A Comic Force of Nature: The Life - and Death - of Robin Williams

May 18, 12:30 PM

Death becomes Robin Williams. Nearly four years on from his tragic passing, what stands out in our collective memory is his career highlight reel: the aptly otherworldly comic energy that Williams brought to his breakthrough role on TV, as the alien Mork from Ork; his manic, free-associative work as a stand-up; and his sensitive film portrayals of damaged mentor figures in “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting.” Time has for the most part banished to footnote status the bad associations — the indiscriminately chosen late-period films, the lapses into maudlin messianism (lookin’ at you, “Patch Adams”), and the on-off struggles with drugs and drink. The Williams we carry with us is the twinkly blue-eyed sprite of “Nanu, nanu” and “O Captain! My Captain!”

Dave Itzkoff’s new biography of Williams, simply entitled “Robin,” is undertaken in this generous, appreciative spirit. Itzkoff, a culture reporter for The New York Times, is an unabashed fan, declaring in the book’s acknowledgments that Williams was one of his heroes growing up. Taking on this project did not leave the author disillusioned. Though “Robin,” at upwards of 500 pages, is exhaustively reported and doesn’t shy away from the abundant messiness in Williams’s personal life, it never crosses the threshold from critical assessment into bonkers character assassination, as Albert Goldman’s similarly epic “The Lives of John Lennon” did, nor does it marinate in sordidness, as “Wired,” Bob Woodward’s hit-and-run narcobiography of John Belushi, did. (And the opportunity was certainly there: Williams was one of the last people to see Belushi alive at the Chateau Marmont bungalow where the “Animal House” star died of a drug overdose in March 1982.)

What we get is a straightforward, chronological account of how an introverted wealthy kid — a Ford Motor Company executive’s son who grew up as a de facto only child, though he had two half siblings from his parents’ previous marriages — blossomed into a sui generis comic force of nature: a man who, as Itzkoff nicely puts it, “had admirers but no imitators; no one combined the precise set of talents he had in the same alchemical proportions.”

Anyone lucky enough to have experienced, in real time, Williams’s burst onto the scene in the late 1970s remembers what a bright beam of joy he was, jibber-jabbering in languages real and imagined on “Mork & Mindy,” grinning that mischievous grin of his on the cover of Dynamite magazine, a neon-green parakeet perched on his meaty forearm. The goofy exuberance of that era’s prime-time TV programming was an ideal fit artistically and aesthetically for Williams, with his rainbow suspenders, striped mime shirts and midlength dry-look hair.

Itzkoff does a good job of capturing this period’s madcap caprices. Williams’s Mork character initially appeared in an episode of ABC’s “Happy Days” as the show was losing its way — in the very season in which Fonzie literally jumped the shark. Conceptually, the episode, “My Favorite Orkan,” with its misbegotten alien-visitation plotline, was an abomination. But Williams, who had been scuffling on the San Francisco and Los Angeles comedy circuits, was a revelation. Garry Marshall, who created “Happy Days” and spoke with Itzkoff before his death in 2016, relates in the book how ABC was so eager for a new hit, and he was so eager to bottle Williams’s magic, that the network gamely bought Marshall’s off-the-cuff pitch for a new show, in which Mork would land in Boulder (because, at the time, Marshall happened to have a niece at the University of Colorado), and his co-lead would be an as-yet-undefined character named Mindy (because alliteration).

The sitcom, co-starring Pam Dawber, was an instant smash. But for all of the great work that lay in Williams’s future, the stars would never again align so perfectly in terms of right place, right time, right role and right vehicle. And that ate at Williams. Looming over the whole book, like a long winter shadow, ...