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Jeff Simon: The unprecedented shock of Robin Williams' life and death makes its way onto pages

Aug. 10, 2014 was a Sunday night. That was the night Robin Williams locked his closet door and hanged himself. He wasn't discovered until the late morning of the next day.

The shock was worldwide and instantaneous. So was the puzzlement and gloom. No one outside his family had any idea how dark it had become for him.

At that moment, according to Dave Itzkoff's monumental new biography called simply "Robin" (Henry Holt, 521 pages, $30), "David Letterman was vacationing on his ranch near Glacier National Park in rural Montana with a group of friends that included Paul Shaffer, Bill Murray and the actor and comedian Tim Thomerson when the news reached him. As a fellow survivor of heart surgery, Letterman said 'it didn't make any sense to me' ...

"Murray was even more visibly shaken than Letterman. 'He couldn't catch his breath,' Letterman said. 'He kept hyperventilating. I thought he was going to have a heart attack.' When the group was able to calm down somewhat, Murray shared a story from the 2004 Academy Awards, the year he was considered a strong favorite to earn a Best Actor Trophy for 'Lost in Translation' but instead was edged out by Sean Penn for his performance in 'Mystic River.'... [Said Letterman of Murray] 'Later that night, Robin came up to him. They certainly didn't know each other well and Robin said, 'Bill please don't worry about this. This will happen for you.' Bill was very touched at this guy, who he did not have that sort of relationship with, who took time to be generous and nice about that.'"

It's nice to remember that Pauline Kael once called Williams' performance in "Dead Poet's Society," "astonishingly empathic." It's truly important to remember that when Johnny Carson was finally scheduled to say goodbye after 30 years of late-night TV supremacy, he had two guests to get him through the event -- Bette Midler, who had often been Carson's opening act in Las Vegas, and Robin Williams, who would be the perfect mix of sensitivity and mania.

You also have to remember -- though Itzkff oddly doesn't, among several other things in this book -- that when Jack Nicholson once openly confessed to everyone watching the Golden Globes on TV that, embarrassingly, "I've never been this baked on national television before." Nicholson was, self-evidently, not kidding. Anyone who has ever seen a stoned human being in his life, knew the mega-star was all of that from the way he looked and talked.

Robin Williams was whom Nicholson suddenly called to come up from the audience to the stage with him and distract the audience to get everyone through it. In other words, to make all the proper wild man Robin Williams jokes at "full-goose bozo" tempo while leaving Nicholson to gather together as much dignity as possible by keeping his mouth closed. In other words, to imply to anyone gullible that it was all just showbiz, an act.

Robin Williams was so often show business' designated savior.

When Letterman got back to his show after his vacation, he couldn't avoid the subject of the suicide of his old friend from California comedy clubs and the depression it indicated. If only Letterman had known, he said, he'd have called and tried to haul him out of it.

But, as he seemed to point out, that was the godawful irony. Williams was the one everyone else in need called. When he himself was in trouble, there was no Robin Williams for him to call.

You had to see an exploding Robin Williams perform live in his early career to understand the revolutionary shock of seeing him for the first time long before fame hit him like a two-by-four with "Mork and Mindy." I was lucky enough to catch him so early in his professional life that the comic who'd introduced him at the Improv that night (Ed Bluestone) told the audience, "You may not know the name yet, but you'll never forget the act."

It was just a few months later that everyone knew his name. "Mork and Mindy" changed all that. His act that night long ago was one of the most amazing I'd ever seen. On a night's bill full of brilliant young comics re-inventing their profession -- including Andy Kaufman doing a bit Samuel Beckett might have liked -- it was Robin Williams who had the closing spot. After him, no one wanted to go next.

Itzkoff is very good describing and piecing together both Robin Williams' act and his life. This is an authorized biography, meaning the author got as much cooperation as he could from everyone he needed to.

Despite all of the oddly obvious lacunae for such a hugely inclusive book, this is about as good a book as you will ever get about the epitome of comedy club eruption in the cocaine years of the '70's and '80's. (Williams' act, once he found it, seldom failed. He always improvised but, as Itzkoff points out, within a familiar context so that it always worked out. Richard Pryor always kept trying out brand new things whenever he could. That intrepidity didn't always make for a sure thing.)

But Williams was both the epitome and the brutal end of something we'll never see again.

This is a very good and welcome book for all its weird lacks. It is terrible to read about Williams' misdiagnosis as having Parkinson's, which meant his not being able to get proper medication for his Lewy body dementia.

It is our luck that Robin Williams left behind so much -- so many movies where he played straight and with remarkable discipline (he won an Oscar for "Good Will Hunting") and so much undiscovered territory from live appearances. For all its thoroughness, I wish this book could have been better, but it's sensitive and good enough. You couldn't ask for a better one to tell this whole story for the first time.

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