Book Review: “Robin” by Dave Itzkoff

Robin by Dave Itzkoff
Henry Holt and Company 2018
Reviewed by Michael Armenia

More than a tome rich in biographic details, Dave ­­Itzkoff’s Robin is a vivid journey through the life and complex mind that reveals a Robin Williams that I never knew existed. The book presents a driven polymath and colossus of a human being that cannot be imagined solely by viewing his live comedy performances, his work in film and stage, or through the subjective viewpoints of his fans and critics alike. The book is not a mere chronology in the life of a comic; it is an intimate and heartfelt introduction to a heroically passionate and compassionate human being who lay behind a public persona.

Itzkoff tracks Robin’s entire life and covers enough family history enabling the reader to watch Robin grow up and relate to the experiences that shaped his development. From childhood antics, through Julliard, into the professional world of a comic and his rise into stardom, Itzkoff takes us through his relationships on and off stage; his lifelong friends like Christopher Reeve and Billy Crystal among many others, his three marriages and his children. You will find yourself empathizing with his personal and professional achievements as well as the struggles and pain that accompanied it; his battle with drugs and recovery from alcoholism, as well as the neurological disease which ultimately brought his life to a premature and tragic end.

Soon after Robin’s death, my son introduced me to the fact that Robin was an avid cyclist. He owned over 50 bicycles. There was probably a lot of trivia about him that wasn’t mainstream knowledge and Itzoff’s comprehensive tale opens up a real offstage world in which we may have never imagined Robin after his hours on stage or set. Consider his passion for collecting and playing with toy soldiers, a lifelong hobby, or his interest in science, history and people.

Manic and frenetic as an entertainer, he was also quiet and contemplative, absorbing everything around him, things he saw, news he read, or conversations he overheard. He was not just a genius comic with an uncanny memory, but a truly skilled alchemist who turned life’s experiences, be they comic or tragic, into entertainment. This was his way of connecting to people, all people, and seeking validation which for him was an addiction. The book shows this magical side of Robin Williams.

I was an immediate fan when Mork from Ork appeared first on Happy Days and then on his own show, Mork & Mindy, his first big break in Hollywood. I followed his career and thought him to be not just a brilliant comedian, but a first rate actor. I did agree with some critics that no matter the film role he played, he rarely transformed into the character; rather he portrayed Robin Williams playing as a character. Robin, himself, was such a unique and formidable character that it seemed this quality would everywhere overshadow his portrayals. You cannot take the ‘Robin Williams’ out of Robin Williams. In the end, however, those close to him saw the changes in his personality that led to unusual behavior and ultimately the taking of his own life. What he and those closest to him thought to be his suffering from Parkinson’s disease in his waning months turned out to be Lewy body dementia, as was determined post autopsy.

The book, Robin, was engaging and when I put it down it was merely because I was forced to do so by circumstances in my life. But, I swear I did not want to. By the end I had discovered more aspects to Robin and, despite having already seen and appreciated most of his work, I now look forward to reviewing the gamut of his films with a transformed perspective. I’m quite sure I will see his roles on another level; which means Itzkoff’s book is, at least for me, bringing Robin back to life for a second chance to reach me in ways I may have missed before. I like to think that others may feel the same; so, once you enjoy this fabulous book, may you then be further enriched by revisiting the works of Robin Williams, a truly great artist.

© 2018 Michael Armenia