A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITOR'S CHOICE
A SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
A VULTURE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
"A generous, appreciative biography of Robin Williams by a New York Times culture reporter. The author, who had access to Williams and members of the comedian’s family, is an unabashed fan but doesn’t shy away from the abundant messiness in his subject’s personal life."The New York Times Book Review
From New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff, the definitive biography of Robin Williams – a compelling portrait of one of America’s most beloved and misunderstood entertainers.
From his rapid-fire stand-up comedy riffs to his breakout role in Mork & Mindy and his Academy Award-winning performance in Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams was a singularly innovative and beloved entertainer. He often came across as a man possessed, holding forth on culture and politics while mixing in personal revelations – all with mercurial, tongue-twisting intensity as he inhabited and shed one character after another with lightning speed.
But as Dave Itzkoff shows in this revelatory biography, Williams’s comic brilliance masked a deep well of conflicting emotions and self-doubt, which he drew upon in his comedy and in celebrated films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; The Fisher King; Aladdin; and Mrs. Doubtfire, where he showcased his limitless gift for improvisation to bring to life a wide range of characters. And in Good Will Hunting he gave an intense and controlled performance that revealed the true range of his talent.
Itzkoff also shows how Williams struggled mightily with addiction and depression – topics he discussed openly while performing and during interviews – and with a debilitating condition at the end of his life that affected him in ways his fans never knew. Drawing on more than a hundred original interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, as well as extensive archival research, Robin is a fresh and original look at a man whose work touched so many lives.
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PUNKY AND LORD POSH
The house, on the northeast corner of Opdyke Road and Woodward Avenue, was unlike any other. The giant old mansion, nearly seventy years old, stood lovely and lopsided in its asymmetrical design, with its roofs and lofts of varying heights and chimneys that reached into the sky. Here in Bloomfield Hills, a wealthy northern suburb of Detroit where top executives of the automobile industry spent their evenings and weekends in rustic comfort with their wives, children, and servants, the unusual dwelling was more home than a family needed. It sat on a country estate that spanned some thirty acres of former farmland, with a gatehouse, gardens, barns, and a spacious garage that could hold more than two dozen cars. It even had its own name, Stonycroft, a harsh and daunting moniker for a tranquil, out-of-the-way setting. There were few neighbors for miles around and no distractions to disturb its residents from their serenity, aside from the occasional slicing at golf balls that could be heard from a nearby country club. More often, the chilly residence echoed with its own emptiness while its current tenants left many of its forty rooms mostly unoccupied, unheated, and unused. But on its highest floor, spanning the vast width of the house, was an attic. And in the attic there was a boy.
The sprawling manor was one of several places where Robin Williams had lived before he became a teenager, just the latest stop in an itinerant childhood spent shuttled between Michigan and Illinois as his father worked his way up the corporate ladder at the Ford Motor Company, and there would be more destinations on this lifelong tour, each of which would be his home for a time, but never for good. He and his parents would leave Stonycroft after a few years, but in a sense Robin would never leave its attic. It was his exclusive domain, where he was left by himself for hours at a time. Given this freedom, he shared the space with fictional friends he created in his mind; he made it the staging ground for the massive battles he would wage with his collection of toy soldiers, a battalion that ran thousands of men deep and for each of whom he had created a unique personality and voice. He used it as his private rehearsal space, where he taught himself to masterfully mimic the routines of favorite stand-up comedians he had preserved by holding a tape recorder up to his television set.
The attic was the playground of his mind, where he could stretch his imagination to its maximum dimensions. It was his sanctuary from the world and his vantage point above it — a place where he could observe and absorb it all, at a height where nobody could touch him. It was also a terribly lonely refuge, and its sense of solitude followed him beyond its walls. He emerged from the room with a sense of himself that, to outsiders, could seem inscrutable and upside down. In a room full of strangers, it compelled him to keep everyone entertained and happy, and it left him feeling utterly deserted in the company of the people who loved him most.
