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updated: 8/13/2014 10:33 AM

How Robin Williams may have saved Christopher Reeve's life

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  • Actor Christopher Reeve was paralyzed after a horsebackriding accident in 1995, and he credited Robin Williams with helping him when he contemplated surgery by making him laugh. "My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be OK," Reeve said.

      Actor Christopher Reeve was paralyzed after a horsebackriding accident in 1995, and he credited Robin Williams with helping him when he contemplated surgery by making him laugh. "My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be OK," Reeve said.
    Associated Press File photo

  • Oscar winner and comedian Robin Williams died Monday at his home in California.

      Oscar winner and comedian Robin Williams died Monday at his home in California.
    Associated Press File photo

  • Video: Oscar win

 
 

In the end, there wasn't anyone around to convince Robin Williams that he would be OK.

Certainly not like "Superman" star Christopher Reeve had back in 1995.

Reeve was about to undergo an operation to reattach his skull to his spine after a devastating equestrian accident. He was told that he had a 50/50 chance of survival.

Then, at an especially bleak moment, Reeve reported to the media, the door flew open and and a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses entered, speaking in a Russian accent.

The doctor, a proctologist, announced that he would be performing a rectal exam on Superman.

He, of course, was Williams, Reeve's lifelong friend since they roomed together at Julliard.

"For the first time since the accident, I laughed," Reeve reported. "My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be OK."

Robin Williams knew the power of comedy. He wielded it to take our minds off problems. Or force us to focus on them.

The Chicago-born comic could absorb accents, mannerisms, facial tics and personalities instantly and effortlessly. He was a human sponge, a performance powerhouse of extraordinary depth and range.

He could fill us with the helium of humor. Then, he could turn on a half-dime and scare the heck out of us.

He could be a great clown one moment, a tragic actor the next.

In the early days, everybody loved this new, rising stand-up comic.

Except for other stand-up comics.

They didn't think it funny that Williams would hit the stage with his rapid, machine-gun fire delivery, shooting off non-sequiturs and jokes, lapsing into bizarre, hilarious characters, then, in the heat of the improv moment, tapping into other comics' material captured earlier in Williams' subconscious.

But that was his gift, an uncanny ability to riff on anything at any time and make it funnier than funny.

Example: Somewhere in the Walt Disney vaults lies a treasure trove of Williams' improvisations that are as blue as the Genie he played in "Aladdin." (When I interviewed cast members of "Aladdin" at a 1992 film junket, they agreed the funniest material Williams pulled out of thin air would never be allowed in a Disney movie.)

Williams was also a generous benefactor to worthy causes, including the "Send an Underprivileged Kid to the Movies" program sponsored by the Chicago Film Critics Association. He donated $2,000.

With news of Williams' death comes an avalanche of tributes, condolences and notes of disbelief that a talent this rare has departed the earth, leaving our world a little bit colder.

How rare?

Williams was the only life-form in the galaxy equipped with the power to cheer a despondent Superman.

Reeve died in 2004. Williams was found dead Monday at his home in unincorporated Tiburon, California.

And now, both old friends are finally OK.

dgire@dailyherald.com

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