I’m not sure I would have ever bought this book. I don’t mind the odd biography, but Robin Williams wasn’t one of my favourite comedians. (Reminder to me to check on the latest Eddie Murphy and Chevy Chase offerings…) This was a Xmas gift from a friend who knows I am besotted with Dead Poets Society*.
We learn that Robin essentially remained unchanged through his life – his crippling self doubt would haunt him all career. Even as he flew high with early successes like Mork + Mindy, Robin always felt he could be delivering more, making people laugh harder, often discarding the script to find that magic connection with his audience.
On reading the movie and TV credits, I realise I missed viewing most of his performances. He was always there – first on TV (21 credits), then moved to the big screen (70 credits). I have only seen 3 of the movies, but when those 3 are Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society and Aladdin, the genius of the man is clear.
Good Morning Vietnam was released when I was 14yo. Wow, what a movie! War, comedy, romance, music, comedy, guns, rebellion and pure bedlam. More importantly, it showed that Robin could be a box office success, something that had eluded him before then, and would continue to plague him for most of his career.
Many argue that Robin was too willing to take any part offered, rather than being more selective in picking roles that showcased his talents. When he did pick well, the rest of the film often let him down.
Dead Poet’s Society – I suspect this was one of the most shaping movies of my life. As a 16yo at a private school (nothing as intense as the 1950’s setting), and interested in reading, literature and acting, this one really hit home. I felt like I could relate to most of the male characters, and I still can’t watch this film without crying like a baby. It’s worse now – I know what’s coming, so I start earlier…
The back story on this film is painful. Shopped around the studios, the 1st buyer wanted the director of Revenge of the Nerds. Thankfully, that fell apart. Later, with director Peter Weir on board, Dustin Hoffman was almost signed, but he wanted to direct too. Lucky Rainman came along... Robin picked up a surprisingly large number of roles after Hoffman rejected them.
Aladdin – This movie actually blew my mind! (As naughty teenagers we may have been in a slightly altered state. :P ) Finally, a movie that couldn’t restrict Robin – literally. As a cartoon genie, he was free to roam far and wide. The tale had been told 1000 times, but this version had you on the end of your seat, singling along, and laughing your arse off…
I don’t like labelling Robin as a ‘comedian’. He was so much more than that, but his constant need for positive feedback means the world, and many friends, really only saw that side of him. Many of his greatest performances came when humour was brief, and we saw the true genius behind his ability to absorb and live the role (Dead Poet’s, Fisher King, Good Will Hunting).
The performances, both live and TV/Movie only capture a portion of the man. Itzkoff does well to draw from friends like Billy Crystal and Bobcat Goldthwaite. We hear from all 3 wives, his children from 2 of those marriages, and learn more about what lead to his tragic death.
There are always unanswered questions with a life (and death) like Robin’s. Many of his friends felt the same way, and Author Dave Itzkoff admits there is a part of Robin that no-one ever got to truly explore. Despite this dark hole, Itzkoff does a splendid job – he tells you the full story with intimate access to friends and family. Covering Robin’s career, marriages, battles and wins, this is truly a great biography.
*Really not a spoiler alert, more an example that having Disney as your movie studio isn’t always a great thing. Disney had a problem with the original title – The Dead Poet’s Society. This was the feedback from Disney executive David Hoberman:
“Dead was a bummer, Poets was too effete, and nobody knew what Society meant”.
Worst was to follow with some Disney friendly ‘solutions’:
The Amazing Mr Keating
The Unforgettable Mr Keating
Thank God Weir + and Robin held firm, but Disney, in their infinite wisdom, decided to meddle anyway. They dropped the ‘The’… guess that’s why these guys are paid the big bucks. XD