These fundamental attributes had been handed down to Robin by his parents long before the Williams family arrived at Stonycroft. His father, Rob, was a fastidious, plainspoken, and practical Midwesterner, a war hero who believed in the value of a hard day's work. His approval, awarded fitfully and begrudgingly, would elude Robin well into his adulthood. His mother, Laurie, was in many ways her husband's opposite: she was a lighthearted, fanciful, and free-spirited Southerner, adoring of Robin and attentive to him. But with her frivolity came unpredictability, and her affirmation, which was just as vital to Robin, could prove just as hard to come by.
On some level, Robin understood that he was the perfect blend of his parents, two drastically different people who, after earlier missteps, had found their lifelong matches in each another. As he later acknowledged, "The craziness comes from my mother. The discipline comes from my dad."
But in the melding of their traits, behaviors, quirks, and shortcomings, they laid the foundation for a son whose life was filled with paradoxes and incongruities. As an adult, Robin would describe himself as having been an overweight child, only to have Laurie knock down this disparaging self-analysis, sometimes straight to his face and with photographic evidence to the contrary. He grew up aware of the luxury he was raised in, and even made humorous grist of it — "Daddy, Daddy, come upstairs," he would later joke, "Biffy and Muffy aren't happy. We have only seven servants. All the other families have ten" — yet when pressed on the subject, he could not always bring himself to admit his family was wealthy. He would describe himself as an only child, yet he had two half brothers, both of whom he loved and received as full siblings. He would call himself isolated, even though he had friends at every school he attended and in every city where he was raised.
For all the loneliness he experienced as a child, and the unsettled emotions that came from a youth spent in a state of perpetual transition — in an eight-year span, he attended six different schools — Robin concluded that his upbringing had been blithely uncomplicated. "It's the contradiction of what people say about comedy and pain," he would say many years later. "My childhood was really nice." As he had spent his whole life learning, he could define himself however he wanted, picking and choosing the pieces of his history that he found useful while discarding the rest. Not all contradictions had to be detrimental. Some of them could even be productive.
In a portrait photograph of Rob and Laurie Williams taken early in their relationship, the two make for a deeply contrasting pair: "Picture George Burns and Gracie Allen looking like Alastair Cooke and Audrey Hepburn and that's what my parents are like," Robin later said. His father's facial features are handsome but sharp, severe, and angular; he is clean-shaven and his dark hair is close-cropped and precisely set in place. His mother's face is round, warm, and inviting, and even in this black-and-white image, the soft sparkle of her blue eyes is unmistakable. Her dimpled smile reveals a gleaming top row of teeth; his pleasant expression is thin and tight-lipped, giving away nothing. They are clasping each other, his arm wrapped around hers just below the lower border of the image, and for all that sets them apart, there is also plainly love between them.
Robert Fitz-Gerrell Williams, who was known as Rob, came from a background of privilege and had been taught the repeated lesson that adversity could be overcome through labor and perseverance. He was born in 1906 into a well-to-do family in Evansville, Indiana, where his father, Robert Ross Williams, owned strip mines and lumber companies. The younger Rob had a covert streak of playfulness, and he sometimes teasingly told people that his mother was an Indian princess. While he studied at prep school, his father would go on what Laurie would later describe as "periodic toots," taking a suite at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago where he'd grab a chorus girl or two and "just whoop it up." Sometimes it fell to Rob, when he was as young as twelve, to travel the three hundred miles north to Chicago with the family's black servant, get his father sober, and bring him home. Rob later enrolled at Kenyon College in Ohio, but when a stock market crash in 1926 nearly wiped out the Williams family business, he had to quit school, come back to Evansville, and take a job as a junior engineer in the mines. A few years later, when Robert Ross became gravely ill, Rob unquestioningly offered his blood for transfusions, until his father finally pulled the needle out of his own arm and told his son, "I don't want you to do this anymore — you've done enough." Robert Ross died a short time later.
Rob and his first wife, Susan Todd Laurent, had a son in 1938; they named him Robert Todd Williams, and he would be known as Todd. But by 1941, Rob and Susan had separated, and Susan took Todd to live with her in Kentucky. Rob was working for Ford as a plant manager when the United States entered into World War II, and he enlisted in the navy, eventually becoming a lieutenant commander on the USS Ticonderoga, an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. On January 21, 1945, while at sea near the Philippines, the Ticonderoga came under attack from Japanese kamikaze pilots, one of whom crashed through the carrier's flight deck and managed to detonate a bomb in its hangar, destroying several stowed planes. More than one hundred sailors were killed or injured in the attack, and Rob was wounded when he leapt in front of his captain to protect him from an explosion, taking shrapnel in his back, legs, and arm.
