He Felt He Could No Longer Be Funny, Says Robin Williams Biographer

May 14, 2018
Originally published on May 17, 2018 9:21 am
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's been nearly four years since Robin Williams took his life. When he died, he didn't know that the mental and physical problems that had overtaken him were caused by Lewy body disease, which is characterized by deposits on the brain. Williams is now the subject of a new biography called "Robin" by my guest, Dave Itzkoff.

Itzkoff is a culture reporter at The New York Times. He had interviewed and written about Williams when Williams was still acting and performing. Itzkoff also wrote Williams' New York Times obituary, in which he described Williams as a comedian who evolved into the surprisingly nuanced Academy Award-winning actor, imbuing his performances with wild inventiveness and a kind of manic energy.

Dave Itzkoff, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to talk with you about what it was like to talk with Robin Williams. And before I hear what your experience was like, I want to share with you a bit of mine. I spoke with him in August of 2006. And I didn't know what to expect. I was afraid he would just be on the whole time. And he would just be jumping from one character to another. And he wouldn't answer any of my questions. And he was in a relatively reflective mood. And he spent some time actually just, like, talking about himself and other times, you know, like, doing characters and making jokes, which were funny and very enjoyable. So I want to play you how the interview ended.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Can I make a confession?

ROBIN WILLIAMS: Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: You're not wearing anything. But that's OK. You're in the radio studio. And if you're wearing - if you're just - if you're in a thong, that's wonderful. A thong in your heart. That's OK. No, no, please, confess.

GROSS: Well, before the - we did the interview, I had no idea what to expect.

WILLIAMS: Right.

GROSS: And I wasn't sure you'd give me a straight answer to anything. And I just want to say thank you for...

WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

GROSS: ...For actually having a talk...

WILLIAMS: Well, it's good to talk like that, you know?

GROSS: ...And for being really funny at the same time.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's probably what life is, you know? You can do both. You can talk and be funny. And you see it wasn't that zany. It was just conversation. It's a good thing, Terry. You know that.

GROSS: It's a good thing (laughter).

WILLIAMS: It's what we come - it's a good thing, as Martha Stewart said once she got out of prison.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: You know, she had that wonderful magazine she published while she was in jail called Truly Inside Living, which was wonderful.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: How to make trump doie (ph) with a lovely toothbrush, things to do with a shiv besides stab, you know, wonderful things. And if you only have one window, use the light. She is very good in that way.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: And you call this shev (ph), you know? We'll be right back with some people from...

GROSS: Robin Williams, thank you so much.

WILLIAMS: ...Oh, you're welcome, Terry Gross. We're here with some people from New Zealand or what? - talking about animal husbandry. And can you marry a ewe? Your call.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: You know, lines are open. (Imitating ewe bleating). Easy. Terrence (ph)? No. (Imitating ewe bleating). How was it? Not bad. All right, thank you. We're back. Thanks, Terry. It was a good day. It was a good day. Good on you, Terry. You've got to take care of yourself. We'll be right back with Ann Coulter just to talk about - well, euthanasia. We'll be going.

GROSS: (Laughter) Thank you.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

DAVID ITZKOFF: (Laughter).

GROSS: So I think he was, like, really funny in that. But here I am, like, really thanking him in a very honest way for being, you know, real with me. Then he just goes off into this, like...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Long set of improvs (laughter), you know?

ITZKOFF: Yeah. And now I have to follow Robin Williams. So I think it was that.

GROSS: You know? It was the point. First of all, I talked to him on August 3 of 2006. What was going on in his life then?

ITZKOFF: Well, you know, it's remarkable that he gave you such a pleasant and joyful interview because it was really a very challenging time in his life, although people were not really aware of it. And I don't know how public he was about it at the time. But this is a period when he was - he basically relapsed into alcoholism pretty badly and then, you know, went into rehabilitation for that and got sober and really dedicated himself to his sobriety.

But it also had a very bad impact on his marriage to his second wife, Marsha Garces, who was, you know, extremely integral into his life. And it basically precipitated the end of their marriage. So this was a very challenging time for him. And yet as you heard in that conversation, and as I think he was to so many people - I mean, he was, you know, still exuded a kind of calm about himself in a - you know, was, I think, going through a very self-reflective time.

GROSS: So had he already been out of rehab? Was he in, like, that transitional period between rehab and going home when I spoke to him? Do you have any idea?

