Open Book/Open Mind: the life of Robin Williams
Open Book/Open Mind
Sunday, June 2, 4-5:30 p.m.
Dave Itzkoff, entertainment writer for The New York Times, in conversation with Alan Sepinwall, chief television critic of Rolling Stone, about Itzkoff’s biography of Robin Williams
Montclair Public Library, 50 South Fullerton Ave.
Part of the weeklong Bounce festival.
Free. To reserve, visit montclairlibrary.org, or call 973-744-0500, ext. 2275.
By GWEN OREL
The world was shocked when Robin Williams took his own life on Aug. 11, 2014.
Soon, a meme of Aladdin hugging Genie with the words “Genie, you’re free!” could be seen all over social media.
New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff hardly had time to grapple with the emotions as he had to get to work on the obituary.
Itzkoff had interviewed the comedian/actor in 2009.
Williams was only 63, and while the Times’ obituary file had a few paragraphs, it wasn’t a complete file.
Although in the days and weeks that followed, many articles about Williams appeared, “Nothing seemed to present the complete picture,” Itzkoff said.
That was part of the reason Itzkoff wrote his book “Robin,” a biography of Williams, which was published in 2018 and recently came out in paperback.
Itzkoff will appear at the library on Sunday, June 2, at 4 p.m., to discuss "Robin" with television critic Alan Sepinwall, as part of Open Book/Open Mind. The event is part of the Bounce festival.
During previous interviews, Itzkoff had found Williams to be surprisingly candid about such difficult subjects as getting sober, having hurt people close to him, undergoing heart surgery.
“With celebrities, there’s often an added layer of protectiveness. They only talk about the things they want to talk about or promote,” Itzkoff said. “He was not like that at all. It left a huge impression.”
Williams liked to make connections: he even invited Itzkoff to go to a comic book store with him, because the two had been talking about being comic book fans.
“He liked offering himself to people any way he could,” Itzkoff said. Williams was known to have given a lot of himself and his energy to people who needed it. Asking a New York Times reporter with a shared interest to join him was easy for him, but it meant a lot to the reporter. “If he could have provided that to everybody, he would have.”
JOYFUL AND HEARTFELT
The book traces Williams’ childhood and rise to stardom, along with his many movie roles — which include “The World According to Garp” (1982), “Dead Poets Society” (1989), “Aladdin” (1992) “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993), “Good Will Hunting” (1997), among others — his issues with addiction and finally the depression and struggle with Parkinson’s disease that
contributed to his death.
Rather than interrupt the narrative with footnotes, every fact is credited in notes at the end of the book, and many of the notes say “Author interview with [insert subject here].”
“I spent probably about a year just conducting interviews, before I even wrote a real outline for the book,” Itzkoff said.
Beginning so soon after Williams’ death meant that many people were still bereft and working through the loss. As a result, when Itzkoff was writing the book, interviews were still coming in, some even after the original manuscript was delivered. Itzkoff accommodated them because it was important they be represented.
In 2015, the fall after Williams’ death, Itzkoff studied the comedian’s papers and archives at Boston University. He met Williams’ son Zak in 2016, and Zak connected him to other surviving members of Williams’ family.
The result is a history that is both objective and personal. Fact are represented: Williams grew up extremely wealthy, the son of a Ford executive and a Southern aristocrat — and then those facts are given a voice by a person. In the case of the early years, a half-brother, Todd, comments. Itzkoff also quotes Williams from different interviews.
Although Williams had never hidden his background, Itzkoff still was struck by it. “Being raised in privilege and wealth is unusual for someone who is a comedian,” he said. “Richard Pryor, one of Robin’s mentors, grew up in the brothels of Peoria, Illinois. I can understand why Robin was almost envious of people who’ve had that kind of hardship.”
But for all his wealth, it’s clear from the book that Williams felt like an outsider — his family moved around often enough that his social life suffered. And later, when he chose to pursue acting, his family did not help with money, to the point where Williams having to borrow money was a standing joke among friends.
A school administrator remembers finding Williams in a Juilliard building, hungry and broke, and how she would give him breakfast. At night a cleaning woman would bring him dinner.
Casual fans of the comedian may also not realize that Williams studied acting as seriously as he did, first in college in Marin County and later at Juilliard, where he became close friends with Christopher Reeve.
Although his success as innocent, silly spaceman Mork in the television sitcom “Mork & Mindy” (1978-1982), was huge, and his ascent rapid, Williams “had put in a lot of years prior to that not only in standup, but in training as an actor,” Itzkoff said. Williams did student and local stage productions, and worked comedy clubs for years.
The early years fascinated Sepinwall, who like many others, knew Williams at first primarily
“As someone who grew up watching Superman movies, it’s great to draw a connection between those two guys,” Sepinwall said.
When Sepinwall heard of Williams’ death, he was reminded of a story a friend had told him about how when Steven Spielberg was making the Holocaust movie “Schindler’s List” (1993), he’d told Williams that he needed to call him at the end of every day, so Williams could make him laugh, so he could make it through the next day.
Williams did that for him.
“He got a lot of people in this world through difficult times in their own lives. He was just that funny and joyful,” Sepinwall said. But when Williams was battling with depression and Parkinson’s, there was no way for someone to return that favor.
Itzkoff hopes the book will hope people find a renewed appreciation for everything Williams accomplished in his career, even for those things that were not really appreciated at the time. Williams always invested himself in his roles; they had meaning for him, he said.
The role that stands out for Itzkoff is “Popeye” (1980). The movie wasn’t a huge hit, and Itzkoff admits it’s “weird and rough around the edges.” But, he said, it’s also “a very warm-hearted film.” As Popeye, Williams is “a guy building a family for himself. There’s something heartfelt about that.”
When Robin got his chance to audition for the Comedy Store and the mighty Mitzi Shore, he did not squander the opportunity. Appearing in performance one Monday night at the chain’s principal location on Sunset Boulevard, he took the stage in bare feet, a T-shirt, and a pair of overalls and delivered a line in the sassy persona of his ribald Shakespearean thespian: “Now, a reading from ‘Two Gentlemen of Santa Monica,’ also known as ‘As You Lick It.’” Then, while his ecstatic audience was still recovering, he hit them with another punch to the gut: “Hark, the moon, like a testicle, hangs low in the sky.” Shore immediately called Argus Hamilton, a comedian who hosted her shows at the Comedy Store’s satellite club in Westwood, and told him: “I’m coming over right now with this new comic so he can do there what he just did here.”