Rob could not be redeployed in combat because of his injuries, so he reluctantly took a government desk job in Washington. But he soon returned to work at Ford, gaining a management position and eventually ascending to national sales for the company's Lincoln Mercury division in Chicago. It was there in 1949 that Rob met an effervescent young divorcée named Laurie McLaurin Janin on a blind double date at an upscale restaurant. Laurie arrived with Rob's receptionist while Rob showed up with the man who was supposed to be Laurie's date, but it was very quickly clear that Rob and Laurie had eyes for each other. Rob told his receptionist to take some wild duck from the restaurant's freezer and go home, while Laurie similarly dispatched her intended suitor. "I figured, hey, let the fun begin," she said.
Laurie was attracted to Rob physically, drawn in by his confidence and captivated by his intense, understated charisma. As she described him:
He could walk in a room, anywhere, and the minute he walked in, people were at attention. We could go to any restaurant, anywhere, the finest. The maître d' would come and up and say, "Sir, do you have a reservation?"
He would say very politely, "No, I don't."
"Right this way."
"He definitely had 'IT,'" Laurie said of Rob. "With a capital I and a capital T." He also had a darker side that was activated by alcohol. When the couple miscommunicated over a canceled date and Rob thought he had been stood up, he was devastated. He told Laurie, "I went out and got so drunk." She responded, "What are you talking about? You had drinks every night." Perhaps the biggest fight they had, Laurie said, occurred when they were drinking at a restaurant and Rob leaned across the table to tell her: "You know what? My imagination is better than yours."
"Oh man," Laurie recalled. "The stuff hit the fan."
Laurie was born in 1922 in Jackson, Mississippi, and raised in New Orleans, where she was immersed in the city's epicurean culture and the lively parties thrown by her parents. Her parents' marriage was mildly scandalous in the largely Catholic Crescent City: her father, Robert Armistead Janin, was Catholic, but her mother, Laura McLaurin, was Protestant. The couple had separated by the time their daughter was five years old and divorced soon after, leaving Laurie to live with her even more ostracized mother.
The McLaurin family was descended from the MacLaren clan of Scotland, and Laurie's great-grandfather Anselm Joseph McLaurin had served as a captain in the Confederate army during the Civil War and was later elected a US senator and governor of Mississippi. But Laurie was essentially cut off from this aristocratic heritage when her mother remarried in 1929; her new husband, Robert Forest Smith, adopted Laurie and nicknamed her "Punky," to her dismay. "Doors that would have been open to Laurie McLaurin Janin were slammed shut to Punky Smith," said Laurie, who would nevertheless take ownership of the nickname and ask friends to call her Punky in her adult years.
Looking back on her childhood, she would recognize a strain of alcoholism that ran through her family, which made her mother volatile and her own life unstable. "Growing up," Laurie said, "I never knew when I woke up each day whether I was going to be Queen of the May or Little Orphan Annie." Her natural father, too, had a drinking problem: "It made me realize that we cannot drink," she said. "There were people in the family who rose to great heights and then BOOM! just like that, and it was from alcohol. If you can't handle it, just stay away from it. ... It's poison for our family."
When the Great Depression nearly wiped out Robert Smith, it led to more than a decade of wandering for Laurie's family, a time they spent shifting back and forth between New Orleans and Crowley, Louisiana. At one point, her stepfather considered running an ice-cream business, and, "for the first time in my life," she said, "we didn't have a colored servant. I thought that was the end." In her late teens, she moved to Pass Christian, Mississippi, then back again to New Orleans, and in 1941 Laurie took up residence in a boarding house there while her parents went on to Mobile, Alabama. For a time she performed as an actress in the French Quarter. At the start of World War II, she was working for the Weather Bureau in New Orleans when the Pentagon inquired if she spoke French. "Fluently," she lied, and she was transferred to an office in Georgetown. There in Washington she met a young naval officer named William Musgrave, and the two were married shortly before he shipped out to the South Pacific.
