Monday, February 4, 2019

Robin by Dave Itzkoff

I recently read Robin by Dave Itzkoff, which was published in May 2018.

I think anyone who first saw Robin Williams doing standup during the 1970s or that first year of Mork and Mindy will never forget the impact he made. A rapid fire mouth & imagination, I laughed so hard. I took pride in the fact that he spent a lot of time in Northern California (high school in Marin, theater & stand up in San Francisco). I’ve always wondered about his marriages, friendships, career ups & downs. This book has all these details. Knowing how Williams took his own life, you see some warning signs with his substance abuse and problems with depression.

I really connected with the description of Robin's childhood / early teen years where he was mostly isolated in his room, playing with his collection of toy soldiers & figures (for me, comics and science fiction), watching comedy on TV and rehearsing bits on his own. One of my fond memories of my father was watching Jonathan Winters on TV and both of us laughing at Winters crazy humor and impressions. Robin Williams was watching those same shows and getting inspired to turn into a younger even more manic version of Jonathan Winters. And then, about to enter his later teens, Robin moves to California with his family and encounters a different type of world, just like I had done with my family.

Quite a few people that Itzkoff interviewed in the book felt that Robin kept his humor / impersonations as a way to distance himself from other people. I don't think that is a unique situation, many standup comics and people in the entertainment business display the same characteristics. The biography of Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin reported that he was much the same way.

You get a real sense of what it was like for Robin to work in Los Angeles during the Mork and Mindy years, working comedy clubs at night after the TV show, staying up until dawn partying in various adjacent towns, fueled by cocaine. The movie Popeye was supposed to launch Robin's movie career and it was a failure, a terrible mismatch directed by Robert Altman. He didn't really have a smash movie hit until Good Morning Vietnam in 1987, but along the way he did interesting work in films like World According to Garp, Awakenings and Moscow on the Hudson. After 1987 it seemed like Robin could do no wrong until the infamously bad Patch Adams movie in 1998.

The last few chapters are heartbreaking. On and off again bouts with alcohol and drugs took a toll on Robin's second marriage. He had a third wife and was happy for a while until Lewy Body disease affected him (which they initially thought was Parkinsons). Robin took a job on a TV sitcom, The Crazy Ones, mostly for the money, but it wasn't successful.  I couldn't help but remember the movie Robin made with Bob Goldwaith called World's Greatest Dad. His son in that movie hangs himself in his room, much like Williams himself would do later on. 

The book is not all sad, there were so many brilliant points in Robin's career and family life. If you're a fan like I was you will enjoy reading it. Nuff said.

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