"But who was he?" asks Dave Itzkoff regarding his subject, Robin Williams. That question serves as the impetus for Itzkoffs latest book, Robin (544 pgs., Henry Holt and Co., 2018, $30), an extensive biography of the late actor and comedian.
With someone like Williams, who starred in such numerous and distinctive roles in films like Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Good Will Hunting, and who spent years performing on stage and on TV, it is a complicated endeavour to arduously parse through the layers and characters to uncover the man behind them. But Itzkoff, a cultural reporter for The New York Times, presents an admiring and objective portrait of the comedian, particularly excelling in his depiction of Williams when he was a nobody just discovering his own talent and technique (before he quickly turned into a brilliant somebody).
Itzkoff begins with Williams's childhood. Born July 21, 1951, the boyish Robin had a nomadic, but wealthy upbringing in Michigan and Illinois, raised by his socialite mother and a father who swiftly climbed the Ford Motorways Company corporate ladder. Growing up for some time in a giant mansion outside of Detroit, Williams spent his days in the attic, "where he taught himself to masterfully mimic the routines of favorite standup comedians he had preserved by holding a tape recorder up to his television set," writes Itzkoff.
Early idols for Williams were comedians, including the deadpan Jonathan Winters and the brash Richard Pryor. Years later, Williams would remember these favorite late-night jokesters as he went through his own four-minute set, rapidly alternating between his various comedic personas, including the "eager-to-please Soviet stand-up comic" and the "stoned-out Superman," in an effort to land laughs.
Williams moved to California with his parents as a teenager, attended Claremont Men's College, and then headed east to spend three years at New York City's Juilliard learning to act. He returned to the West Coast in 1976 to live in the Bay Area. It was there, in San Francisco, that Williams developed his "riffing style" of comedy performance.
"As opposed to organized stand-up routines that proceeded in a logical sequence, this anarchic approach meant that any impulse could be explored at the moment that it occurred without the need for a setup or context and it could be tossed aside as soon as the next good idea popped up," Itzkoff explains.
In any good biography, the author manages to not only...