Robin Williams

On This Day: ‘Dead Poets Society’ Starring Robin Williams Premieres in 1989

Robin Williams always could do frantic, over-the-top, chaotic comedy. That was his calling card. But his quieter, dramatic roles were just as memorable.

Remember Dead Poets Society, the coming-of-age movie about an all-boys boarding school in 1959? It was released 32 years ago today. Robin Williams played English professor John Keating. And in portraying his character, Williams was restrained as he tried to motivate and animate his students. He used the quiet words of poetry to get through to the boys.

“Why do I stand up here? Anybody?,” Robin Williams, as Keating, told his students. “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.” Maybe Robin Williams was speaking about himself.

Robin Williams Wasn’t First Choice for Role

It seems odd to think now, but consider that Liam Neeson was the original choice for Keating. That was back when Jeff Kanew was the director of Dead Poets Society. But the director changed from Kanew to Peter Weir, the Aussie director who also gave us Witness and Green Card. However, the part of Keating was originally intended for Dustin Hoffman.

Robin Williams was perfect for the role of playing the prep-school-grad turned first-year teacher. It was his follow-up to Good Morning Vietnam. In that movie, Williams was a zany Saigon-based DJ working for American Armed Services Radio during the Vietnam War. Most of his dialogue was improvised. Williams did it so well he was nominated for an Oscar.

In Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams earned another Academy Award nomination. The movie was up for best picture and Weir was a nominee for best director. Dead Poets Society did win for best original screenplay.

Movie Helped Launch Career of Several Actors

The movie also helped start the careers of several talented young actors, including Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles.

Robin Williams’ character really inspired Leonard’s Neil, who wanted to be an actor. But Neil’s dad wanted his son to go to medical school. He put so much pressure on Neil that Neil committed suicide, which dealt a crushing blow to his friends and the school. Keating lost his job. But as the movie ended, students stood up on their desks and spoke about how much Keating meant to them.

The movie grossed almost $236 million at the box office. With adjustments for inflation, that’s worth more than $500 million today. It was the fifth-highest grossest film for 1989. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Batman topped the year, followed by Back to the Future Part II and Look Who’s Talking.

As Robin Williams, who died in 2014, said in the movie:

“But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – – Carpe – – hear it? – – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

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