Robin Williams: One of the Greatest Comedians of the Past Century

Robin Williams: One of the Greatest Comedians of the Past Century

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.


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.

Voicing the genie in ‘Aladdin’

Throughout this time, Robin’s son Zak was often in contact with Robin’s longtime assistant Rebecca Erwin Spencer and her husband, Dan, who lived in Corte Madera, near Tiburon, and who Zak felt took good care of Robin. “They were very open and did love him very much—they were pretty good about keeping us in the fold,” he said. “I think there was inclusivity up until a point when things started getting a little weird.”

That moment came around the time when Robin went to Los Angeles to start working on The Crazy Ones. “I’m kicking myself for not visiting him during that time,” Zak said. “Because I think that was a very lonely period for him. In retrospect, I feel like I should have been there, spending time with him. Because someone who needs support was not getting the support he needed.”

Starting in October 2013, Robin began to experience a series of physical ailments, varying in their severity and seemingly unconnected to one another. He had stomach cramps, indigestion, and constipation. He had trouble seeing; he had trouble urinating; he had trouble sleeping. The tremors in his left arm had returned, accompanied by the symptoms of cogwheel rigidity, where the limb would inexplicably stop itself at certain fixed points in its range of motion. His voice had diminished, his posture was stooped, and at times he simply seemed to freeze where he stood.

Susan was used to seeing Robin experience a certain amount of nervousness, but when she spoke to him now, his anxiety levels seemed off the chart. “It was like this endless parade of symptoms, and not all of them would raise their head at once,” she said. “It was like playing whack-a-mole. Which symptom is it this month? I thought, is my husband a hypochondriac? We’re chasing it and there’s no answers, and by now we’d tried everything.”

Billy Crystal said that Robin began to reveal some of his discomfort, but only up to a point. “He wasn’t feeling well, but he didn’t let on to me all that was going on,” Crystal said. “As he would say to me, ‘I’m a little crispy.’ I didn’t know what was happening, except he wasn’t happy.”

Iconic radio deejay in ‘Good Morning Vietnam’

In the fall, Crystal and his wife, Janice, invited Robin out to see the Joseph Gordon-Levitt comedy Don Jon at a movie theater in Los Angeles. When they met at the parking lot, Crystal said, “I hadn’t seen him in about four or five months at the time, and when he got out of the car I was a little taken aback by how he looked. He was thinner and he seemed a little frail.”

Over dinner afterward, Crystal said, “He seemed quiet. On occasion, he’d just reach out and hold my shoulder and look at me like he wanted to say something.” When the friends said goodbye at the end of the night, Robin burst out with unexpected affection. “He hugged me goodbye, and Janice, and he started crying,” Crystal said.“I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m just so happy to see you. It’s been too long. You know I love you.’”

On their car ride home, Crystal said he and Janice were barraged by calls from Robin, sounding tentative and expressing his appreciation for the couple. “Everything’s fine, I just love you so much, ’bye,” went one call. Five minutes later the phone rang again: “Did I get too sappy? Let’s see each other soon.”

Before production wrapped on The Crazy Ones in February 2014, its producers made a last-ditch effort to re-invigorate its viewership with a bit of guest casting. Pam Dawber was invited to play a role in one episode, as a possible romantic interest for the Simon Roberts character, marking the first time that she and Robin had performed together since Mork & Mindy, and the first screen role that Dawber—who had stepped back from the business to raise her children with the actor Mark Harmon—had taken in 14 years.

Dawber knew the stunt was something that would only be attempted by a TV series faced with the looming threat of cancellation, but she accepted the role anyway. “I did that show only because I wanted to see Robin,” she said. “Not because I thought it was a great show. I thought it was such the wrong show for Robin, and he was working as hard as he could. The couple episodes I saw, I felt so sorry for him, because he was just sweating bullets. He was sweet and wonderful and loving and sensitive. But I would come home and say to my husband, ‘Something’s wrong. He’s flat. He’s lost the spark. I don’t know what it is.’”

Dawber also drew the conclusion that Robin was experiencing serious health problems, but she felt uncomfortable broaching the subject with him. “In general, he was so not who I knew him to be,” she said. “But I didn’t feel right prying, because I hadn’t been around him. So I did what I could. ‘I hear you have a new marriage.’ ‘Oh, she’s wonderful. She’s so sweet.’”

Despite its retro-TV reunion hook and the increased promotion it received, Dawber’s episode of The Crazy Ones did nothing to stop the show’s continued ratings slide. The next week, its season finale was watched by barely five million people. The following month, CBS canceled the show. Friends like Mark Pitta, who spoke to Robin during this period, believed he was at peace with the network’s decision. “I said to him, ‘How are you doing?’” Pitta recalled. “And he just volunteered it. He goes, ‘Well, my show was canceled.’ I said, ‘How’s that going for you?’ He goes, ‘Well, bad financially. Good creatively.’”

By that time, Robin had already moved on to filming Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the third film in the family-comedy franchise. That previous winter, he had shot a portion of the movie in London, and now he was completing the rest of his scenes in Vancouver. Though it was the first big-budget feature that Robin had worked on in some time, it was a project that many people close to him had hoped he would not take—it was clear to them that whatever had been afflicting him was getting worse, and he needed to push the pause button on his career until his mystery illness was brought under control.

But what proved more powerful than the pleas from his colleagues and from family members to slow things down—even more powerful than Robin’s desire to sustain his life with Susan and to be a good earner for his managers and agents—was his own desire to keep working through the pain, the one cure-all that had helped him cope with past troubles.

“I don’t think he thought he could blow up what he built for himself,” Cheri Minns, his makeup artist, said. “It’s like he didn’t worry about anything when he worked all the time. He operated on working. That was the true love of his life. Above his children, above everything. If he wasn’t working, he was a shell of himself. And when he worked, it was like a light bulb was turned on.”

  • Excerpted from Robin by Dave Itzkoff. Published by Vanity Fair arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, May 15, 2018. Copyright © 2018 by Dave Itzkoff. All rights reserved.

Robin Williams In Mrs Doubtfire outfit


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