Which actor springs to mind first when you think of the 1998 World War II epic Saving Private Ryan? While stars like Tom Hanks, Vin Diesel, and Tom Sizemore make up the main cast, actors like Paul Giamatti, Ted Danson, and even Nathan Fillion make brief appearances. There’s a good chance Robin Williams’ name isn’t one of the ones that springs to mind, and yet if it weren’t for the late actor and comedian, the eponymous lost soldier would have been played by someone else.
Earlier in September, GQ posted a video with Matt Damon as part of their series in which famous actors talk about their most well known roles; sometimes saying how they got the respective parts or just sharing interesting anecdotes. Damon starts off discussing the Oscar-winning film he co-wrote with Ben Affleck and starred in with both Affleck and Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting. Next up is Saving Private Ryan, in which Matt Damon starred thanks to one of his lesser known roles, luck, and the intervention of Robin Williams. You can watch the video in its entirety below.
Damon explains that he, Affleck, and Robin Williams happened to be in Boston rehearsing for Good Will Hunting at the same time Steven Spielberg was in town filming one of Anthony Hopkins’ scenes for another historical epic — 1997’s Amistad. Williams made a point to bring Damon and Affleck to the set and introduce them to Spielberg. Damon said he had, in fact, read for Saving Private Ryan but hadn’t gotten the part. While Damon wasn’t yet the superstar he is now, Spielberg recognized him from his role as Specialist Andrew Ilario — a heroin addict — in the 1996 war movie Courage Under Fire. Damon lost a tremendous amount of weight for the role, and Spielberg told the actor he had commented while watching the movie that Damon seemed like the perfect actor to play Private Ryan, except he was too skinny. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Earlier in the video, Damon talks about how it was Robin Williams’ involvement in Good Will Hunting that got the film greenlit. He also added that the very last line of the film — Williams saying, “Sonofabitch. He stole my line.” — was completely improvised. In the script, Williams’ character reads Damon’s goodbye letter and absorbs it in silence. Damon recalled that when Williams added the line himself, he grabbed director Gus Van Sant and shook him with excitement because they “knew that was it the second he said it.”
If there’s one thing that’s become clear about the late Robin Williams in the years following his death, it’s that he was an actor who wanted to lift up other actors. Along with going out of his way to introduce Damon and Affleck to Steven Spielberg, he also changed the career trajectory of his Dead Poets Society co-star Ethan Hawke. In August, Hawke shared that it was Williams who introduced Hawke to his first agent, even though the younger, brooding actor was annoyed at the time by the comedian’s on-set antics. Hawke added that he thought the feeling was mutual, though clearly Williams saw more than he realized.