How Robin Williams Got Matt Damon His Saving Private Ryan Role

Real-life pals and would-be kissing buddies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck broke out as not just actors but also writers thanks to 19997's "Good Will Hunting," a drama that landed the pair Oscars for their original script. It also snagged an Academy Award for Robin Williams' performance as Sean Maguire, the haunted therapist who connects with the equally tormented academic prodigy Will Hunting (Damon) and gets him to open himself emotionally over the course of the film.

A year later, Affleck was saving the world from a killer asteroid in "Armageddon" and being the bomb in "Phantoms" while Damon was playing a young man with a very different "gift" (namely, being a master poker player) in "Rounders." 1998 also saw the duo starring in, respectively, "Shakespeare in Love" and "Saving Private Ryan," two very different period pieces that wound up going toe-to-toe at the Oscars, with "Shakespeare" ultimately winning Best Picture and "Ryan" taking home Best Director.

Many people probably (and not without reason) assume that Steven Spielberg cast Damon as the eponymous character in "Saving Private Ryan" after seeing him in "Good Will Hunting" ... that is, before they learn Spielberg began shooting his harrowing WWII drama in June 1997, months before the latter film hit theaters and Damon taught the masses how to use "How do you like them apples?" to crush their enemies. In truth, however, it was actually Williams (who had previously worked with Spielberg on 1991's "Hook") who helped Damon secure the job.

Meeting Mr. Spielberg

In an interview with GQ breaking down his career so far, Damon revealed that Williams took him and Affleck to meet Spielberg "because he knew it was never a bad thing to meet the greatest filmmaker of all time and how much we'd appreciate that." As Damon went on to explain:

"I had put myself on tape and I had read for [Saving] Private Ryan and I hadn't been cast. [Spielberg] met me in person and said 'I think I know you from somewhere,' and I said 'Well I did this movie called Courage Under Fire,' and he goes 'That's the one, you know it's funny, I said to my wife that's the exact type of person I want to play Private Ryan, but he's too thin.' Because I'd lost 40 pounds, I was playing a heroin addict in Courage Under Fire. And so it was only because Robin introduced me to him that he went 'Oh OK, no you're the kind of guy I'm looking for for that job.'"

The story behind Damon's casting in "Saving Private Ryan" is a good reminder of how much being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people (luck, in other words) can impact someone professionally. And while Damon's small yet pivotal turn as James Francis Ryan didn't make his career, he undoubtedly reaped the benefits from appearing in one of the most revered war movies of all time, courtesy of the late Williams' generosity.