Netflix Flashback: Robin Williams and Robert De Niro combine for ‘Awakenings’
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Film Flashback

Netflix Flashback: Robin Williams and Robert De Niro combine for 'Awakenings'

There are countless Netflix original movies and series for you to jump into when scrolling through the titles on the streaming platform. However, while the fresh appeal of new content is always alluring, the service also has countless classic movies available too. With Netflix Flashback, we pick out some of the best flicks buried within the cyber-shelves of Netflix’s impressive library. Here, we dig deep to find the cherishable gem, Awakenings, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

Two forces of cultural weight met on the set of the film Awakenings, directed by Penny Marshall, in which Robin Williams plays a caring physician at a local hospital in the Bronx and Robert De Niro stars as his catatonic patient. The film, which also features Ruth Nelson and John Heard, follows the efforts of Williams’ doctor to aid in the recovery of several patients left in a catatonic state ever since an encephalitis epidemic many years ago. 

A physical role for both actors, it seems as though the occasion got a little out of hand for both Williams and De Niro as the comedian ended up breaking the iconic actor’s nose. Speaking on the Johnny Carson show back in 1991, Williams discussed the ordeal, telling the programme that, despite De Niro’s tough exterior, “the truth is he’s a very gentle man”. 

Speaking about the incident itself, Williams added: “In the making of that movie, I broke his nose by accident, we had this struggle when I was supposed to be restraining him when he was having a seizure and my elbow went ‘bam’”. Describing the sound of the break as if someone had snapped a chicken bone, the comedian jokes that upon the incident, “all of a sudden the crew were like ‘I gotta go now’”, in reference to De Niro’s presumed short temper. Contrary to the crew’s preconceptions, De Niro got up and assured everyone that he was OK before being understandably escorted to the hospital. When he arrived, the surgeon told De Niro that Williams had actually put his nose back in place, quite possibly by mistake, in the chaos that followed the accident.

Robin Williams plays the character of Dr. Malcolm Sayers, a role based on the real-life figure of British neurologist Oliver Sacks. Penny Marshall’s 1990 drama places Williams in a psychiatric hospital where he is responsible for several catatonic patients.

This performance earned Williams his fourth Golden Globe nomination and the film was nominated for three Academy Awards, despite it not being much of commercial success. Both Robert De Niro and Williams put up phenomenal performances in Awakenings, a film that manages to come across as emotionally moving for audiences, no matter who is viewing it. “I think when Oliver first met Robin, he was amazed at Robin’s ability to imitate,” filmmaker Penny Marshall noted. “Robin could do all of Oliver’s moves, and I think it made Oliver a little nervous.”

The movie itself is a rich and textured look at the struggles of man in the face of arduous setbacks. Humility and humour are the order of the day, with each Hollywood heavyweight providing their own fair dose of each. De Niro’s depiction of Leonard Lowe is one of his more underrated performances.

The pair remained good friends, and De Niro even dedicated his award from the Friars Club to the late comedian. The actor claimed that Robin Williams was one of the funniest people he had ever known. “If you know me, you know how much I like to laugh. And no one made me laugh like Robin,” De Niro said, while remembering Williams.

“Of course, it was more than the jokes. He had so much humanity,” he continued. “He was a wonderful actor, sure, but those feelings were real. No one could fake that kind of love and compassion. Robin, my dear friend, I dedicate this award to you.” De Niro has since revealed that he still finds it incredibly difficult to watch Awakenings because it reminds him of Williams.

Watch Awakenings on Netflix now.