ITZKOFF: No. When you spoke to him, he would not have gone into rehab yet.

GROSS: OK.

ITZKOFF: That was just a matter of days away.

GROSS: Wow. See...

ITZKOFF: Yeah.

GROSS: ...I had no idea it was such a tumultuous time in his life.

ITZKOFF: Yeah. Well, there were a lot of interviews that he gave, certainly, throughout his life and certainly in that period of it and throughout his final years where there was lots of tumult - and that I don't think people were entirely aware of it.

GROSS: So you profiled him before writing this biography of him. What were some...

ITZKOFF: Yes.

GROSS: ...Of the questions you wanted to answer by writing a biography?

ITZKOFF: Well, I think his whole life, as much as we thought we knew about it - and sadly, I mean, one of the pieces that I wrote about him for The New York Times was his obituary. I think there were certain parts of his life that we just kind of took for granted or stories that got retold so many times that they just kind of became these calcified urban legends, some of which had kernels of truth to them or a lot of truth to them.

I think the way that he often talked about his family, particularly his father and his mother - that was something that I wanted to explore. You know, stories were told, for example, that when he left Juilliard that John Houseman gave him this sort of great, rousing, inspirational pep talk that he was so good that there was nothing more that the school could teach him. And it was time to seek his place in the wider world. And, of course, that's not really how his departure from Juilliard went down.

GROSS: So how did he leave Juilliard?

ITZKOFF: Julliard - and particularly, its drama school - was a very different institution in the time that Robin was there. And it had only been running its drama school for a few years by the time he enrolled. And it was a much more Darwinian environment. It had, at the end of each year, these kind of systematic cuts that got made - that they would look at the student body and say, here's who can advance, and here's who we can dispense with. And Robin had actually come in as an advanced student. Even after his first year, they kind of looked at him.

And even though they knew he was very talented, they didn't see a lot of discipline in him. And they felt that he would be better suited to become a kind of - to leave the advance track. And after the third year, the sort of discipline problems really did not improve. And even though he was learning and benefiting from the training, you know, he was - just felt not to be the right fit for what they taught. And he was one of the students that got cut sort of by mutual decision.

GROSS: One of the people you spoke with for your biography of Robin Williams was his first wife, Valerie Velardi. They were married in 1978 before he became famous, right?

ITZKOFF: Yes, that's right.

GROSS: So had you spoken to her before for your profile of him?

ITZKOFF: No. This was my first conversation with Valerie. And I was able to speak to her through Zach Williams, who was her son with Robin. And, you know, Zach also participated in the book. And Valerie really had a unique perspective on Robin and was, I think, very sort of clear-eyed about him because, as you point out, you know, she had followed him on the trajectory up to a certain point - that she got to know him in San Francisco right when he was starting to sort of break through there as a stand-up comedian and got to follow him to Los Angeles when he moved there to kind of - you know, to try to take up an acting and stand-up career there.

So she saw him really at the first flushes of his fame and was really rooting for him and as enamored of his talents as anybody who encountered him but also felt pretty clearly that she did not get to come along on the ride with him, so to speak, that as he took off, people perceived her almost as a kind of - you know, an impediment or just baggage, that people just wanted to be around the famous person. And the famous person was Robin. She wasn't the famous person. And so I think that, you know, really created a great difficulty.

There's a story that she tells in my book where, you know - when Robin gets signed to the management company of Rollins-Joffe, which is a really important moment in his career. These are the same people who manage, you know, Woody Allen and Dick Cavett and Billy Crystal. So it's clear when he signs with them that, you know, that's really going to help make things happen for him. And so the managers take Valerie out to lunch. And they say, you know, your husband's going to be a very rich man. And you're going to have a lot of time to go shopping. And that's not the life that...

GROSS: Really? Did they really say that to her?

ITZKOFF: That's the story that she tells. And that's not the life that she wanted to live. She, at the time, was a dancer and a dance instructor. She had creative aspirations of her own. She didn't want to just be, you know, somebody's accessory.

GROSS: She called Robin Williams a stimulus junkie. That's what she said to you. What did she mean by that?

