Starting in 1973 when they were students at Juilliard, Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve shared a special bond
Long before Reeve’s death in 2004 at age 52 as a result of the horseback riding accident that left him paralyzed and dependent on a ventilator to breathe, and before Williams’ death in 2014 by suicide at age 63, the two studied acting together at New York’s Juilliard School — and were even roommates.
The New York City-born Reeve studied theater at Cornell University before being selected from thousands of applicants for the elite acting program. The Chicago-born Williams had dropped out of Claremont Men's College to pursue acting at California’s College of Marin, and went on to attain a scholarship to Juilliard. They would go on to join the school’s Advanced Program in 1973.
In his 1998 memoir Still Me, Reeve recalled a first impression of his future Oscar-winning classmate: Williams, he wrote, “wore tie-dyed shirts with tracksuit bottoms and talked a mile a minute. I'd never seen so much energy contained in one person. He was like an untied balloon that had been inflated and immediately released. I watched in awe as he virtually caromed off the walls of the classrooms and hallways. To say that he was 'on' would be a major understatement."
The two actors remained friends as their respective Hollywood careers took off; Reeve broke out as Clark Kent a.k.a. Superman on the big screen beginning in 1978, while Williams worked his way from stand-up comedy success to hit roles in television.
By the time of Reeve’s spinal cord injury in 1995, he and Williams had both achieved mainstream superstardom. At the 1979 People's Choice Awards show, the Remains of the Day star presented his friend the Favorite Male Performer in a New TV Program prize for Mork & Mindy.
According to Williams’ son, Zak, the pair’s relationship strengthened in the aftermath of Reeve’s accident.
“It was then that Chris and Dad became family, brothers from another mother,” he said in a 2014 speech at the annual gala for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which remains dedicated to researching a cure for spinal cord injuries.
“The amazing thing about their relationship was their incredible drive to take the time to love, to help and to appreciate others even while they found themselves in great pain,” added Zak, now 40. “They always found time to give their all to those in need.”
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“Robin was a light in our family for as long as we can remember,” Will, son of Reeve and his late wife Dana, also said at the gala. “He and Dad made each other laugh and they stood by each other to the end.”
In a Today interview with Katie Couric, Reeve recalled that the Mrs. Doubtfire star appeared at his side soon after the life-changing accident. “He was the first one to show up down in Virginia when I was really in trouble,” he said. “Thank God I wear a seatbelt in this chair because I would have fallen out laughing. In the middle of a tragedy like this… you can still experience genuine joy and laughter and love.”
In Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s new documentary Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story, which had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival Jan. 21 in Park City, Utah, Williams recounts the time he visited a hospitalized Reeve — in his distinctly humorous way, disguised as a Russian proctologist administering an exam.
In a 1996 interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the Dead Poets Society actor recalled for Winfrey the story: “They had just taken him off heavy sedation… I was either the Russian gynecologist or proctologist,” he said.
“They put me in scrubs so I just had the face. I said, ‘If you don’t mind, I’m going to have to put on a rubber glove and examine your internal organs. Oh, look at the size of this baby!’ And I saw that he started to laugh and his eyes lit up because he knew it was me.”
Williams added that support like that helped the struggling Reeve “realize he wanted to try and stick around. That, his wife, his children, laughter and all the other things that make it worthwhile. He’s got a great sense of humor about [his paralysis]. You have to… He has this wheelchair that’s powered by breath and he’s afraid that if he sneezes the thing will backfire and throw him out.”
Super/Man includes other anecdotes from Reeve’s friends, including Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon and Jeff Daniels. Glenn Close, who starred with Williams in 1982’s The World According to Garp, reflects on their friendship, stating, “I always felt that if Chris was still around, Robin would still be alive.”
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