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The NYT’s Dave Itzkoff explains what people get wrong about Robin Williams’s life — and his death

In his new book “Robin,” Itzkoff explores the complicated life of the manic comedian, whose stardom spanned four decades.

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Comedian and actor Robin Williams in 2008
Robin Williams
Todd Williamson / Getty Images for TV Land

During Robin Williams’s life, fans who saw him transition from comedic roles in TV shows like “Mork and Mindy” to more dramatic roles as in “Good Will Hunting” thought they knew what they were seeing.

“I think people want to paint him as the archetype of the comedian who one day woke up and decided he wanted to be serious,” Williams biographer Dave Itzkoff said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka.

In fact, Itzkoff writes in his new book “Robin: The Definitive Biography of Robin Williams,” the actor/comedian “always had both of those parts of his personality,” zany and serious. In addition to being a talented improv and stand-up comedian, he was a classically trained actor who studied at the Juilliard School and two other colleges.

When Williams took his own life in August 2014, the misconceptions continued. Fans and the media rushed to draw conclusions about the suicide and were led astray by incorrect or incomplete explanations.

“People went to the stereotype of the sad clown, the person who outwardly is happy but inside is broken,” Itzkoff said. “And he did have depression and he did wrestle with anxiety — people made that assumption. Then, within about a week of his death, it was disclosed that he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and that was correct, to a point.”

“But in fact — and this did not come out until his autopsy, which was several months after his death — that autopsy and the analysis of his brain tissue found the symptoms of what’s called Lewy body dementia,” he added. “The pathology is somewhat similar to Parkinson’s, but the spectrum of symptoms is great and the effect it likely had on him was pretty devastating.”

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On the new podcast, Itzkoff also talked about his interactions with Williams while he was alive, interviewing him and writing about him for the New York Times, where Itzkoff is a culture reporter. In the late aughts, after Williams relapsed into alcoholism, went through a divorce and had to postpone a live tour to get open-heart surgery, Itzkoff was surprised by his candor about those troubles.

“When he and I would have our interviews, he was open about all of this,” he said. “And often, as an interviewer, particularly when you’re talking to highly visible people, celebrities, and it’s known that negative things have happened, they don’t want to talk about it, or you have to really work up to it. You have to carefully construct the conversation so that they feel open enough to discuss some of those things with you.

“Everything with him was on the table, especially alcoholism and recovery and the real understanding of the awful things he had done while he was drinking, his feeling that it had put a stain on him and his family,” Itzkoff added. “He was really willing to go there. If he hadn’t been so candid and open about himself in that way, it would’ve been much harder to write something like this.”

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