Pretty much everyone born before 2010 has their own version of Robin Williams. The first time I really encountered Robin Williams was as the voice of the genie in Aladdin, a manic performance that took maximum advantage of animation as an art form. For many, Aladdin simply served as another illustration of the rapid-fire genius of a comedian they had known for decades; for me, it was an introduction to his work.
But soon after Aladdin, Williams basically sank into the schlock mines, never to be seen again. His movies arrived more and more quickly, and they didn't make the most of Williams's talent: Jack, Flubber, What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams. By the time I was in my 20s, Robin Williams's name was synonymous with overly sentimental, poorly produced dreck. In the middle of all the saccharine overdoses, a series of badly made dark comedies (Death to Smoochy, Christopher Nolan's unremarkable Insomnia) couldn't resurrect his career.
By the time he died, every generation had been introduced to a different Williams, and none of those generational portraits really amounted to a realistic portrayal of the man. Williams's intellect moved too fast to be captured, and his career was too long and too varied to triangulate an honest portrait of the artist.
New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff's exhaustive biography of Williams, titled Robin, is an attempt to reconcile all those different Williamses into a single unified theory. Compiled from thousands of hours of interviews and a lifetime of research, Robin clearly represents Itzkoff's shot at the authoritative text on one of the most important actors of the 20th century. It's mostly successful.
Williams was a generational talent: audiences found his mercurial energy to be wildly compelling. From generic sitcom fare like Mork and Mindy to his raunchier standup sets to family films to Oscarbait cinema, the American public seemed perfectly willing to follow Williams anywhere. He could barely contain himself, spinning characters out of nothing and inventing jokes at every opportunity. He had the aura of that kid in class who just couldn't sit still, only you never actually got tired of Robin Williams. You always wanted to see what he'd think of next.
Itzkoff unveils a couple of major secrets in Robin, including a climactic revelation of Williams's physical state at the time of his death that I won't spoil here. There's not too much salacious gossip, although I did find the revelation that Williams was wracked with painful jealousy when Jim Carrey burst onto the scene to be a little surprising. The thought of Williams wasting an iota of concern on what Carrey was going to do next seems almost impossible to consider, like Serena Williams whining to friends about a promising junior high tennis player.
Williams's life resists the classic Campbellian hero's narrative journey, but Itzkoff manages to keep things interesting. Born into a comfortable upper-class family and with very little early drama, Williams set out to become an actor. Eventually, through a series of flukes that saw the Mork character on a bad episode of Happy Days handed to him as a last resort, Williams became a superstar overnight.
What follows is familiar stuff to any viewer of VH1-style celebrity biographies: cocaine abuse and a messy divorce and creative bankruptcy all follow Williams's meteoric rise to fame. Williams feels increasingly trapped by his celebrity, although he also finds himself obsessively worrying that one day he'll become a nobody again. The only thing worse than being swarmed by people who love you, apparently, is not being swarmed by anybody at all.
Itzkoff keeps the story moving along while including as much primary source material as possible. Only in the last third of the book, when Itzkoff details the making of a truly terrible string of Williams's worst films, does the book come close to feeling perfunctory. (Nobody on earth could make the making of RV interesting.) Itzkoff addresses the uncomfortable racial caricatures that Williams would employ in his act, and he discusses the sexist comedy tropes that feel entirely different in the age of #metoo.
All along the way, you can feel Itzkoff's warmth for his subject shining through. He's clearly watched every performance of Williams's that he could find, and read every interview he could track down, and like the best biographers, he's fallen a little bit in love with Williams. His Williams is a fundamentally decent man who occasionally falls prey to his flaws but who eventually comes out the other side a better person. Itzkoff believes in Williams's genius, and he explains it as clearly and as passionately as he can.
For as long as every generation weaned on Mrs. Doubtfire and Jumanji and Mork and Mindy walked the earth, Williams is guaranteed immortality. Itzkoff goes these generations one further: he cements Williams's place in the Hollywood canon for as long as there's a Hollywood to canonize.
In an early draft of this review, I was lamenting the fact that every generation has its own mercurial, too-fast-to-contain comedic genius save the generation that we live in right now. I wondered where our Robin Williams, our Jonathan Winters, our Groucho Marx had gone. Jim Carrey for a time seemed ready to usurp the role from Williams, but then Carrey flamed out and now he's a caricature of himself.
Of course, then I immediately realized my mistake. Our generation absolutely has a too-powerful-to-contain comedic genius. Her name is Kate McKinnon, and I'm absolutely comfortable making the claim that if she were a man, she'd have her own cinematic comedy franchise or six by now.
It's probably for the best that McKinnon's celebrity hasn't exploded the way Williams did. She deserves to have her own thoughtful career, rather than an emulation of what came before. And as Robin proves, that kind of monumental fame comes with its own price. For Williams, it temporarily removed the decent and caring man at his core for a few years, replacing him with a raving coke-fueled drunk. That's the kind of sacrifice you don't ever really get over — not even if you're the funniest man alive.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant