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Jesse Mulligan grapples with Robin Williams’ exhaustive new biography

Robin Williams: a once-in-a-generation prodigy who conquered the world. Photo/Getty Images

Definitive it may be, but David Itzkoff's biography of Robin Williams still leaves us wanting more.

“The definitive biography,” writes Steve Martin on the cover, and it is hard to imagine any better book will be written about Robin Williams’ life. New York Times reporter David Itzkoff has watched every minute of videotape, interviewed family members, colleagues and ex-wives and pored over 40 years of playbills and reviews. The research was exhaustive and journalistic, and included extended conversations with the man himself.

So, there is nothing more in the world we can learn about this unrivalled talent – and yet we are left knowing not much more than when we began reading. Williams’ death at 63 was unexpected and unsignposted. Without a suicide note, we are left to guess at his state of mind. Was he unable to continue a life defined by mental agility but rapidly succumbing to Lewy body dementia, or was the act spontaneous, fuelled by the hallucinations that come with that disease? There is nobody left to ask.

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Itzkoff does a good job of assembling more than 100 interviews into a readable narrative, although you suspect he, too, is frustrated by the gaps. In a postscript, he talks of getting unrestricted access to the subject during a stand-up tour, except for the 40 minutes Williams spent alone in the dressing room each night before he went on stage. This is a good metaphor for Robin, which is rich with punchlines and anecdotes, but doesn’t satisfyingly answer the most compelling question: where did the genius come from?

While I was reading the book, several comedians I know asked me the same question: “Does it talk about the plagiarism?” Williams was known for stealing jokes, and this reputational stain is one of the most interesting aspects of an otherwise famously original performer. But we learn little more in Robin than the defence previously offered by those close to him: that his brain worked too fast to recall the source of an idea before it came out of his mouth. It’s a good excuse for an improviser, although Itzkoff notes elsewhere that Williams never ad-libbed as much as he seemed to. Every one-liner was edited and polished over many performances, allowing plenty of time, you’d think, to reject the stuff you didn’t come up with yourself.

What Robin is best at is taking you on the road with a once-in-a-generation prodigy as he conquers Hollywood, America and the world. When Williams hits his first real home run with the TV sitcom series Mork & Mindy, you understand the compelling power of a performer who has found the right role. You live with a couple of box-office flops, knowing that Good Morning, Vietnam is on the way and then, as he becomes the magic ingredient in one blockbuster after another – Dead Poets Society, Aladdin, Mrs Doubtfire – you begin to dread the next part of the story, because you know how it ends.

Even before the frailty and cognitive decay, he should have stopped. The later movies weren’t any good, the stand-up shtick was starting to date and each new failure affected him with an emotional intensity the successes never provided. If he’d played things right, he could have ended up like the guy who wrote the cover quote to his book – a comedy icon who knew when to leave the stage. But Williams needed the adulation and acclaim, was trying with his work to reach a high that was always tantalisingly beyond his reach. That’s the nature of addiction, of course, and in suffering this way, he was depressingly ordinary. Unlike the cocaine and the booze, performing was the one self-destructive behaviour he never tried to quit.

Robin, by David Itzkoff (Pan Macmillan, $37.99)

This article was first published in the July 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.