ITZKOFF: I think that she meant that he was somebody who was just turned on by, I think, everything that you can experience as a human being. We certainly know, you know, from his upbringing and even by the way that he conducted himself in his adult life - I mean, he was somebody who definitely needed affirmation from other people. And stand-up and live performance and acting were all ways that you could receive that. But certainly, by the time he became ensconced in Hollywood and by the time his stand-up career started to take off, and "Mork & Mindy" became a hit, there were a lot of other kinds of temptations that were offered to him readily available and which he happily took advantage of. And that included a lot of drinking and drug abuse and cocaine use. And certainly in his marriage to Valerie, there was infidelity - that you know, he had access to other women and indulged in that.

GROSS: Who broke up with who in that marriage?

ITZKOFF: I think it was a mutual breakup. And I think that Valerie was certainly aware of what Robin was doing behind her back and felt like she had to allow it in the sense that he was finally getting to experience, certainly in his career and in his artistic pursuits, all the things that he'd always wanted to have - that he was a No. 1 stand-up with a best-selling album. He was on one of the most popular shows on TV. And so all these other indulgences were part of that experience and allowed him to be who he became. So she felt like she had to permit it. But there's no way, obviously, that a relationship between two people can continue comfortably under that kind of pressure and that kind of lack of understanding. And that - the weight of that ultimately ended the marriage.

GROSS: Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dave Itzkoff, a culture reporter for The New York Times who has a new biography of Robin Williams called "Robin." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us my guest is Dave Itzkoff, culture reporter for The New York Times who has written a new biography of Robin Williams called "Robin." I want to play an excerpt of a Robin Williams comedy show that he did at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1986. And this bit is about being a father.

ITZKOFF: Sure.

GROSS: And it has to do with being high and having a kid and how everything looks to you when you're high.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: And now that you have a child, you have to clean up your act because you can't drink anymore. You can't come home drunk and go, hey, here's a little switch - daddy's going to throw up on you.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: You can't get stoned because they have toys that'll mess your head up. If you're stoned with a Transformer - it's a truck, it's a robot, it's a - what the (expletive) is it?

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

WILLIAMS: And you couldn't do cocaine. You couldn't do cocaine - there's a Teddy Ruxpin doll. (Imitating Teddy Ruxpin) Hi, I'm Teddy Ruxpin. It's the type of doll you think that when you fall asleep, the doll wakes up and goes, (imitating Teddy Ruxpin) you must kill mommy and daddy.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: You don't need drugs when you have a kid. You're awake. You're paranoid. You smell bad. It's the same thing.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: You're like (laughter) the baby. I've come home sometimes, found my wife in the doorway with a large knife, going, I think you should talk to him.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: You expect to walk in the nursery, see the kid 5 feet off the floor, going, (imitating demon) come in, father.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Damien, put the doll down, Damien.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So that was Robin Williams recorded in 1986 at the Metropolitan Opera House. Dave Itzkoff, so that bit is about being high and having a kid. What was it like for Robin Williams to become a father? Did you talk to his son, Zach? Did you hear about Robin Williams from his son Zach's point of view?

ITZKOFF: Yeah, Zach was one of the people that I spoke to for this book and spent a fair amount of time with. And Zach was an integral part, even though he was just a baby and didn't have direct control over this - but Zach was a big reason why Robin finally got sober in that era - that he wanted to be sober for the sake of his son and for the sake of being a good father and being present for everything that he needed to in his son's life. And that routine, I mean - that's what I think makes a set like "Live At The Met" so extraordinary because it is really one of the more sort of candid, open performance pieces that Robin did, where he is really finally starting to talk about things that he experienced, some of his own misdeeds, understanding why they were wrong, wanting to be a better person for his son.

But at the same time, what he isn't acknowledging yet is that behind the scenes, his marriage at this point to Valerie had basically come unraveled. And once he and Valerie were split up, this is right when he also starts becoming romantically involved with Marsha, who at that point had just been his assistant. So he's telling his audience certain things about himself but not telling them everything.

GROSS: I imagine Robin Williams is a very complicated person to work with in a collaborative environment - like on a TV set or in a movie as opposed to on stage, where it's all him, and whatever he wants to do, he can do without clashing with somebody else's vision about what he should be doing. What was the border when he was on set for a TV show or for a movie between thinking that he was hilarious and thinking that he was just, like, taking it one step too far, that he was going on for too long or doing too much and needed to, like, turn it off or tone it down?

