Biographies We Need: The Boundless Soul of Robin Williams

Robin Williams on "Mork and Mindy" © Henderson Productions

In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography? 

When a famous person dies unexpectedly, the shock and unanswered questions around the circumstances of death can often overshadow a full appreciation of the life that has been lost. Such is certainly the case with Robin Williams, whose apparent suicide became immediate fodder for endless media speculation about his mental and physical health at the time of his death. While its only natural to wonder why a performer who seemed uniquely aware of how much joy he brought others decided to end his own life, the way he died is far from the most interesting thing about Williams, a performer whose life and career defied easy categorization. The gifted mimic was inimitable, a manic clown one minute, a soulful mensch the next. Which is why we need a biography of Robin Williams, one that focuses not on how he died, but how he lived.

Anyone with even a glancing familiarity with Williams’s yard-long list of TV, movie, and comedy album credits, or the work of his various charitable foundations, knows the star made an excellent living making people laugh. Fewer people may know that he grew up with money, though, during a childhood as lonely as it was privileged. The son of an automobile executive and a former model, he spent his early years in Chicago, then moved to an expansive farm outside Detroit, where he was raised primarily by maids and nannies. As a teenager, he moved to California with his family, and began acting in college. He attended Juilliard on a drama scholarship, but left after his teachers said they had nothing more to teach him. Stand-up, television shows, and the role of Mork, the irrepressible manchild who fell to Earth on "Mork and Mindy," followed.

Even from the time he was barely an adult himself, Williams understood that his ability to access his childlike sense of creativity and play was essential to his work. In his early days on "Mork and Mindy," he told the show’s creator, Garry Marshall, "I’m afraid if I ever grow up, I won’t be able to make a living." Throughout his life, he remained enamored of fantasy novels and kids’ toys and videogames. His favorite book was Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi Foundation trilogy, and his deep love of online gaming lead him to name his daughter Zelda from the game The Legend of Zelda (granted, his son was the first to suggest the name, but Williams eagerly approved.)

While it’s no surprise that some of his most beloved comedic roles, in films like "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Aladdin," were aimed at young audiences, his dramatic roles also contain a deep sympathy for the pain of growing up. In "Dead Poets Society" his unconventional prep school teacher encourages his students to seize their youth, just as in "Good Will Hunting" his empathetic psychologist helps the main character heal the wounds of childhood.

Robin Williams - Good Will Hunting

Throughout his career, his live, onstage persona retained a childlike glee at invention and improvisation, as he worked himself into a lather to keep the audience entertained. At times watching him you get a sense of the child desperate for his parents’ attention, singing, dancing, making faces, standing on his hands -- whatever it takes to keep the grown ups from looking away. By all accounts, this intense sensitivity to the wonder and vulnerability of the young made Williams a loving and attentive father, both to his real children and the actors who played his surrogate offspring in movies and on TV. In the days following his death, we’ve begun to hear their voices in tribute to his gifts as a performer and a person. This is why a full biography, where we could read all the stories of all the facets of the man, would be a gift to his fans.