Christopher Reeve and Robin Williams, close friends since their Juilliard days, found fame and then tragedy


Christopher Reeve and Robin Williams were both actors with enviable careers.

Reeve, born in 1952 in New York City, rose to international fame after playing the role of Clark Kent in the immensely successful 1978 film Superman: The Movie. Reeve went on to portray Clark Kent in a total of four Superman films and also starred in a number of other acclaimed films, including The Bostonians, The Aviator, Somewhere in Time, and The Remains of the Day. He was praised for his excellent acting technique as well as his athletic posture; he could play tough and masculine, yet emotional and decent characters.

Robin Williams, born in Chicago in 1951, rose to fame through his improvisational skills and his natural talent for comedy. He started his career as a stand-up comedian and ended up starring in many popular comedies and children’s films such as the TV series Mork & Mindy and the films Mrs. Doubtfire, Flubber, Night at the Museum, and Jumanji. However, Williams was an extremely versatile actor who also starred in a number of acclaimed dramas, including Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, and Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Christopher Reeve being interviewed at the cast party after the opening night of the “Marriage of Figaro” at The Circle in the Square Theatre in NYC. Author: Jbfrankel CC BY-SA 3.0

The two actors specialized in different acting styles and had completely different sets of skills, but they mastered the art of acting at the same place: the Juilliard School. The Juilliard School is a prestigious performing-arts conservatory in Manhattan which is one of the world’s best institutions of performing arts.

Williams at the “Happy Feet Two” premiere in Sydney in December 2011. Author: Eva Rinaldi,, CC BY-SA 2.0

The school accepts only 20 students into the freshman class each year, and Reeve and Williams both attained full scholarships in 1973. Prominent actors William Hurt and Mandy Patinkin also enrolled at the school that same year. Furthermore, John Houseman, an acting veteran and a prominent film producer, established an advanced program at the Juilliard School that accepted only two students per year: Reeve and Williams gained the two places at the beginning of their freshman year.

In his autobiography, Reeve stated that he greatly admired Williams’ acting talent. According to Reeve, Williams’ versatile skills baffled even their teachers, including their primary acting teacher, Michael Kahn, a renowned director and drama instructor. Kahn often criticized Williams’ sense of comedy for being more suitable for stand-up performances than the theater.

Williams performing stand-up comedy at a USO show on December 20, 2007.

However, Williams silenced anyone who criticized his comic antics by playing a stern old man in The Night of the Iguana, written by Tennessee Williams. Robbin Williams’ portrayal was so realistic that even the most rigorous acting teachers of the Juilliard School affirmed his exceptional talent.

While Reeve was a quiet and dedicated student who concentrated on getting good grades and handing in his assignments on time, Williams was an energetic and restless young man who amazed everyone with his ability to talk without stopping for lengthy periods of time. In his autobiography, Reeve wrote about Williams: “He was like an untied balloon that had been inflated and immediately released. I watched in awe as he virtually caromed off the wall of the classrooms and hallways. To say that he was ‘on’ would be a major understatement.”

Reeve discussing stem-cell research at a conference at MIT, March 2, 2003.

The two actors became lifelong friends. In 1994, the severe spinal-cord injury caused by his nearly fatal horseback riding accident left Reeve a quadriplegic. He died 10 years later. The accident had already ended his acting career.

The career of Robin Williams abruptly ended in August 2014, almost exactly 10 years after Reeve’s death. Tragically, the actor committed suicide at his home in Paradise Cay, California.

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The exact reasons for his suicide remain unknown; some of his friends speculated that he succumbed to severe depression, and his wife claimed that suicide was his move in a struggle against a form of dementia and Parkinson’s.

It is in their legacy of performances that Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve will long be remembered.