiously validate sentimentality.

Once that became his midlife brand, he characteristically didn’t stop until audiences were heartily sick of it: as the Oliver Sacks figure in Awakenings, as the Grail-seeking holy fool in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, as the grown-up Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg’s lamentable Hook. (The hellzapoppin’ Williams of yore only resurfaced in his brilliant voice-over work as Aladdin’sGenie, probably his most durable movie performance.) He scored another box-office smash with Mrs. Doubtfire, finally won his Oscar as the wise shrink in Good Will Hunting, and wound up testing everyone’s patience beyond endurance as yet another life-embracing, whimsical MD in 1998’s notoriously cloying Patch Adams—which even the real Patch Adams couldn’t stand.

Briefly, Williams tried to reinvent himself by playing creeps in ostentatiously edgy indie flicks, but it didn’t take. Though he took roles in over two dozen other movies in the decade-plus left to him, a number are so negligible that they aren’t even mentioned in Itzkoff’s text, and only the Night at the Museum franchise—in which he pops up as Teddy Roosevelt—made much of a dent in the public’s consciousness. Besides its awful nature, part of what made his death so disconcerting was the recognition that one hadn’t thought of him in years, when he’d once been so ubiquitous.

Even when he was ubiquitous, however, what he was driving at stayed elusive—certainly to us, and possibly to him. Williams came up in the post–Lenny Bruce era when America’s most memorable comedians were no longer mere jokesmiths, and certainly no longer wanted to be perceived as such. Audiences looked to them to express, if not a critique of society, then at least a fresh perspective on experience, and Richard Pryor’s autobiographical genius fused both. Williams would have loved to be in Pryor’s league, and early on, you could even imagine him getting there—if, that is, his gifts had ever been focused by a compelling point of view or a worthwhile story to tell, which they weren’t. (His later-era rehab routines about his problems with drugs and alcohol were pallid imitations of Pryor’s groundbreaking ones.) Revealingly, he once wondered “how far you can push the ‘like me’ desire before there’s nothing left of you to like.”

Itzkoff tells us that one of Williams’s childhood comedy idols was Danny Kaye, and the comparison is a little haunting. Another master of manic patter who went soft and lovable, Kaye is largely forgotten today except when White Christmas shows up on TV, and Williams doesn’t even have a comparable “family classic” to his name—unless Aladdin counts, which maybe it should. But Kaye also had the luxury of a different, less demanding set of audience expectations, not to mention self-expectations. When Itzkoff reports that almost everyone who knew Williams “believed there was some part of himself that he withheld from them,” you can’t help wondering whether his private world was a magic kingdom or a panicked wasteland.

Tom Carson is the author of Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock, 2011).