In Robin (Holt, May), journalist Itzkoff chronicles the life and times of the late Robin Williams.
Why did you want to write about Robin Williams?
At the New York Times I had written about him on a few occasions and found him not only a fascinating person but a very gentle man, very sincere and genuine. The longest piece was in 2009. He had just experienced a very challenging series of events in his life—recovering from a significant relapse into alcoholism, going through a divorce, then trying to start up this comedy tour and having heart problems that required surgery. So, after all that, he let me come on the road with him for a few days. He was incredibly open and candid, in a way I didn’t expect. And that just made him intriguing, and somebody that you don’t forget about.
I have to ask you about Pam Dawber’s story about how Williams would grab her on the Mork and Mindy set, which she seems to give him a pass on.
I think there are a number of layers that did not come across in a tabloid summary. Obviously, that’s an inappropriate way to behave in any professional setting. But then there’s a level that I think Pam Dawber experienced it on, as a facet of her relationship with Robin—almost a kind of strange sibling relationship. They were around the same age, and they had both grown up in Michigan. Even though he was the star of the show, he needed a lot of guidance and reassurance, and she was somebody who could provide that to him. The way she describes his behavior, she saw it as his way of being playful, and not a sexual advance. But the layer beneath that is still inherently a display of power in their relationship.
Having now written your first biography, what’s your take on the biographer’s responsibilities?
In this case you have a person whose life story has not been told in its entirety before, which requires tremendous care by the author. That included looking at Robin’s interviews over the years. In the first blush of fame he was more inclined to talk about his early life. Then, as he got older, he reduced his answers to more compact sound bites. For instance, that he left Juilliard because John Houseman said, “You’re just too good for the school and there’s nothing that we can teach you anymore”—it’s pretty clear those weren’t exactly the circumstances. So it’s important to be as careful and as precise as possible to separate the mythology from the reality.