By Dave Itzkoff
Henry Holt, $30, 544 pages
The June suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain shed a light on mental illness and how it affects celebrities. It also brought to mind the similar death of actor and comedian Robin Williams that stunned the world in August 2014.
The life of Mr. Williams, whose rapid-fire delivery and improvisation, won over comedy club audiences and later moviegoers, is recounted in “Robin” by New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff. “Robin” is a well-reported, evenhanded and clear presentation of a turbulent life.
Robin Williams was raised in the Detroit suburbs. His father was a rising executive with Ford Motor Co. He had a lonely childhood, spending many days in the family’s attic playing with toy soldiers. It was during this playtime that Mr. Williams developed his skill for character voices.
When his father was transferred to the San Francisco Bay area, Mr. Williams eased into the burgeoning counterculture. He tried several colleges in California before winning a scholarship to Juilliard, the prestigious performing arts school in New York. At Juilliard, he formed a close friendship with Christopher Reeve, who later found fame on the big screen playing Superman. Mr. Williams‘ behavior and performance style raised many eyebrows at Juilliard. After several years there, Mr. Williams was asked to leave because his acting style was more about imitating other styles than learning the craft of acting, and it was decided there was nothing more they could teach him.
Anyone who watched television in the late 1970s remembers Robin Williams‘ first major television appearance. He was cast as a space alien named Mork from the fictional planet Ork, who visited Milwaukee on the smash hit sitcom “Happy Days.” Mr. Williams‘ outlandish comedy, such as when he was told to have a seat, put his head on a chair, was a hit with audiences.
The character was so popular, Mr. Williams appeared as Mork in his own sitcom. “Mork & Mindy” had Mork sent to Earth to report on Americans’ behavior and report back to his superiors. His co-star, Pam Dawber, admits it was difficult to keep up with him on the set. She also revealed that he would playfully grope her and do other things that would not be tolerated today.
Mr. Itzkoff recounts how his sudden success, as well as unannounced appearances at Los Angeles comedy clubs, opened a spigot of endless alcohol and cocaine. Immediate success also brought temptations for the recently married actor. If crew members learned that Mr. Williams‘ wife (his first of three) would be visiting the set, they would have to remove his current girlfriend from the premises.
The show’s sky-high ratings established Robin Williams as the day’s hottest comedic talent. However, television was not enough and he was sought after to appear in films. While Mr. Williams made many memorable, successful films, Mr. Itzkoff reminds readers that Mr. Williams‘ first six films were commercial disappointments.
It was not until 1987’s “Good Morning, Vietnam,” in which Mr. Williams played an irreverent Air Force disc jockey during the Vietnam War that he became a box office draw. His maniacal radio monologues drew hearty laughs and earned him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
While many films made use of Mr. Williams‘ over-the-top delivery and manic energy, he took a different turn in the 1989 film “Dead Poet’s Society.” Mr. Williams played John Keating, a prep school English teacher. The book reveals that Mr. Williams took his co-stars, which included up-and-coming actors Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles and Robert Sean Leonard, under his wing.
Mr. Itzkoff gives many examples of how, during filming, Mr. Williams and others working on the film would have quiet dinners. While many celebrity biographies contain on-set anecdotes, Mr. Itzkoff reports one-on-one conversations between Mr. Williams and his co-stars, directors and close friends. These conversations give the book an intimate feel missing in many biographies.
During one of these dinners, an executive from Disney, the producer of “Dead Poets Society” informed Mr. Williams and director Peter Weir that they had market-tested the film’s title. Mr. Itzkoff reports that the executives wanted to change the title because “Dead was a downer, Poets was too effete and nobody knew what Society meant.” The star and director were convinced they were making a solid film. They presented a united front and laughed at the executive’s suggestion. The original title remained.
For all of the laughs and smiles Robin Williams brought to audiences, the cover photo was a curious choice. It shows Mr. Williams with his right hand over his mouth. It does not reveal a smile. One wonders if this photo was used to send a message about Mr. Williams‘ overall happiness.
Readers will come away from “Robin” with an understanding of one of comedy’s most original figures. Mr. Itzkoff presents a balanced portrait of an innovator whose vulnerabilities were tested. Robin Williams‘ story is told honestly and with empathy. Mr. Williams‘ fans will ache that he is gone, but will find a new appreciation of what it took to become the star he became.
• Kevin P. McVicker is vice president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria, Va.
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