Published Jul 18, 2018In the weeks following Robin Williams' shocking and tragic suicide on August 11, 2014, his family and a mourning public tried to make sense of his death.
A week later, his third and then current wife, Susan Schneider, released a statement indicating that Williams had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, lending credence to a since-held theory that the idiosyncratic, multi-award winning comedian and actor opted to end his life rather than endure a degenerative disease.
But in his compelling and comprehensive new biography, Robin, New York Times culture reporter Dave Itzkoff illuminates a more valid hypothesis about why Williams couldn't reason his way out of his final act.
"It wasn't until many months after his death, when his autopsy was completed, that they analyzed portions of his brain tissue and found evidence of Lewy body dementia," Itzkoff tells Exclaim!, over the phone from his home in Manhattan.
In the book, Williams' friends who saw him in the last weeks of his life, have no doubt that something had altered him and some conclusively believe it was Lewy body dementia, a degenerative and incurable disease, which doctors believe can lead to suicidal tendencies.
"It's similar to Parkinson's in some way, and it's factually true that he was given a diagnosis of Parkinson's while he was alive," Itzkoff explains. "But Lewy body not only attacks the motor part of your brain, it also attacks parts of the brain that deal with decision-making, how you perceive and receive information. People who have it can have terrible anxiety and paranoia, some people have hallucinations, they'll have periods where they shut down in their own body for minutes or hours.
"Some of his friends feel retrospectively that he was trying to settle accounts with them and say goodbye in some way. But it's also possible that, in the end, he didn't know what he was doing or who he even was."
If anyone knows who Robin Williams really was by this point, it's Itzkoff, who has crafted a remarkable portrait of a long-standing artist and celebrity. Robin uncovers the full history of Williams' life, with firsthand accounts from many of his closest friends, family members and associates.
Though he was omnipresent, first as a fledgling standup comedian, then as the meteoric and strange TV star of the hit sitcom, Mork & Mindy, Williams was also a totally enigmatic anomaly. Inspired by Jonathan Winters' free-form absurdity, he paved the way for comedy-to-drama crossover actors like Tom Hanks, Bette Midler and Jim Carrey, calling upon his theatrical and acting background (he was accepted at Julliard but didn't last long) to earn a number of acting awards and nominations, including an Oscar win in 1998 for his turn in Good Will Hunting. But he was always a bigger than life, irreverent, broad comedic actor whom critics never quite knew what to do with.
His dynamism seemed to belie a quiet conflict; for all of Williams's confidence and success, Itzkoff discovered that he was prone to questioning and quiet introspection.
"I had written about Robin on a few different occasions for the New York Times," Itzkoff recalls. "A few different profiles and interviews, the longest one in 2009, when I spent some time with him [on Williams' final standup tour]. The first time I had any kind of conversation with him was prior to that, which was a phone interview and was interesting. It was so subdued and low-key, which isn't how I expected him to be.
"But on the tour, he was very open about a lot of things he'd been through in his life. The whole tour was about his experience falling off the wagon and going into rehab to get sober after a relapse into alcoholism, a divorce he'd just had, and about having open-heart surgery. The fact that that was in the show, he was very open about talking about it one-on-one and just so candid, which I was really surprised by."
Itzkoff says that Williams seemed to have sides to his life that he was able to keep to himself, and he valued his privacy. In speaking to people who knew him well, the author discovered that they still feel like they never really knew the full Robin.
And yet, the overarching feeling in reading Robin is that this is the closest anyone might ever get to a complete picture of a man who seemed propelled by angels and demons alike, in his quest to entertain the masses and find some fulfillment. It makes his demise, and the visceral way in which Itzkoff renders it, all the more sad.
"We may never know why he did it," Itzkoff says of Williams' final, fatal decision. "If it was something where he consciously understood something was happening to him or if it was just a terrible impulse that he acted upon."
Robin by Dave Itzkoff is available now via Henry Holt and Company and in Canada via Raincoast Books.
Listen to this interview with Dave Itzkoff on Kreative Kontrol via Apple Podcasts or below: