Book Club: Robin by David Itzkoff
Robin by David Itzkoff
A lot of celebrity deaths don't really affect me all that much but the day Robin Williams died, it rocked me to my core. I grew up on Robin Williams movies (Aladdin was my favorite growing up) and I loved watching his stand ups because he was just so funny! I didn't even know he was depressed until he committed suicide so when I found out, I was really shaken. I'm so glad that Jen chose his biography to review today. From her review, it sounds like it was a tough read but I hope you enjoy the review and decide for yourself.
From his rapid-fire stand-up comedy riffs to his breakout role in Mork & Mindy and his Academy Award-winning performance in Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams was a singularly innovative and beloved entertainer. He often came across as a man possessed, holding forth on culture and politics while mixing in personal revelations – all with mercurial, tongue-twisting intensity as he inhabited and shed one character after another with lightning speed.
But as Dave Itzkoff shows in this revelatory biography, Williams’s comic brilliance masked a deep well of conflicting emotions and self-doubt, which he drew upon in his comedy and in celebrated films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; The Fisher King; Aladdin; and Mrs. Doubtfire, where he showcased his limitless gift for improvisation to bring to life a wide range of characters. And in Good Will Hunting he gave an intense and controlled performance that revealed the true range of his talent.
Itzkoff also shows how Williams struggled mightily with addiction and depression – topics he discussed openly while performing and during interviews – and with a debilitating condition at the end of his life that affected him in ways his fans never knew. Drawing on more than a hundred original interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, as well as extensive archival research, Robin is a fresh and original look at a man whose work touched so many lives.
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Robin Williams seems to be popping up everywhere in pop-culture lately. There is both a new documentary and biography out, and both provide unique insights into Williams and his life. I first found out about the biography Robin by David Itzkoff while looking through the NPR books of the month list for June. I knew I had to read this book because I’ve always loved Robin’s movies and stand up, and I was curious about his life and what made him tick as a human.
Before getting into the review I want to provide a disclaimer - this book and review discusses suicide and addiction. I plan to review those parts of the book and am warning Deb’s readers upfront because firstly I want people know what they’re getting into and secondly I both don’t want to spoil parts of the book for anyone. My TLDR review for people who want to stop reading here is this: the book is good, but very sad and analytical, and if you’re not sure if that’s for you, you should check out the documentary “Come Inside My Mind” on HBO, its much more upbeat, funny, and tells his story through in-person interviews.
This biography is written by David Itzkoff, a New York Times Culture reporter who interviewed Robin many times. In this book, Itzkoff writes an exhaustive chronological study of Robin Williams, starting in with his parents’ childhood going all the way to Robin’s death and memorials. Itzkoff doesn’t attempt to gloss over Robin’s manic, dark, or sometimes messy life and provides a truthful depiction of the good times in Robin’s life.
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The book is well written, but at times it reads a like professor’s clinical lecture rather than an account of his life. There were times where Itzkoff pacing of the book was a bit slow and off balance. There were points in reading this book, I thought I might stop reading, but Robin is objectively a fascinating person whose humor and creative shined through such a dry tone. Even as a fan, I was truly surprised by how many new details I learned about Robin and his life. For example, I was surprised to learn how shy he was as a kid, that he studied at Juilliard, and that he never thought he was good enough. Through this book, I learned the most about his early career and his last days.
Robin’s early days in show business and the amount of drama surrounding his meteoric rise to fame. After graduating from Juilliard, Robin was performing stand up while auditioning for various roles and was turned down for all of them, until he lucked out with a spot on Happy Days, where he played an alien in Fonzie’s dream named Mork from the Planet Ork. During his week on "Happy Days,' he was such a hit with the producers and show-runners they creating a spin-off in called “Mork and Mindy,” which became a huge hit.
While doing “Mork and Mindy,” Robin continued to perform stand up on the side, doing as much as six shows a night. Robin was known both on and off the show for his improvisational style both on the show and off, and often this style was fueled by alcohol and drugs. Robin’s show and stand up were so popular he went from being a nobody in the industry to appearing on multiple magazine covers over the course of a couple months, but along with this quick rise came jealousy and suspicion from some and other comics began to accuse Robin of stealing their routines. Robin would often just pay them off so it didn’t ruin “Mork and Mindy’s” reputation. Additionally since he was high/drunk all the time, he didn’t remember enough of the routines to know if there was any merit to their claims, if his improvisation was inspired their routines, or if they were completely out of line. When Robin asked other comics who he’d performed with for years, they all said it was ludicrous and said that there was no way he’d stolen material. What I learned in the documentary “Come Inside My Mind,” is that Robin had hired and worked with joke writers who would help him create a catalog of jokes he could pull from at anytime. Most of the time, he would only use about 20-30% of the jokes they’d collaborated on but despite the appearance of an off-the-cuff show Robin and his team put a lot of thought, practice, and analysis into his routines. In my opinion, it seems unlikely he stole routines, because of the amount of pride he took in his originality and how little he would gain from stealing their material at the time. Itzkoff writes a very balanced book - for every good review for a movie, he offers a negative one - even for the box office bombs. This provides a level of objectivity and reliability to the story of Robin’s life. It allows the readers to come to their own conclusions and decide for ourselves how we feel about Robin’s discretions.
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A key theme that Itzkoff highlights throughout the book is that Robin often hid who he really was from the world, his friends, and much of his family because of his shyness. The documentary also goes into detail of how Robin would sometimes hide behind his characters in order to make a connection with people. It seems like he was desperate to make a connection with people and comedy was the only way he could, because of how shy he was. Itzkoff’s book demonstrated just how much he craved to make people laugh and often when Robin was isolated from his friends or family, he would fall back on self-destructive habits and addictions. Even towards the end of his life, very few people knew even knew he was diagnosied with Parkinson's.
