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Touchstone Pictures

15 Facts About Dead Poets Society

Touchstone Pictures
Touchstone Pictures

Robin Williams' portrayal of John Keating was one of his iconic roles, and this drama about boys at a prep school in 1959 still endures. Here are 15 things you may not have known about Dead Poets Society

Carpe diem.

1. The movie was loosely based on the screenwriter's life.

Dead Poets Society was written by Tom Schulman, who also wrote Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and What About Bob? It was the first screenplay he sold to Hollywood, though not the first one he wrote—in fact, Schulman wrote four scripts before Dead Poets Society. The story is based in part on his experiences at Montgomery Bell Academy, a prep school in Nashville, Tennessee. Most of the characters were modeled on people he knew from real life.

2. The main character, John Keating, was based on two of Schulman's teachers.

Keating was based on Harold Clurman, who taught at the Actors and Directors Lab, and Samuel Pickering, who taught Schulman's sophomore English class. While Keating's inspiring speeches may have come from Clurman, his quirky teaching style came from Pickering. In an essay, Pickering says he sometimes taught class while standing on a desk (as Keating does) or in a trashcan. One of his students remembers Pickering making him stand on a chair and flap his arms every time the class said the word “nevermore” while reading Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven.

“I did such things not so much to awaken students as entertain myself,” he wrote. “If I had fun, I suppose I thought, the boys would have fun, too, and maybe even enjoy reading and writing.”

3. The studio considered turning Dead Poets Society into a musical.

They even had a title: The Sultans of Strut. Apparently, it was going to be like Fame.

4. Originally, Jeff Kanew, who did Revenge of the Nerds, was going to direct it.

Kanew wanted Liam Neeson to play Keating, but the studio wanted Robin Williams. For his part, Williams seemed reluctant to work with Kanew, which led to a disastrously botched first day of shooting, according to Schulman:

“The studio wanted Robin Williams, and Robin wouldn't say no, but he wouldn't say yes, to working with that director. In fact, we prepped the movie, built the sets—it was going to be shot outside of Atlanta—and Robin just didn't show up for the first day of shooting. He never said he would, but Disney kept trying to pressure him by moving forward. After the first day he didn't show up, they canceled the production and burned the sets. We actually have dailies of the sets burning.”

5. Dustin Hoffman was going to direct—and star in—the movie.

After Kanew, Hoffman signed on to direct, as well as play the role of Keating, but there were scheduling conflicts and arguments about the start date. Finally, the studio gave the movie to Peter Weir, who directed Witness and Gallipoli and would later direct The Truman Show.

6. In the screenplay, John Keating is dying of cancer.

The movie is faithful to Schulman's screenplay except for a scene where the boys discover that Keating has Hodgkin's disease. The scene was intended to show the audience why Keating is so intent on seizing the day, but Weir thought the movie was stronger without it. He told Schulman, “You don’t have to explain it.”

7. Filming was moved from Georgia to Delaware because of snow.

The movie was originally going to be filmed in Rome, Georgia, but the director wanted snow to enhance the feel of a New England prep school. Since snow is expensive to replicate, they moved filming to Delaware, where snow is free.

8. The movie is rife with literary references—both well-known and obscure.

Keating tells the boys to sound their “barbaric yawp” from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. He quotes Henry David Thoreau's line from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The boys chant lines from Vachel Lindsay's almost-forgotten poem "The Congo": “Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black, cutting through the forest with a golden track.” Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Lord Byron are also mentioned.

Of course, the most memorable literary reference is the use of Whitman's elegy for Abraham Lincoln. At the end of the movie, after Keating has been fired, the boys climb on their desks and declare their loyalty by saying, “Oh Captain, My Captain.”

9. Robin Williams was stiff in the role, until he started improvising.

When Williams first arrived on set, his portrayal of Keating was wooden and uncomfortable, so Weir suggested they improvise. He asked Williams what he wanted to “teach” the class, and he said Shakespeare. Then Williams did an improv of Marlon Brando and John Wayne doing Shakespeare, a scene that made it into the movie. After that, he relaxed into the role, and the movie started to work.

10. A Decent Chunk of Williams' Lines Were Improvised.

And not just the scene mentioned above. Producers estimate about 15% of Robin Williams' dialogue was improvised by the actor.

11. The director made the young actors live together.

Since the characters in Dead Poets Society live in a boarding school, Weir had the boys room together so they could bond. He also made them study movies, radio shows, and music from the 1950s.

12. The cave is fake.

The cave where the society meets wasn't an actual cave, but rather a set piece made of latex. It was, however, based on a real location—Wolf Cave in Delaware.

13. Lara Flynn Boyle had a bit part in the movie, but it was cut.

Here's the deleted scene.

14. Not everyone liked the film—Roger Ebert Especially.

While Dead PoetsSociety was generally well received, some critics thought it was emotionally manipulative and intellectually shallow. Ebert gave it two stars and said of the film: “It is, of course, inevitable that the brilliant teacher will eventually be fired from the school, and when his students stood on their desks to protest his dismissal, I was so moved, I wanted to throw up.”

15. Ethan Hawke credits a scene with Williams for introducing him to the possibilities of acting.

In an interview with Jian Ghomeshi, Ethan Hawke talks about the impact working with Robin Williams on Dead Poets Society had on his career, particularly in a scene where Keating teaches him to sound his “barbaric yawp.”

“That was the scene where I was supposed to read a poem in front of the class and it was the first time in my life that I ever experienced the thrill of acting and the thrill of losing yourself. You know, there's this whole thing in the public that acting is this huge celebration of the personality and the ego, of course, and the irony is that whenever it's any good, it's devoid of ego. It's a high that I've chased my whole life since that day with Robin. It's this way of losing yourself, where you lose yourself inside a story, a story that's in service of something way beyond you. And I felt that in Dead Poets Society.”

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

man-shaped tea infuser
Amazon

That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

shark tea infuser
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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

cracked egg tea infuser
Amazon

Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy chomping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

Buy on Live Infused.

18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

Buy on Amazon.

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