In September 2019, the Facebook page “Clips of Our Past” shared the following meme, which presented an anecdote about Superman actor Christopher Reeve and purported actions taken by friend and fellow actor and comedian Robin Williams to raise his spirits in the wake of a life-altering accident:
Beneath an image of Williams either whispering to Reeve or kissing him on the head, text read:
When Christopher Reeve was in the hospital after the riding accident that paralyzed him, Robin Williams burst through the door wearing scrubs and announced in a Russian accent that he was a proctologist and needed to examine him immediately. Reeve said it was the first time he’d laughed since the accident, and from that moment on he knew that life was going to be OK.
No additional reading was suggested in the post, which was shared more than 55,000 times. However, the incident in question was recounted on several occasions by both Reeve’s family members as well as by Williams himself in an appearance on Oprah.
A June 2019 Biography.com page about Williams and Reeve’s friendship described the accident and subsequent Williams’ visit to Reeve (including the impression). Reeve was quoted as later recalling the visit during an interview with Barbara Walters, and crediting Williams’ humor as a pivotal point in his recovery:
On May 27, 1995, Reeve was thrown from his horse during an equestrian jumping event in Virginia. He landed on his head, fracturing his first and second vertebrae. When he woke up in the hospital on May 31, he learned he was paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors told Reeve he had a 50 percent chance of surviving his injuries. Surgery was required to reattach his spine and skull.
Fortunately, Reeve had the support of his family, and of friends like Williams. As Reeve was lying in his hospital bed, still grappling with what had happened, a visitor in a surgical gown and scrub hat entered the room. In a Russian accent, he told Reeve he was a proctologist there to perform an examination. When Reeve realized the supposed doctor was, in fact, Williams, reprising his character from the movie Nine Months, he laughed.
Reeve, who’d been feeling depressed and uncertain about his future, hadn’t laughed since his accident. Being able to do that, thanks to Williams, changed his mindset. As he later explained to Barbara Walters, “I knew then: if I could laugh, I could live.”
Reeve died in 2004, and Williams in 2014. After the latter’s passing, Reeve’s family again lauded the comedian and the story appeared in memorial articles. The news and entertainment show Today quoted Reeve describing his friend as his first visitor after the accident, and credited Williams with being the reason he started to feel hopeful again:
“He was the first one to show up down in Virginia when I was really in trouble,” the late Reeve told then-TODAY anchor Katie Couric in an interview that aired Nov. 27, 1995, six months after his accident.
“He came here one afternoon and just — thank God I wear a seatbelt in this chair because I would have fallen out laughing,” Reeve continued. “It’s funny. In the middle of a tragedy like this, in the middle of a depression, you can still experience genuine joy and laughter and love.”
In 2014, Reeve’s family members once again said Williams showed him he was “going to be okay”:
The family recalled a time after Reeve’s accident when Williams visited him at the hospital jokingly dressed as the proctologist he played in the movie “Nine Months,” saying he needed to give Reeve an immediate exam. Reeve was preparing for a surgical procedure that would re-attach his skull and spine — and come with only a 50-50 chance of survival. Williams showed up, snapped on a latex glove and broke out his character’s Russian accent to lighten the mood.
“After our father’s accident, Robin’s visit to his hospital room was the first time that Dad truly laughed,” the family said in its statement. “Dad later said, ‘My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.'”
Williams also referenced the visit early on in Reeve’s recovery, including once on Oprah in 1996.
Although celebrity anecdote memes can be difficult to verify, particularly when the parties referenced are deceased, the story about Robin Williams surprising his gravely injured friend in the guise of a “Russian proctologist” is well documented. Both Williams and Reeve’s relatives told the story in later years, and Reeve as well as his relatives specifically stated Williams’ “bit” in the hospital was a moment in which a depressed Reeve first felt he could carry on living and experience happiness.