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Robin by David Itzkoff

December 18, 2018

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I never really took to the comedy style of Robin Williams. It always felt too much like a shtick to me, his rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness, stream-of-characters. He had a brilliant comic mind, but his stage act felt like something from another time and place, an anachronism, like an evolution of vaudeville.

After reading this touching, heart-warming and heart-wrenching biography, I listened to some of Robin’s live albums. And still, I could appreciate the routines, but didn’t find the laugh-until-it-hurts connection that millions of fans loved him for.

I instead loved the Robin Williams that appeared in Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. The warm, friendly source of light that shone on others. In his best moments, this seemed to be what Robin was like in real life. When he wasn’t drugged up, wasn’t running a million miles a minute. A warm, caring, generous soul who wanted to be loved by others and often was, who brought light to the lives of others in small moments.

A friend of mine tells a story of getting a flat while riding his bike through San Francisco near the Presidio. As he was working to fix it, a gate opened and out came Robin Williams. He offered to help, this multi-millionaire megastar. Robin Williams, an avid cycler himself, helped my friend get a new tube on his bike. That’s the Robin Williams I think of.

This book is full of moments like that. Small moments of human connection and kindness. It also has the struggles—and Robin had many. Drugs, alcohol, depression, relationship issues. Like many comedians, his stage routine—so big, so over-the-top—was a counterbalance, a compensation for the other things he lacked, or felt he lacked, in his life. He brought laughs to so many people, but often lived in the dark loneliness of show business.

Itzkoff does a remarkable job of holding these contradictions in balance and telling a story that feels bigger than one man’s life can possibly be. I kept getting to parts where Robin would do another now-classic movie—or even a flop—and think, “Oh yeah, I forgot about that one.” I have a particular fondness for his turn as Garp, but there was also Awakenings, The Fisher King, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Aladdin. I liked the courage of One Hour Photo. Of course, Good Morning, Vietnam. And Mork before all of them.

The thing about someone like Robin Williams is that he achieved the classic American dream. He had the fame and fortune and success. His Wikipedia page notes that he has been called the funniest person of all time. That’s quite the superlative. But as this biography shows, that didn’t mean it all worked. It was a struggle for Robin, and he struggled nobly. He wrestled with demons most of his life. To see that struggle, it elevates him so much in my mind. Beyond a showbiz entertainer to a real joy-bringer. Not just a comedian of the highest order, but a person of the highest order, warts and all.

His is an uncomfortable story because you want it to be simpler. An uplifting story or a tragic one, about a good man or a jerk. But it’s so complicated. It doesn’t land easily, and you can sense it in those who were closest to him. It doesn’t sit right with any of them, and they all talk about the contradictions, the radiant genius, but if only… It makes you wonder if that’s the price one pays for that kind of genius.

Robin is a great portrait of a great man. I say that as someone who before would have shrugged my shoulders and said, “Yeah, I liked Good Will Hunting.” Robin Williams is an American saint. Not for his talents, but for his heart and his generosity. He could make thousands hurt with laughter or help fix a bike tire for a stranger.

I think his son, Cody, says it up well:

I always wish he had belonged to our family more than he did to the world. But that’s a selfish notion, I realize. Folks like him don’t just grow on trees. It was only fair for us to share. Everybody deserves to laugh so hard it hurts. And everybody deserves his fairy tales.

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