Biography visits darkness behind Williams’ laughs

There is but one real problem with Dave Itzkoff’s Robin, a well-researched and solidly written biography. That problem is: We know the ending, and it still hurts.

Few people have brought as much laughter to the world as Robin Williams did. Whether he was bursting out of an egg on Mork & Mindy, improvising his way through must-see comedy specials or, eventually, turning in Oscar-calibre performances on movie screens, he was, at the least, impossible to ignore. At best, there was nothing like him.

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Fans can relate to the feelings his friend Christopher Reeve had when he met Williams as a fellow drama student at the Juilliard School around 1973: “I’d never seen so much energy contained in one person. He was like an untied balloon that had been inflated and immediately released. I watched in awe as he virtually caromed off the walls of classrooms and hallways. To say that he was ‘on’ would be a major understatement.”

And oh, he was so much fun when he was on. My own youth is filled with memories of his appearances — his burst to stardom as a guest alien on Happy Days, the way An Evening With Robin Williams left me folded up on the floor, aching from laughter. Robin is filled with behind-the scenes stories about the mix of drive, hard work, luck and intellect that made such moments happen.

Details about Williams’ life and art emerge throughout, from his love of toy soldiers to the fact that his trademark rainbow suspenders were part of an outfit he wore when he performed as a mime in New York in his Juilliard days.

But Robin is a three-dimensional portrait, and Itzkoff balances the mirth with the unpleasant realities. We get details about Williams’ marital infidelities (serial), drug abuse (he was one of the last people to see John Belushi alive) and accusations that he stole material from other comics (he denied it; others say it’s complicated).

And here’s Mork & Mindy co-star Pam Dawber on her experience: “I had the grossest things done to me — by him. And I never took offence. I was flashed … bumped, grabbed. I think he probably did it to a lot of people … if you put it on paper, you would be appalled. But somehow, he had this guileless little thing he would do — those little sparkly eyes. … And somehow, he could get away with it. It was the ’70s, after all.”

The fact that Dawber says she was not bothered by his behaviour and speaks lovingly about him shows Williams’ ability to enthrall those around him even as he remained a mysterious man-child. “Everyone got a piece of him and a fortunate few got quite a lot of him, but no one got all of him,” Itzkoff writes.

Itzkoff probes the past to find the roots of Williams’ personality. His upbringing was comfortable, but his father was distant and his mother unpredictable. As a boy, in an eight-year-span, he attended six schools. “I started telling jokes in the seventh grade as a way to keep from getting the [expletive] kicked out of me.” He struggled at Juilliard and often lacked enough money for food.

Following his career highs and many lows (remember Popeye?), Itzkoff reveals a serious actor who would prepare exactingly, “a curious craftsman who was eager to put in the hours.” Yet even after three Academy Award nominations and one win, he was insecure, his half-brother remembers. “He said: ‘I just had a bunch of breaks.’ And that was his attitude: I don’t know why I’m so famous. I don’t do anything particularly special. He actually thought that.”

The mix of frailty, flaws and brilliance captured in Robin might best be described as … human. Williams’ actions can be puzzling or maddening, but, like Dawber, you still want to be around him. Maybe give him a hug.

Which is why it’s so painful to know that the story will end in suicide in 2014. The coroner found evidence of Lewy body dementia, which was not diagnosed while Williams was alive but which can bring Parkinson’s-like symptoms, depression and hallucinations.

The ending doesn’t eliminate the laughter that comes before, but it casts it all in shadow.

The fact that comedy has a dark side was probably something Williams understood. He had, after all, idolized and then worked with Jonathan Winters, another brilliant improviser, who, Itzkoff notes, spoke openly of his struggles with bipolar disorder and carried in his wallet a Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation: “Humour is the mistress of sorrow.”

Or, as critic Bilge Ebiri noted on the day Williams died: “You start off as a kid seeing Robin Williams as a funny man. You come of age realizing many of his roles are about keeping darkness at bay.”

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