While I can only describe Itzkoff writing as a bit dry, I think it was a unique way of keeping the book objective and letting Robin's life story stand on its own. Robin's life is so immensely interesting that I think Itzkoff didn't need to use flowery language or many literary devices in create intrigue or drama. While this writing style was a little drier than I am normally used to, it was nice to get an objective look at how Robin developed characters we all love from the "Dead Poets Society," "Good Will Hunting," and "Good Morning Vietnam." I also loved seeing how truly unique the Genie in Aladdin actually was and I was surprised how Disney broke thecontract with Robin over on the merchandising of his character. By contrast, the documentary focuses on a single bit that Robin had early in his standup where he would narrate his brains functions as a script while doing standup - in effect, inviting the audience inside his mind. In comparison, the book is a factual chronicle of Robin's life, where the documentary is an analysis of what made him so genius and his impact on those around him. My biggest takeaway from those aspects of the book and documentary is that Robin was a true actor, in that he threw himself entirely into a role and committed fully.
Despite knowing how this book would end, I was still shocked by how emotional I got as I approached the end of the book. While reading about the aftermath of Robin's suicide, I found myself actually sobbing during the family’s memorials and remembrances. Itzkoff goes to great lengths to explain Robin’s struggle with what his doctors thought was Parkinson’s, how none of the medication was working, how it affected Robin’s mental faculties, and his ability to do comedy. Robin’s mind was one of the things he valued most in his life and once he could no longer think as quickly as he once could, it became more difficult for him to cope with his poor health. Despite the fact he was receiving help from specialists, psychiatrists, and others, Robin ending up taking his life. Upon conducting an autopsy, they found didn’t actually have Parkinson’s but rather Lew Body Dementia. Lew Body Dementia presents like Parkinson’s but is completely neurological and can cause altered states of mind, hallucinations, loss of memory and motor functions. In most people, Lew Body Dementia isn’t discovered until after their deaths because of how similar it presents to Parkinson's and how uncommon it is. Most of Robin’s family stated that they thought this altered state of mind is what drove Robin to take his life.
While Robin’s mental health and inner demons do have a big theme in this book, to me I was particularly stuck with the suspicion of elder abuse in regard to Robin’s third wife. As Itzkoff goes into detail about Robin’s illness and the lack of proper treatment he received in the beginning, it seemed to me that perhaps his third wife was neglecting Robin’s needs to the point that it could be considered elder abuse. When Robin was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s she encouraged him to go to a rehab facility rather than to see specialists to treat his Parkinson’s. She also had Robin sleep in a separate room down the hall from her, which kept him isolated and allowed him to stew in his night terrors and hallucinations. During his last days, she even seemed to keep him away from his kids and grandkids when they were the only things that made him happy. What solidifies this suspicion in my mind is the description of how Robin’s body was found. One morning a couple of friends came over in the morning as she left the house to go grocery shopping without having even checked on the still sleeping Robin before leaving, which seemed odd to me since she knew he was a very sick man. Later in the morning, the friends became worried that he wasn’t up or responding to their calls so they broke into his room and found that Robin had hung himself. To me, it seemed odd that she wouldn't have heard that down the hall. She also fought Robin’s kids for more money despite being left a pretty good trust. She even fought his kids for control over his collection prized toy soldiers. To me, her behavior seemed uncessarily neglectful, petty, and just left a poor taste in my mouth, and it made this part of the book harder to read.
Where the biography could be depressing at times, the documentary excels in providing levity to a dark situation. The documentary intercuts dramatic points in Robin’s life with his stand up and interviews with his friends and family, which allows for some comic relief and releases some tensions of serious situations. In discussing Robin’s death, the documentary has his oldest son Zak explain how he found catharsis, which by proxy helps the viewer find catharsis. However, often the documentary felt like it glossed over a lot about his life and I feel like I've learned more about Robin as a person through the book than I did from the documentary.
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To me this is a hard book to review, because it is objectively the most non-fiction book I’ve read recently and there is no real silver-lining or sweet moral to have from the fact someone was sick and took his own life. Itzkoff provides such an objective chronicle of Robin’s life as a human being and there is no point other than to explore who this fascinating person was. It would have been easier to say “if only he’d had the resources he needed,” but the truth is Robin did seek help for his addictions, his mental illness, and for his physical health problems. He had the money and resources he needed to thrive and he did for a very long time. When it comes to my suspicions of elder abuse, its hard to admit, but even if he’d had all the care and treatment he still would likely have suffered and passed around the same time, because of the lack of awareness of misdiagnosis. Throughout his life he had the privilege of knowing when he was getting out of control or sick and when to seek help, but his ultimate undoing seems to have a culmination of the lack of awareness of Lew Body Dimentia, poor timing, and a negative mindset. Additionally, even if he was diagnosed correctly, there is no cure, so that point would hav been moot regardless. For me it’s a hard review to write, because sometimes that’s just life and it justs sucks and there's nothing we can do about it.
Overall, while I felt slightly traumatized by this book, I think you could say that’s partly a testament to Itzkoff’s ability to tell Robin’s story effectively, especially since I still think about this book about a month later. Regardless, I have a hard time recommending this book to others because of the intense emotions I felt towards the end. I do feel glad having read it and understanding more about the nuances in Robin’s performances and his life as a human being. I would encourage you to read this book if you were a fan and or if you’re at all curious about his life. If this all sounds like too much for you, then let me recommend the HBO Documentary I mentioned throughout the review, Come Inside My Mind. Additionally you can never go wrong with Robin’s stand up or any of his great movies.