There is perhaps no bigger actor in the history of Hollywood than Robert De Niro, the favourite of director Martin Scorsese who appeared in the likes of classics such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. Likewise, there was no more culturally pertinent comedian in the late 20th century than Robin Williams, starring in the popular comedy Saturday Night Live as well as films such as Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire and much more.
As well as a loyal collaborator of director Martin Scorsese, De Niro also worked alongside the Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino in Jackie Brown where he joined the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Pam Grier and Michael Keaton. Known as one of the finest actors of the era, De Niro was awarded an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II as well as a Best Leading Actor Oscar for Raging Bull in 1981.
In an interview with Charlie Rose upon the release of Jackie Brown, director Quentin Tarantino waxed lyrical about the iconic actor, telling the programme: “He deserves his reputation as probably the greatest actor of his generation”.
Continuing, the influential director added, “I think he is the best actor in the world. I’ve never seen an actor so completely consume himself in character, in true character work during the work. And what I mean by that is when Robert is playing Louis…he is working moment to moment”.
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.