The first time that The New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff spoke with Robin Williams, he was surprised not by the iconic performer’s various accents but with how “his voice was so serene and quiet,” Itzkoff recalled.
And while Williams could make people forget where they were as he sprinted among impressions — a Shakespearean actor with a speech impediment; a hotdog; an extraterrestrial disappointed that he couldn’t find intelligent life on Earth — he also could lay himself bare, as when he talked with Itzkoff about his struggles with addiction.
“He wanted people to know what he had suffered, and he was very aware of how he had wronged people and hurt people when he started drinking again, and those kind of things struck me,” Itzkoff told the Jewish Light. “I think people in general don’t find it easy to talk about those kind of difficulties — and certainly not celebrities because they feel like they have a lot to lose.”
That contrast between the public and personal is part of what inspired Itzkoff to expand on his earlier reporting for the Times to write a 2018 biography, “Robin,” following Williams’ death from suicide in 2014.
Itzkoff will appear at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival on Nov. 9 and is a contributor to a forthcoming podcast, “Knowing: Robin Williams,” based on his book.
Williams grew up in a mansion in suburban Detroit, the son of a Ford Motor Company executive and homemaker. While his parents enjoyed a busy social life and moved the family frequently, Williams spent much of his time alone, playing with toy soldiers and listening to — and then trying to imitate — late-night comedians.
After one move left Williams especially lonely, he “made up my own little friends. ‘Can I come out and play?’ ‘I don’t know; I’ll have to ask myself,’” Williams recalled.
But he eventually found his scene. As a college student at Claremont McKenna College, he performed in an improv group, Karma Pie, in which, a fellow actor said, Williams “discovered that you could make something of this energy he had. And he had a lot of energy. I used to say I knew him for six months before I found out what his real voice was.”
Williams decided to pursue acting and received a full scholarship to the Drama Division of the Juilliard School in New York. Parts of the rest of Williams’ story are likely familiar to readers. Mork, an extraterrestrial in the late ‘70s sitcom “Mork and Mindy.” HBO comedy specials. Collaborations with Billy Crystal. Academy-Award nominations for “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Dead Poets Society” and “The Fisher King.” A win for “Good Will Hunting.” Legendary roles as “Mrs. Doubtfire” and as the Genie in “Aladdin.”
Still, his career had some lows — “Flubber” — and times getting high.
After winning an Oscar, Williams starred in a series of movies that received, at best, mixed reviews, including “Jakob the Liar,” about a Jewish shopkeeper, played by Williams, who during the Nazi occupation of Poland makes up tales that he said he’s heard via radio broadcast to try and raise the spirits of his fellow residents.
Itzkoff relays a review from Los Angeles Times critic Kennith Turan: “Robin Williams, enough already. Enough with the compassionate roles, the humanitarian roles, the caring and concerned roles. Enough with the good deeds, for pity’s sake. Remember being funny? Maybe you could try that again. How hard could it be?”
But a film producer said that at the time, Williams and his wife “were looking for things that tamed the beast and touched his soul.”
Williams on a number of occasions described himself as “an honorary Jew.” In his 2009 comedy special “Weapons of Self Destruction,” Williams tells a joke about being interviewed on German television.
“Why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?” the interviewer asks Williams.
“Did you ever think you killed all the funny people?” Williams replies.
“He made movies like ‘Jakob the Liar’ which unfortunately doesn’t measure up to a film like ‘Life is Beautiful,’ which came out just a year or two before and has a lot of similar ideas. I think that hurt it commercially, but I think it came from a very authentic place in Robin’s heart, that he really was angry at how Jews had suffered historically and really wanted to acknowledge that and commemorate it in some way,” said Itzkoff, who is Jewish.
The reporter interviewed Williams while he was on the Weapons comedy tour, which followed a stay in rehab after a relapse into drinking after 20 years of sobriety from a cocaine addiction.
Before Itzkoff joined him on the road, the two spoke on the phone and Williams said, “I hear you’re going to come out and play with us.”
“And that just really struck me — that remark, that that was how he thought of his own work and the idea of people accompanying him is something that he seemed opened to and tickled by,” Itzkoff said.
While Williams certainly had personal struggles — loneliness, addiction, three marriages, harsh critics — Itzkoff said he does not think Williams’ life fits neatly into the comedy as a mask for pain trope.
“Comedy was something he enjoyed doing and took a lot of pleasure in, and it took him a while — many, many years — to try to figure out how to put himself into his own routines,” said Itzkoff. “Even when I went on what ended up being his last tour with him, he was still talking about being mentored by Richard Pryor and how much he admired Pryor for being able to talk about himself so openly and honestly in his routines, and Robin still felt like he couldn’t quite do that.”
Still, after Williams killed himself, the world learned that he had struggled with depression, and his family learned that he had been misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and in fact had Lewy body disease, a debilitating form of dementia.
Regardless of whether Williams’ incomparable comedic ability assuaged his own pain, it certainly helped others.