Now known as Laurie McLaurin Musgrave, she spent part of the war living in San Francisco, taking lithography classes and crossing paths (by her account) with the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Henry Miller. When the war ended and William Musgrave returned home, the couple lived briefly in San Diego and then moved to Chicago, where he found work as an electrical engineer. In 1947, Laurie gave birth to their son, Laurin McLaurin Musgrave, who would later be known as McLaurin. In his infancy, he developed pneumonia, and Laurie was fearful of the effects that a worsening Chicago winter might have on the child. So she sent the baby McLaurin to live with her mother and stepfather in Mobile. Laurie and William separated and divorced soon after. She was on her own, but she was unbowed and excited for all that lay ahead of her. "I just married too young," Laurie would later explain. "I just thought I wanted to go out and try my wings."
Two years later, Laurie was working as a model for the Marshall Field's department store when she met Rob Williams, who touched her nonconformist's heart to such a degree that she bought him an engagement ring and proposed that they get married. On June 3, 1950, they were wed by a justice of the peace in Omaha, Nebraska, and they took their honeymoon at a fishing lodge in Hayward, Wisconsin. Afterward, Laurie told Rob, "That was the lousiest honeymoon I ever had."
The newlyweds moved into an apartment on Chicago's north side, and on July 21, 1951, Laurie delivered their son, Robin McLaurin Williams, at Wesley Memorial Hospital. Though Robin would later joke that his mother's concept of natural childbirth was "giving birth without makeup," Laurie recalled his arrival as an easy one, nearly occurring in the hospital's lobby. While the medical staff there peppered her with questions and requests for personal information, Rob scolded them: "Get this woman to a room. She's going to have the baby right here." As Laurie told the story, "They finally got me up to the room, gave me a shot, and, when I woke up, they said, 'You have a wonderful baby boy.' That was it."
Unlike the difficulty Laurie had experienced following the birth of her son McLaurin, she had no such trouble with Robin, who was joyous and healthy, and who was raised principally by a black nurse named Susie. (Decades later, Laurie would still unhesitatingly describe Susie as "colored.") "She wouldn't put up with anything — wouldn't take it," Robin later said of Susie. "If you try and go, 'I won't do that.' 'Mm-hmm, I think you will. I think you'll get your sweet self UPSTAIRS!' She was a very strong force."
Shortly after Robin's birth, the family moved from Chicago to a rented house in Lake Forest, a suburb about thirty miles north of the city, beginning a migratory pattern for the Williamses that would persist for many years. Rob, an astute negotiator, would usually find the family's homes, while Laurie was responsible for decorating and entertaining; these were crucial skills while Rob worked for Ford, which still considered itself a family business whose executives expected to be invited to frequent dinner parties.
After spending her days shopping and attending society luncheons, Laurie approached these formal, sit-down dinners as exciting opportunities to exercise her creativity. They required the careful planning of menus and seating charts, and the hiring of large numbers of household staff, including a seamstress who would sew fresh napkins and tablecloths for each gathering. Laurie was immersed in these events while Rob was consumed by his work; the family almost never took vacations, and the only indulgences Rob permitted himself were an occasional round of golf or a fishing trip. It seemed not to leave them very much time for child rearing at all.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Robin"
Copyright © 2018 Dave Itzkoff.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part One: Comet
1. Punky and Lord Posh 7
2. The Escape Artist 28
3. Legalized Insanity 56
4. My Favorite Orkan 84
5. The Robin Williams Show 107
6. Mork Blows His Cork 126
7. Bungalow 3 146
Part Two: Star
8. Mr. Happy 167
9.Tough Love 187
10. Gooooooood Morning 205
11. O Captain! 224
12. Dreamlike Parts, with Phantasmagoric Associations 244
13. Father Man 264
14. Hot Flashes 282
Part Three: Supernova
15. The Golden Dude 305
16. Fade to White 325
17. Weapons of Self Destruction 346
18. The Tiger in Winter 365
19. Gone 385
20. Everything Will Be Okay 406
21. The Big Room 423
Robin Williams: Selected Works and Awards 441