ITZKOFF: I think it was something that he sought in probably every professional role or almost every professional role that he had. And you certainly see it in his early work. Things like "Mork & Mindy" and first films like "Popeye" and "The World According To Garp" where, you know, he's trying to take that kind of control over his part. Certainly, on "Mork & Mindy," he was given a lot of latitude to do that, almost to the point where - again, this is where one of the urban myths kind of emerges, that - this perception that he's just making things up on the fly and the writers would just have passages in the scripts where it says - you know, there's not even anything written. It just says, Robin does his thing.

And that - that's not true. But that's certainly - I think - a reputation that Robin was happy to cultivate. Then, when he starts to get into his movies and, you know, especially on "Popeye" and "Garp," where he's working with renowned directors like Robert Altman and George Roy Hill - I mean, these are guys who, you know, they've put in their time too. And they also want to be in control of their projects. And it did lead to conflict, certainly on those first films, that they didn't want that much improvisation from him.

George Roy Hill didn't want any (laughter) improvisation from Robin at first and, if he would go off-script, would just call cut for the day. And Robin really had to be taught in those kinds of scenarios that the director's in charge of the film and not you. Certainly as Robin's esteem and reputation grew as a film actor and as projects were being developed specifically for him, he was able to, you know, gain again that kind of freedom to behave that way. But it took time.

GROSS: Two of my favorite performances of his are in his triptych of dark films. He did all of them in 2002, I think. At least, that's the year they were all released. "One Hour Photo," in which he played a guy in a kind of large pharmacy-type of store where he ran the one-hour photo booth and got really involved in the lives of the people (laughter) in a very dark way, in the lives of the people whose photographs he was developing. And then "Death To Smoochy," which was a comedy. And he played, like, somebody who had a child TV show who was rivals with this newcomer, Smoochy, and wanted to get him, to do him in.

ITZKOFF: (Laughter).

GROSS: And then "Insomnia," which I didn't see, so I'm not counting that one. But did he like doing those dark roles? I thought that they brought out something really interesting in him.

ITZKOFF: I think he really found it interesting to delve into that side of himself and bring out a darker shade that didn't - certainly didn't come through in all of his comedy. And, you know, he really would commit himself to the exploration of the psychology of these characters, certainly for films like "One Hour Photo" and "Insomnia." I mean, he really spent time, for example, looking at, like, interviews with actual serial killers to try to figure out what made them tick and to try to just get their kind of speech patterns down. I mean, that's a really deep level. I mean, I think a lot of people would almost recoil at that kind of research, but he - it really interested him.

But, you know, what went hand in hand - I think - with the preparation for those roles, the work on those films, I mean, I think that was a time when he really - I think - got deeply in touch with his own inner darkness. And that is unfortunately leading up to, you know, him falling off the wagon and starting to drink again. That when he's making, you know, movies like "Insomnia," he was working in very remote geographical places. I mean, we're talking, like, you know the furthest parts of Canada and Alaska and not really surrounded by very many people that he knew, feeling kind of disconnected, really deep into these dark roles. And that is part of what kind of led him down that path.

GROSS: My guest is Dave Itzkoff, a culture reporter for The New York Times. His new biography of Robin Williams is called "Robin." We'll talk more after a break. And we'll hear from Krysten Ritter, the star of the Netflix series "Jessica Jones." In season two of "Breaking Bad," she played Jesse Pinkman's landlord and girlfriend. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dave Itzkoff, a culture reporter for The New York Times who's written a new biography of Robin Williams called "Robin." Itzkoff had interviewed and written about Williams and later wrote Williams' obituary in The Times. Williams took his life in 2014 when he was dealing with dementia caused by Lewy body disease, which wasn't accurately diagnosed until Williams' autopsy. So what was his career like at the end of his life when his brain was kind of being changed by the dementia caused by Lewy body disease?

ITZKOFF: It's hard to know exactly when, you know, he would have started showing the symptoms of what we now know is the Lewy body disease. But even as late as, you know, 2013, he was a star in a network sitcom and a very short-lived CBS show called "The Crazy Ones" that was sort of developed for him. But even once that show came down, there was a lot of opportunity for him. Not on the scale that he had once experienced, but if he wanted to, you know, take a role in an indie movie, he could do that or maybe a supporting part in a studio comedy. You know, for example, one of the very last films that he did was the third entry in the "Night At The Museum" franchise. So he could keep working if he wanted to. And he often did want to. He often chose to. And I think that was difficult for other people in his life who wanted him to kind of take a pause and try to figure out, you know, what all these symptoms were that were manifesting - that wanted him to take a break. He very much wouldn't allow himself to do that.

