(From the film “Good Morning Vietnam”)
For years I showed the Robin Williams’ film “Good Morning Vietnam” to my history classes. The movie reflected Williams’ genius, empathy, and commentary pertaining to a conflict that tore America apart. I introduced the film because I wanted students to get a feel for a different aspect of the war which the character of Adrian Cronauer apply portrayed. Williams’ is also known for many other ground breaking and important films that include, “Dead Poets’ Society,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Fisher King,” and the cartoon voiceover of “Áladdin,” along with a number that did not achieve recognition, but reflected Williams’ many talents. Williams was a multifaceted individual whose onstage comedic insanity expressed a certain poignancy when one got passed the mask that the comedian presented to his audiences. When he died in 2014 a cultural void was created which may never again be filled. Williams was an insecure individual who found solace from rejection in childhood and other personal issues by developing voices, characters, and other coping strategies as he meandered through his early years. Williams lived an unsettled life that would end in tragedy. When he could no longer cope with medical issues that resulted from Lewy body dementia disorder he took his own life. The full scope of his career, personal life, and demons are fully explored in Dave Itzkoff’s wonderful new biography, ROBIN.
(From the film “Dead Poet Society”)
Itzkoff points out the key to Williams’ comedic genius was in an attic in the family home in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. The Williams’ family moved around a great deal as his father advanced his career as an auto executive. Rob, his dad was a hard man to get close to until much later in his son’s life. From his mother Williams’ learned that connections could be made with other people if one entertained them. As a result Williams’ would spend hours developing his own world where toy soldiers dominated and he could develop scenarios, conversations, and different voices that would appear later in his career. His childhood loneliness would fuel an amazing imagination, as he repeatedly moved and had to attend new schools and develop new acquaintances.
The narrative is peppered with Williams’ wit, sarcasm, and social commentary. Whether Itzkoff is describing Williams’ participation in an improvisational acting class in college, his time at Julliard, quips and riffs with others on movie sets, or even remarks as his career declined and realized his body was abandoning him, we witness a man who moved at such a fast pace that the neurons in his brain were firing so fast that it was difficult to keep up with him. The result was a new type of improvisational humor built on role models such as Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor. According to Itzkoff, Williams’ true gift was not his spontaneity, but the appearance of spontaneity.
(Williams, live at the Met)
There are a number of important components to the book, one of which were the reactions of other comedians to Williams’ work and the relationships that developed. Williams’ friendship with Billy Crystal was perhaps the most meaningful to the point where they seemed as if they were brothers by another mother. Larry Brezner, a talent agency executive describes him best as “like Holden Caulfield, a guy walking around with all of his nerve endings completely exposed.” Perhaps the most moving aspect of Itzkoff’s work is his chronological development of Williams’ family life from his relationship and marriage to Valerie Velardi, his second marriage to Marsha Garce, to his final wife Susan Schneider, as well as his children, particularly his son Zak, and daughter Zelda. Williams’ was addicted to comedy and it was his aphrodisiac, but like all addictive personalities, drugs and alcohol are temptations that seem to capture people. Williams was no exception and ultimately he went into rehab, which cost him his second marriage, and later in life he would lapse again. The poignant way Itzkoff presents this aspect of Williams’ life is more important and incisive than the movement from one film to another that encapsulates the comedian’s career.
Perhaps the most moving section of the book deals with Christopher Reeves, Williams’ friend since their time at Julliard who would suffer a devastating accident resulting in paralysis. Williams’ cared for his friend for years on a face to face level as well as financially when medical costs seemed to spiral out of control. The softness of Williams’ personality and gift is seen in the number of USO tours and shows between 9/11 and 2010 as he traveled to Afghanistan numerous times to engage the troops, people who he believed he owed a heartfelt debt towards for their bravery and sacrifice.
(Williams performing for the troops in Afghanistan)
Williams’ insecurity was always present no matter the heights that his career reached. Be it an Academy, Grammy, Emmy, or other awards he was always worried that his career was coming to an end. When he died it was a loss for all, because no one could present his brand of humor and acting talent as he. Itzkoff has captured Williams’ with his successes as well as his warts, and has written a wonderful portrait for all of us to enjoy.
(From the film “Good Morning Vietnam”)