A cooler blend of culture

Robin Williams biography: subdued one moment, wild the next

I first came across Robin Williams while watching Happy Days at my grandparents’ house. It was just before teatime and I let my hot chips get cold as I sat glued to the TV screen, hoping the zany alien who’d invaded Richie Cunningham’s dreams would appear again following end credits. Alas, there was no more hilarity to come from ‘Mork from Ork’. Until a year later…

The one-off character of Mork on Happy Days proved so popular with audiences worldwide that producers immediately signed Robin up to star in his own spin-off series, hence the birth of Mork & Mindy. My grandmother and I would watch the show religiously, and occasionally she’d grab her ears, tweak them just like Mork, and say, “Nanu, nanu.”

Of all his colourful characters onscreen, Mork is the Robin Williams I recall most vividly: a nascent but out-there guy; meek at first but wild once he’d gotten to know his company; innocent for the most part, but quick with the innuendo once the gags got rolling.

It is also the Robin Williams most other people recall, at least those who were interviewed after his death for the hefty biography Robin by Dave Itzkoff.

In the book, the majority of Williams’ associates and colleagues agree he was an elusive character, one minute quiet and seemingly difficult to crack, the next in full force and talking non-stop as if he were their best friend. But real friends Robin didn’t really have, and this biography goes on to depict a man whose vibrant appearances on stage and screen were far from the solemn life he led out of the limelight and in solitude.

Like Williams, the prose itself ricochets from slow-paced and introspective to wayward and wild and back so as that, as you’re reading it, you really do sense the dissonant vibes of the guy.

There are constants that run throughout much of the book – those rainbow suspenders, the mish-mashing of accents, the quick shifts from pensive to excitable, even his bad B.O. – and for the most part, Robin’s personality, despite all the erratic antics, remains fairly consistent. He was, after all, a generally quiet, kind and humble guy. The rest of it – those frantic noises, the wild impersonations, the jazz hands – those were all just good times he was gifting the rest of us.

But he wasn’t a man without his foibles, which you realise when you read of the times he would grab Pam Dawber – who played Mindy – by the ass or breasts whenever the moment would take him.

Oddly enough, Dawber never minded, and ask most of his associates, as Itzkoff has, and they’ll tell you Williams was generally a good guy.

“There are constants that run throughout much of the book – those rainbow suspenders, the mish-mashing of accents, the quick shifts from pensive to excitable, even his bad B.O.”

I remember walking along Macleay Street in Kings Cross, Sydney a decade ago and a friend pointed to the door of a small, dingy bar. “Robin Williams was at this venue last week,” said my friend. “Apparently he was just having a quiet drink, and suddenly got up onstage and did a free full comedy act for the crowd.”

That is the Robin Williams most people recall – generous with the jokes, even when he wasn’t being paid, and always with the aim of making others happy. And that’s the picture of him perfectly painted in Dave Itzkoff’s life story on the man. A thoroughly enjoyable, ricocheting read.

Rest in peace, Robin Williams. Nanu, nanuAntonino Tati

 

‘Robin’ by Dave Itzkoff is published through Pan Macmillan, RRP $32.99.

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