GROSS: You describe him kind of breaking down and saying, you know, I'm not funny, and I can't be funny anymore.

ITZKOFF: Well, that was an experience that he had with his makeup artist Cheri Minns on "Night At The Museum," which is again one of the last movies that he made. By that point, you know, a lot of the symptoms of what we now understand he was going through were showing up. And, you know, Cheri, as she described it - I mean, she just made this suggestion of something that she hoped would lift his spirits a little bit - that he wasn't going out at night anymore and that he was starting to have what he felt were memory problems and not remembering dialogue. And so her suggestion to him was, well, why don't you go to one of the clubs here where we're filming and just make a surprise appearance, and you'll see really how much people love you and are happy to see you. And that tore him up - that he - that's when he expressed that to her - that feeling of, you know, I can't be funny anymore. And that was, I think, devastating for both of them.

GROSS: I want to ask you about Robin Williams's death, which you, of course, write about. And as you say, you did his obituary too. He hanged himself with his belt. He was discovered by his wife. This was his third wife. First, his death was attributed to Parkinson's disease until the autopsy revealed that it was Lewy body disease. What is that?

ITZKOFF: Well, Lewy body disease - or sometimes Lewy body dementia - it's somewhat analogous to Parkinson's in that both diseases result from a buildup of proteins in the brain. And normally, it's a useful protein. But in both of these conditions, it is built up in excess and then actually starts attacking parts of the brain. So in Parkinson's, that only happens in the sort of motor part of the brain - obviously the part that controls movement. And so you'll see symptoms with Parkinson's sufferers - where you'll see things like what they call clockwork rigidity, where an arm just kind of only stops at fixed points of movement. They become stooped or hunched.

And so he did have some of those symptoms. But with Lewy body disease, that protein buildup also attacks the parts of the brain that are responsible for cognition and perception. And so there is a whole range of other symptoms that people with that disease will experience. And that can include anxiety and paranoia. It can include hallucinations. It can include a kind of a condition where the person will just kind of seem to stop in their tracks. They'll just kind of freeze up for periods. And you can, you know, see that there is a kind of a light on, but they're not moving or responding to things. It's kind of a lattice of symptoms that's associated with that.

GROSS: So you profile a lot of people for The New York Times. And in writing about Robin Williams, you write about how he felt wounded by the tabloids and the personality press, who would sometimes write about things that he wanted to be private - like when he went into rehab and wasn't ready to talk about it yet and didn't want it revealed yet. I'm wondering how you go about deciding when you're profiling somebody how personal to get - and if somebody doesn't want something to be revealed, whether to reveal it or not. And I ask you this as somebody who also, you know, does a lot of interviews. I'm not profiling somebody in print. But these are issues I have to deal with too though with me somebody could just say, sorry, I'm not going to tell you (laughter). And I'm not going to ask other people about their lives because, you know, I just don't do that.

ITZKOFF: Sure.

GROSS: I'm just talking to that one person. Whereas when you're profiling somebody, you have the opportunity of talking to other people about the person you're profiling.

ITZKOFF: I think it's all sort of driven by the subject to some extent. I mean, sometimes there are things that you just have to find out about people usually when there are, you know, issues of the law at stake - you know, or at least allegations of, you know, really significant misbehavior. And that can involve, you know, seeking out people besides the subject. But I think if we're just talking about a profile of someone and that the subject themselves has, you know, consented to participate in it, that's often - you know, it's driven by, you know, what comes up in your conversation with them, what you can gauge about them, how, you know, open or closed off they are.

And, you know, sometimes people only want to talk about things on a very, you know, kind of basic level. Here's my new movie, and here's what it was like to work on it. And I'll see you later. And as I said, you know, Robin was not like that, at least in my interactions with him - clearly not in your interview with him. And I think a lot of people who spoke to him at that period in his life had a similar experience. It was just - and that's part of what stuck out about him in my mind - that so much was already on the table.

GROSS: Well, Dave Itzkoff, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

ITZKOFF: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Dave Itzkoff is a culture reporter for The New York Times. His new biography of Robin Williams is called "Robin." After a break, we'll hear from Krysten Ritter. She stars in the Netflix series "Jessica Jones" and play Jesse Pinkman's girlfriend on "Breaking Bad." This is FRESH AIR.

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