New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff details the beloved star’s heartbreaking decline in this exclusive excerpt from Robin, his new biography.
by DAVE ITZKOFF
Robin Williams’s August 2014 suicide was devastating to those who knew him best—and it also came at the end of a long and difficult decline, as this excerpt from New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff’s new biography, Robin, demonstrates. In the months that preceded his death, Williams faced daunting challenges, both professionally and personally. His film career had stalled, and his comeback sitcom, The Crazy Ones, was failing to find an audience on CBS. He was still harboring guilt about his divorce from Marsha Garces, his second wife and mother of two of his children, and adjusting to life with his new wife, Susan Schneider, whom he married in 2011.
Meanwhile, Williams was also reeling from a cataclysmic diagnosis: in May 2014, he had been told that he had Parkinson’s disease, news that stunned and overwhelmed the once-nimble comedian. Even more crushing than this is the possibility that Williams was misdiagnosed; an autopsy would later reveal that he actually had Lewy body dementia, an aggressive and incurable brain disorder that has an associated risk of suicide.
Here, Itzkoff traces the last few months of Williams’s life. His reporting draws on the perspectives of some of Williams’s closest confidants and family members, including Billy Crystal; his Mork & Mindy co-star Pam Dawber; his oldest son, Zak Williams; his daughter-in-law, Alex Mallick-Williams; his makeup artist, Cheri Minns; and his old friends Mark Pitta, Cyndi McHale, and Wendy Asher. Robin is available May 15.
It was a question that crossed Robin’s mind more often these days, now that he had put in roughly 35 years as a professional entertainer and more than 60 as a human being.
What did he still get out of doing what he was doing, and why did he feel the compulsion to keep doing it? He had already enjoyed nearly all of the accomplishments that one could hope for in his field, tasted the richest successes, won most of the major awards. Every stage of his career had been an adventure into the unknown, an improvisation in its own right, but there was truly no road map for where he was now. Everything came to an end at some point; it was a reality he accepted and confronted so often in his work, even as he tried to out-race it. What would it look like for him, he wondered, when he wrapped things up and told the crowd good night for the last time? How could it be anything other than devastating?
The work was less abundant than it used to be and nowhere near as lucrative, and so much of it seemed to be focused on finality, particularly in the form of death. In August 2012, he had appeared in an episode of Louie, the cable-TV comedy written by and starring the comedian Louis C.K., that begins with both men meeting at the grave of a comedy-club manager who has recently died, and whom they both privately despised. “When he died, I felt nothing,” Louie tells Robin. “I didn’t care. But I knew—when I pictured him going in the ground and nobody’s there, he’s alone, it gave me nightmares.” Robin replies, “Me too.”
Later that fall, Robin was in New York making a film called The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, another morbid indie comedy, in which he plays its title character, a surly lawyer who is diagnosed with an aneurysm and told he has 90 minutes to live. In one scene, the character jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge into the East River, but he survives, and he is dragged from the water by the doctor who, it turns out, has falsely diagnosed him. When he described the creation of this sequence to David Letterman, the host had asked him if he needed a gamma-globulin shot, and Robin answered, “I didn’t get a shot, and I hope it doesn’t end up, 20 years from now, I’m not like Katharine Hepburn, going, [quavering voice] ‘E-very-thing’s fi-ine.’”
So why did Robin persist in making these films, each one a far cry from the Hollywood features he had once thrived on, and which were lucky to receive even a theatrical release? Why did he continue to fill every free block of time in his schedule with work, whatever work he could find? Yes, he needed the money, especially now that he had two ex-wives and a new spouse he wanted to provide with a comfortable home. “There are bills to pay,” he said. “My life has downsized, in a good way. I’m selling the ranch up in Napa. I just can’t afford it anymore.” He hadn’t lost all his money, but, he said, “Lost enough. Divorce is expensive.”
Robin continued to bounce from one low-budget film to the next. But he finally seemed poised for a professional resurgence when he was cast in The Crazy Ones, a new CBS comedy show that would make its debut in September 2013. The series was Robin’s first ongoing television role since Mork & Mindy ended three decades earlier, casting him as Simon Roberts, the irrepressible, not yet over-the-hill co-founder of a fast-paced Chicago advertising agency he runs with his straitlaced daughter (Sarah Michelle Gellar).
The Crazy Ones seemed perfectly calibrated for the older audience cultivated by CBS, which had a track record for giving new lifeblood to bygone TV stars, while the show provided Robin with distinct opportunities to improvise in each episode. It surrounded him with an ensemble of young actors, who helped to offset the fact that Robin was now gaunter and grayer than viewers were accustomed to seeing, and it paid a steady salary of $165,000 an episode—more in a week than he’d earn in a month working for scale on an independent movie.
But there was an even simpler pleasure about The Crazy Ones. As Robin explained, “It’s a regular job. Day to day, you go to the plant, you put your punch card in, you get out. That’s a good job.”
When the first episode of The Crazy Ones aired on September 26, it was met with lukewarm reviews. Unlike Mork & Mindy, which had been filmed in front of a live studio audience that responded to his every ad-lib with uproarious laughter, The Crazy Ones used a single-camera format that was a poor fit for Robin’s talents. The show played like a movie running in an empty theater, and each joke hung awkwardly in the air as it was met with silence.
Some critics, at least, were gentle in noting that the Robin of The Crazy Ones was no longer the indefatigable dynamo they had come to adore in an earlier era. Others were not so diplomatic, like the one who simply wrote, “Williams seems exhausted. So is this show.”
The ratings foretold a bleak outlook: the first episode of The Crazy Ones was watched by about 15.5 million people, a respectable start that suggested at least a curiosity about the series. But within a month, nearly half that audience had tuned out, and the numbers eroded further with each passing week. It was no Mork & Mindy; the magic was gone.
During the making of The Crazy Ones, Robin lived in Los Angeles, by himself, in a modestly furnished rental apartment. It was a far cry from when he last starred in a Hollywood sitcom, and an even more scaled-down existence than he had established for himself in Tiburon. Robin’s new domestic life with his wife, Susan, was very different, too. Unlike his ex-wife Marsha, who saw it as her responsibility to decorate and maintain their house, to organize dinner parties and surround him with intellectual friends who kept him stimulated, Susan had been accustomed to living an independent life of her own. She traveled widely by herself and with her sons, and she did not manage Robin’s day-to-day affairs and did not always accompany him when he worked out of town……………
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