On Sunday I finished reading the David Itzkoff’s, Robin, his biography of Robin Williams. I’ve always been a fan of Hollywood true stories, but they’re usually books about the Golden Age of Hollywood, like The Divine Feud, A Cast of Killers, or biographies of Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift.
This was the first Hollywood biography I’ve read that was about about an actor whose career spanned my own lifetime. I worshipped Robin Williams when I was a kid. As I got older, his movies were liking checking your pulse to make sure you’re heart is okay. Some how, the release of his famous movies always were always in tuned with whatever I was going through at the time.
As the book charted the course of his career, I felt like I was walking down memory lane. I remember seeing the episode of Happy Days where he made is first appearance as Mork from Ork. I watched Mork and Mindy religiously. I had a Mork from Ork T-shirt and action figure. The movie adaption of The World According to Garp, changed my life when I was in my teens, and Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, and The Fisher King were laxatives for the tears I was holding in at the time. I was never a huge of Good Will Hunting, but I was happy for Robin Williams when he won the Oscar for it.
As one does when they’re reading a biography, I Googled some of his early work, particularly his comedy albums. Reality, What a Concept, was the first comedy album I ever bought with my own money. I listened to it constantly until I could recite almost the entire 90 minute set. The album had me in stitches even though I didn’t get half the jokes. Listening to it nearly forty years, there were still a handful of jokes I don’t understand.
Like a lot of kids in the seventies who sought refuge in comedy and comedians, I spent a lot of time imitating Robin Williams. I would do variations of his act and impressions of his impressions. Reading about his early career in the late-seventies, it dawned on me that I was an eleven year old kid imitating a coke addict. In light of some of the poorer life-choices I made in my twenties, I can see now that I saw of more myself in him than I thought.
Robin Williams greatest appeal to me was his humanity. He was raucous and out there, but he was also incredibly sensitive. What surprised me about his life, was how insecure he was about his talent and his place in Hollywood. He took roles because he was afraid to turn them down and he worried there wasn’t enough room for him in Hollywood. He accepted roles other actors turned down, and when he did develop projects that were suited to his talents, critics derided him for being too sincere.
It was that humanity that caused tears to well up in my eyes whenever I opened the book. It made me nostalgic for my childhood and gave me the opportunity to relieve what it was like to watch each performance for the first time. I’ve also experienced Robin Williams’ pain first hand. Having had friends commit suicide, I could see what would drive someone to do it.
As an example of how ahead of his time Robin Williams was, he made a provision in his will to protect his voice and image for twenty-five years. Despite his insecurities and flaws, he knew those were the things he truly owned. Now he’s protecting them from beyond the grave. At a time when people are willing to sell their souls for a bit of security, it’s nice to know some of my heroes had their integrity in tact.