Dave Itzkoff is a very busy man, but he’s in no hurry.
The New York Times culture reporter and author of the new Robin Williams biography, “Robin,”was relaxing in a back office at Book Passage’s Corte Madera Bookstore and Cafe the other night. He changed into slacks and a blazer and settled in behind a desk for a BLT sandwich and Diet Coke. With an hour to go before Itzkoff’s book reading and appearance, members of the public were beginning to arrive. This is, after all, Marin County — where the late comedian chose to live and chose to die.
“It’s nice to be welcomed by the people that, you know, Robin lived among,” Itzkoff said.
Nearly four years in the making, “Robin” is a massive look at William’s life and tragic death. The 500-page book features in-depth interviews and reflections from people within Williams’ inner circle, including his son, Zak, and close friends like Billy Crystal. Itzkoff was given extraordinary access, and in many ways that’s what led to the book’s stellar reviews. It’s also why it took so long for “Robin” to hit the shelves.
“I think it was a combination of having had some exposure to some of these people just in the course of my reporting at The New York Times,” Itzkoff says of his access. “I like to believe, I hope I’m not patting myself on the back to say that, you know, I had a body of work at the Times, and I write a lot about comedians. I’d written pieces about Robin, so people knew what my work was like, how I’d written about him in the past.”
Williams took his own life in his Tiburon home in August 2014, an incident that’s painfully detailed in “Robin.” And while it was soon after Williams’ death that Itzkoff prepared to do reporting for his book, those closest to the comedian needed time to process his death before some were ready to go on the record.
“Part of the reason that I was trying to be patient was because we knew, we just knew, that there were going to be, you know, people that would take time and want to think about it,” Itzkoff says. “Obviously, anybody that was close to him suffered a really tragic loss, and that’s hard to talk about. And, understandably, there were people that did not want to talk, and I respect that.”
As a Times reporter, Itzkoff spent real time with Williams, both on the record and off. On a recent appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” in promotion of “Robin,” Itzkoff told of how the pair spent an afternoon together shopping for comic books in New York City. And while Williams wasn’t necessarily always “on” during their time together, Itzkoff says, he was always an open book.
“He wanted people to know about what he had been through, particularly after, you know, after he’d gone through rehab and, you know, recovered from his relapse with alcoholism, after he had the open-heart surgery. It seemed to really trigger a kind of confessional streak in him,” Itzkoff said.
An Oscar-winning actor, Williams had long suffered from severe insecurity and addiction. “Robin” deals intimately with those issues, touching on rumors that as an up-and-coming comedian in the 1970s, Williams allegedly stole jokes from other comedians or, later, his concern that comedian Jim Carrey’s rise to stardom was pushing him out of the spotlight. And actress Pam Dawber, Williams’ co-star on the ‘70s sitcom “Mork and Mindy,” revealed to Itzkoff that Williams occasionally crossed what would be considered hard and fast boundaries in today’s #MeToo world.
“Robin” is not a glowing obituary — Itzkoff already wrote that for The New York Times.
Still, the book chronicles Williams’ extraordinary career with long looks into his stand-up comedy life and film work. For fans of the comedian and actor, “Robin” is a real treat. Itzkoff is obviously a fan himself. His favorite Williams film role? “Popeye.”
Towards the end of his life, as Williams struggled to stay sober and suffered from what he believed was medically diagnosed Parkinson’s disease, the once seemingly fearless comedian could hardly function. According to “Robin,” Williams’ make-up artist Cheri Mimms once held the comic in her arms as he sobbed, crying, “I don’t know how to be funny anymore.”
According to the book, Williams was plagued by sleepless nights and constant pressure, and experienced almost prophetic moments of goodbyes with people like his oldest son and Crystal. Itzkoff manages to gently report it all, right through the moment when Williams’ personal assistant picked the lock of his bedroom door to find that the comedian had hung himself.
What followed was a cavalcade of shock, grief and celebration, and then a legal feud between Williams’ children and his third wife, Susan Schneider. While Williams’ estate has been settled, Williams’ children and widow remain estranged.
“Certainly the legal part of it’s been resolved, but … the lingering, you know, the bad feeling — I don’t think that’s gone away,” Itzkoff says.
In the end, Williams’ body was autopsied not far from Itzkoff’s Book Passage appearance. While Parkinson’s disease may not have been a complete misdiagnosis, Williams appears to have been suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, a form of degenerative dementia similar to Alzheimer’s. Among its symptoms are cognitive problems, insomnia, depression and hallucinations, symptoms that became unbearable for someone so much inside his own head.
Throughout the years it took to write “Robin,” Itzkoff’s main focus was to ensure that he chronicled Williams’ life and legacy “the right way.”
According to Itzkoff, that meant, “approachinghim with the same empathy that he offered everybody else that he encountered. He was extremely understanding of and sensitive to people, and I think he wanted to give everybody — well, almost everybody, with a couple of rare exceptions — he wanted to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. I think he’s entitled to that also.”