‘Robin’ chron­i­cles a sad, funny life

Trou­bled comic was most at ease as some­one else

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - David Ho­la­han Au­thor Dave Itzkoff

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., ★★★g) 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.

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, such as 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 and his standup rou­tines (many for wor­thy causes), Wil­liams acted on Broad­way, gar­nered Gram­mys for his al­bums, and earned Em­mys for his work on TV. He was nom­i­nated for four Os­cars, win­ning once.

In 1978, he roared onto the en­ter­tain­ment fir­ma­ment 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. As Ralph Waldo Emer­son pointed out, “Hu­mor is the mistress of sor­row.” And Itzkoff has both cov­ered here. There are mo­ments when the reader will laugh out loud.

Some­times the book is just plain silly and other times right on the edge.

Wil­liams of­ten was over the edge in his pri­vate life: do­ing drugs or drink­ing to ex­cess pe­ri­od­i­cally, and 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.

Wil­liams could be charm­ing and gen­er­ous as well as shy and re­tir­ing.

What he could not get away with was 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.”

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.

DAVE ALLOCCA/AP

Co­me­dian Robin Wil­liams bat­tled demons his whole life. He killed him­self in 2014.

GER­ALD B. WOLFE/ABC

Robin Wil­liams and Pam Daw­ber starred in the sit­com “Mork & Mindy.”

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