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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About the Author
Dave Itzkoff is the author of Mad as Hell, Cocaine’s Son, and Lads. He is a culture reporter at The New York Times, where he writes regularly about film, television, theater, music, and popular culture. He previously worked at Spin, Maxim, and Details, and his work has appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair, Wired, and other publications. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The story brings Robin Williams closer to earth and reminds us that although a great mind and ready to slice the air with wit and comedy, the man was human in a devastating way. In the end, she'd a tear and be grateful we shared space in this world with this man. Not enough to say you knew the man, but enough to say "Goodnight brother"
Just loved this book
I'll never forget the day I heard the news that Robin Williams had died. A child of the 1990's, I was first introduced to his work in Disney's Aladdin. The VHS of that movie played on a loop for several years at my house. As I grew older, I discovered William's other classics like Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning Vietnam, and Dead Poet's Society. There was something about the magnetism and unabashed humanity in William's performances that you couldn't look away from. Hearing the tragic news that he had ended his own life seemed incomprehensible. This man who was such a blazing force within American popular culture was suddenly gone. When the publisher offered me a copy of New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff's biography of Robin Williams, I jumped on the chance to read more about his fascinating life. Like most biographies, Itzkoff begins Robin William's story at the beginning. A young Robin lived in a household of financial and cultural privilege, but also one of isolation. His family moved around a lot, and as an only child, Robin spent hours alone. He collected miniature soldiers. Young Robin would spend his days reenacting famous battles and providing the various voices to his characters. During these formative years, he discovered the relationship between comedy and emotional connection. The foundation of his relationship with his parents was making them laugh. Into adulthood, Robin had difficulty following the path of his father's expectations. A corporate job just wasn't going to work for Robin. He found solace in the theater department of his college and soon began to dabble in improvisation. In improv, Robin could let loose and allow his vast imagination to take control. When he burst onto the Los Angeles standup comedy scene, everyone took notice. Other comics related his style to turning on a faucet. When Robin got on stage, the faucet turned on, and a stream of invention flowed out. His time at the comedy clubs turned into a guest appearance on Happy Days. When ABC was looking for a new sitcom, executives created the spin off Mork and Mindy, and a star was born. Throughout Robin, Dave Itzkoff provides an intimate and illuminating portrait of Robin Williams. He interviewed countless people who were involved with Williams both personally and professionally, giving this book a full scale look at the man through their eyes. We read about Robin's elation at fatherhood, marriage, and winning the Academy Award. Equally featured are the darker times of addiction, divorce, and costly career missteps. The last section of the book deal with the months leading up to Robin's death. The reporting on this tragic end is the most complete and thorough telling that I've read. Itzkoff peels back the layers of Robin's public persona and reveals the raw and intricate details that made this fascinating man function. Whether you are a fan of Robin William's work, interested in addiction or mental health, or are just looking for a good read, Robin by Dave Itzkoff is certainly a biography worth spending some time with.
Like Robin Williams himself this book gave me so much joy. It was so fun to kind of feel Robin Williams’ humor alive again and to learn so much about his upbringing and career trajectory. I truly appreciate that this book celebrates the way Robin lived moreso than focusing on the way he died. The chapters on Robin’s death had me sobbing. I can relate to that level of depression to the core of my soul and I would never want another human being to feel that way. I also appreciate the author’s work to shed light on the discovery that Robin had Lewy body dementia. I’d never heard of that disease until I read this book and have since learned quite a bit about it. I hope Robin is now healthy and at peace. I listened to the audiobook and have to say it made it more enjoyable than simply reading the book would’ve been. The narrator does a fairly good job of impersonating Robin, which adds to the sense of his humor coming back to life.
This was a very complete look at Robin William’s life. It was overwhelming at times as I listened to this book as the narrator talked about everything Robin had done in his lifetime. I hadn’t really grasped how much Robin had accomplished in his life and the impact he had made until I listened to this book. I can’t even begin to describe everything this book entails. To me, this book was a walk-through memory lane as I listened to the narrator talk about Robin and his contributions to society. There were times I wished Robin would have just said no as he was offered job-after-job as everyone wanted a piece of Robin. Robin seemed to live, to be seen. Robin was a people person and he liked to make people happy. Robin had many roles and although they were not all successful, he still kept saying yes, when people wanted him. Robin put his own mark on the roles that he was asked to play. It was hard for Robin to follow the written scripts that were expected of him, so he customized them to fit his needs. After listening to this book, I have to agree that I felt that Robin had a hard time turning himself off, Robin was always on-stage. He was always entertaining. As the narrator spoke of all the shows that Robin starred in, I was filled with emotion. I remembered watching Robin on television, just seeing him and his energy fill up the screen, put a smile on my face. I still can’t get some of the jiggles out of my mind as the narrator brought them all back to me and my favorite episodes right with them. The book talks about many of Robin’s concerts and movies so I felt the need to rent some of Robin’s videos and stand-up concerts, ones that I hadn’t seen yet. I really enjoyed the movies but the concerts bothered me. In the two stand-up videos that I rented, Robin was too jumpy and edgy for me. It made me anxious and nervous to watch them so I didn’t finish them. I understood what the author had spoke about in his book. I listened to this book in my car and I feel this is an excellent, thorough account of Robin’s life. Humorous at times, insightful and informative, this novel is also sad as I found myself with tears streaming down my face as the author tackles Robin’s death. From the media, to his family, to the medical team, the author gives me the complete story which wasn’t easy to hear. There’s more to the novel as the family comes to grips with the loss of the man who was known as Robin. It’s a long book but I enjoyed the journey. Thanks, Robin, for being a part of my life, you will never be forgotten.
Long but AMAZING! Loved every page of this book. In depth and just downright awesome! If you like Robin Williams, this is a must read. Takes you through the intimate details of his life, and allows the reader to understand why he was who he was, and why he left this world on his own terms. Such an amazing talent taken by such a horrible disease! We can only hope he is at peace now!
The recent sad news that Robin Williams had taken his own life drew me to read this comprehensive account of his life. How such a talented man, so beloved by his multitude of fans, could be so troubled is hard to fathom. Reading this book helped me to understand a bit more about this complicated man, and what motivated him, although its still hard to accept that a man who brought so much happiness to so many people struggled so hard to be happy himself. The majority of the book described in detail his life from childhood on. And quite an extraordinary life it was. He started out as the son of a wealthy family in the outskirts of Detroit, often left alone for long periods to play by himself. During this time, he began developing his skills of imagining different people and scenes and acting them out. As his career as a comedian began to take off, he struggled to adapt to continually changing circumstances, harming some of his most important relationships in the process, and fighting against various addictions. His strong desire to be respected as a serious actor was often frustrated as he made film after film without the accolades he longed for. He was recognized for a few films, but there is a sense that this was not enough and a lifelong disappointment. Recommended for fans of Robin Williams, this is a long and comprehensive account of his entire life that will bring you many insights into this unique and talented man. Note: I received an advance copy of the ebook from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
This book is over 400 pages, and except for the last 40 of them there is nothing new to any fan of Robin Williams. The author did a lot of research if the notes at the book's end are to be believed, but fans of Robin's already knew most of what fills the first 400 pages. The only thing that is new is a discussion of the illness that finally brought Robin to end his life. Over and over again the author reminds us of what a special person Robin was as if we didn't already know that. I expected more, and didn't get it. I was disappointed to say the least.