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From the film archives: Parallels between Williams, role of "Patch Adams"

POSTED: August 21, 2014 1:00 a.m.
/Universal Pictures

Robin Williams portrays Hunter "Patch" Adams in the 1998 film "Patch Adams." It is inspired by the true story of Adams, the founder of the Gesundheit Clinic, which deals with patients with humor and pathos.

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Last week, we lost a comedic icon. The death of Robin Williams is a bitter ending to a man who delighted millions through entertainment.

Like many, I spent the weekend browsing catalogs of his films and reliving my childhood through some his best roles. I looked for one I had never seen before and found it in his 1998 movie “Patch Adams.”

The comedy-drama is based on the true story of Hunter “Patch” Adams, a mental patient turned physician and social activist.

After admitting himself into a mental hospital for suicidal tendencies, Adams (Williams) finds himself in the company of the deranged. Largely ignored by doctors and medical personnel, Adams finds solace in helping his fellow patients.

In one scene, he helps his roommate combat his fear of hallucinatory squirrels by staging an imaginary war zone in which the two killed all the hallucinations with pretend rifles. In another instance, he fixes a psychotic mathematician’s cup, earning the nickname “Patch.”

It was then that Adams realized the only way to be happy was through devotion to helping others. After signing out of the hospital against medical advice, Adams enrolled in medical school to become a physician.

Determined to “treat the patient” and not just disease, Adams constantly jokes with patients at the nearby university hospital, earning him the ire of his superiors. He visits sick children wearing a makeshift clown costume made from enema pumps and bedpans. He tries to brighten the terminally ill patients with balloon-animal safaris and pools full of wet noodles.

If it all sounds strange to you, it is and that is the point. His childlike exuberance and vivid imagination brings vitality to an otherwise dreary and cold environment. Patients no longer dwell on their deaths, and instead enjoy the life they have left.

The film is filled to the brim with emotional scenes of love and loss. So much so, it sometimes feels fake and detrimental.

Williams’ strong acting does little to break the “funny doctor” caricature. Seemingly in an attempt to add greater depth to Adams, the screenwriters added a love interest that ends tragically, sending the doctor into a tailspin of self-doubt and pity.

Unsurprisingly, Adams resolves the emotional trial by helping a patient relive a childhood wish. He goes on to graduate from medical school, though not without a final courtroom showdown with the dean of his college.

I do not think “Patch Adams” is bad movie; in fact I thoroughly enjoyed it. But nearly all of Adams’ personal challenges felt contrived and poorly executed. It is still a good movie, just not a great one.

However, it is a great way to remember Williams and the delight he brought to so many people. The joys and struggles of Adams seemingly parallel those of Williams himself. He brought smiles and laughter, but not without tears. I will miss him sorely.

Andrew Akers is a columnist for The Times. He can be reached at andrewpakers@gmail.com.



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