“Watching Robin Williams—taking in the overwhelming all of him—was impossible,” said David Thomson in the San Francisco Chronicle. Though it should be just as impossible to pin down this human whirlwind on the page, Dave Itzkoff’s “breathtakingly good” biography comes close—and surely ranks as “one of the best books ever written about anyone who sees no way out of life except by trying to make people laugh.” Itzkoff, a New York Times culture reporter, probably could not even now explain exactly how to draw the line between Williams’ antic comedic talent, his substance abuse, his undiagnosed brain disorder, and his suicide, at 63, in 2014. “It’s too simple to say the furious engine of the man ran down.”
Yet Itzkoff offers us as much understanding as we could hope for, said Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune. Williams, the son of an auto executive, was a shy boy who grew up in a suburban Detroit mansion and coped with loneliness by staging elaborate toy-soldier battles in the attic. He was 16 when the family moved to California, and after Robin discovered improv in college, he won an invitation to study acting in New York. Turning to standup after dropping out, he didn’t have to wait long to be noticed: A star-making appearance in a 1978 episode of Happy Days led to the spin-off series Mork and Mindy, a breakout hit about an alien adjusting to life on Earth. Williams’ sexually charged antics on set, as detailed here, “look pretty sleazy.” But his co-star, Pam Dawber, readily forgave him. He was simply that effervescent.
Williams’ charm makes the last chapters of his story “all the more dispiriting,” said Diane Werts in Newsday. Itzkoff captures the brilliance of Williams’ work in such hits as Good Morning, Vietnam and Aladdin, but the star eventually begins accumulating more lows than highs. In a way, that prepares us for the dreaded end—a suicide later linked to Lewy body dementia. “He was one complicated dude,” said David Holahan in USA Today. But no one can wonder why he earned a biography with a one-word title. “Everyone knows who Robin is, or was. Robin Williams made sure of that.” ■