Today, Awakenings airs on Great Movies Classic, the film that demonstrates the remarkable talents of Williams and De Niro — two of the greatest actors of their generation. Based on a true story written by neurologist Oliver Sacks, it follows Dr Malcolm Sayer, who struggles to cope with his new patients, victims of the sleeping-sickness disease, encephalitis lethargica. Dr Sayer, played by Williams, meets his first patient Leonard Lowe (De Niro), who has been comatose for three decades, and is given treatments that produce remarkable results in treating Parkinson’s disease.
The pair gained huge acclaim for their performances and in the process became great friends while on set.
Williams once recalled how their acting techniques worked, producing stunning results — particularly after he accidentally struck De Niro while filming the 1990 flick.
He discussed how, despite his rugged exterior, “the truth is [De Niro]’s a very gentle man”.
Speaking on the Johnny Carson Show in 1991, Williams said: “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’”.
Williams likened the sound to that of a chicken bone snapping.
He even joked that “all of a sudden the crew were like, ‘I gotta go now’,” in reference to De Niro’s famously short temper.
Following the altercation, De Niro got up, claiming to be fine, before being taken shortly afterwards to hospital.
While there, in a stunning piece of good fortune, De Niro was told his nose had actually been put back in place by Williams.
Williams’ career included a series of iconic roles, including in Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs Doubtfire, and his Oscar-winning turn in Good Will Hunting.
He was known for his incredible versatility, which saw him move effortlessly between drama, comedy and musicals.
After the film, the pair remained close and after it was confirmed Williams had died in 2014, De Niro admitted he struggled to watch Awakenings knowing his friend was no longer around.
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He dedicated his award from the Friars Club to the late comic, noting he was the funniest person he knew.
The star continued: “If you know me, you know how much I like to laugh. And no one made me laugh like Robin.
“Of course, it was more than the jokes. He had so much humanity.
“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.”
Williams died at age 63, after he killed himself at his home in Paradise Cay, California.
His autopsy revealed undiagnosed Lewy body disease.
Among the many emotional tributes was then-US President Barack Obama, who said: “Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between.
“He arrived in our lives as an alien — but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit.
“He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most — from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalised on our own streets.”
Awakenings airs on Great Movies Classic tonight from 9pm.