15 Surprising Facts About Dead Poets Society

Touchstone Pictures
Touchstone Pictures

Robin Williams's 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, which arrived in theaters on June 2, 1989.

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. JOHN KEATING WAS BASED ON TWO OF TOM SCHULMAN'S TEACHERS.

Robin Williams's character, John Keating, was based on two of Schulman's former teachers: 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 wrote that 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,” Pickering 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. IT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE HELMED BY THE DIRECTOR OF REVENGE OF THE NERDS.

Before Peter Weir came along, Jeff Kanew—who had found success with Revenge of the Nerds—was set to direct the film. 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 BOTH DIRECT AND STAR IN THE FILM.

After Kanew, Dustin 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 six-time Oscar nominee Peter Weir, who would later direct The Truman Show.

6. IN THE SCRIPT, JOHN KEATING IS DYING OF CANCER.

The movie is faithful to Schulman's screenplay except for a scene in which 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. “You don’t have to explain it,” Weir told Schulman.

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 OBVIOUS 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 come together.

10. A DECENT CHUNK OF WILLIAMS'S LINES WERE IMPROVISED.

And not just the scene mentioned above. Producers estimated that about 15 percent of Williams's 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. NOT EVERYONE LIKED THE FILM—ROGER EBERT ESPECIALLY.

While Dead Poets Society was generally well received, some critics thought it was emotionally manipulative and intellectually shallow. Roger 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.”

14. ETHAN HAWKE CREDITS A SCENE WITH WILLIAMS FOR INTRODUCING HIM TO THE POSSIBILITIES OF ACTING.

In an interview with Jian Ghomeshi, Ethan Hawke talked 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.”

15. HAWKE WAS PRETTY SURE THAT WILLIAMS HATED HIM.

While working with Williams proved to be a career-changing moment for Hawke, the actor recently admitted that he and Williams didn't have the smoothest working relationship while filming Dead Poets Society. "I really wanted to be a serious actor," Hawke said of his approach to the craft. "I had read Stanislavsky and I had what was supposed to be in my pockets and I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn't want to laugh. The more I didn't laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of [me]. 'Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.' And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn't understand, I was trying to do a good job. I want to be Montgomery Clift over here, you're trying to be Zero Mostel or something. So I thought he hated me because he would constantly lay into me. No sooner would action start and he would lay into 'Todd' over here. That was my character's name."

Isaac Hempstead Wright Explains Bran Stark's Intense Staring in Game of Thrones

Helen Sloan, HBO
Helen Sloan, HBO

There's always been something off with Brandon Stark's empty stare that we see so often in Game of Thrones. This week, actor Isaac Hempstead Wright explained exactly how he pulls it off.

The 20-year-old went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and shared a few of his experiences from working on the show, including accidentally dropping a spoiler in his math class and the interesting sex ed talk he was forced to have with his mom given his tender age when he began filming the show.

He also talked about his "intense stare"—and his preparation for the role may not be as deep as you think.

"I'm kind of getting good at this sort of intense stare," the star began. "But it's actually aided by the fact that I'm completely blind when I'm on set. I don't have my glasses, and I don't have contact lenses."

"How thick are the glasses?" Kimmel asks him, to which Hempstead Wright replies, "They're not that thick, but I need them to see."

He recalled another time when his vision problems aided his character. In season 7, while filming a scene with Sophie Turner (a.k.a. Sansa Stark), he recalled Turner making a comment along the lines of "Isaac, your stare is like—you're staring into my soul!" to which the actor replied "I can't see you!"

Actors—they're just like us.

Richard Madden Shared a Hilarious Throwback Photo With Game of Thrones Co-Stars Kit Harington and Alfie Allen

Charley Gallay, Getty Images for Netflix
Charley Gallay, Getty Images for Netflix

Richard Madden may not have held the title of King in the North for long on Game of Thrones, but his memories of his time on the series—and the lasting friendships he forged—live on. Madden, who played Robb Stark, was famously killed off in season 3’s penultimate episode, “The Rains of Castamere” (a.k.a. The Red Wedding episode). But he has continued to champion the series, and his former colleagues, in the years since his premature demise. People spotted his latest tribute to his Game of Thrones days: a #TBT Instagram post that serves as a stark (no pun intended) reminder of just how long we’ve all been watching the epic HBO series.

The image features Madden with co-stars Kit Harington and Alfie Allen—each of whom is almost recognizable—after taking a ride on the Wheel of Belfast following their first read-through of Game of Thrones’s pilot episode. Which means that Madden’s caption that the photo is about 10 years old is pretty spot-on; the original pilot episode filmed in Northern Ireland in 2009, which would make all three of the actors about 22 years old at the time.

The show's actors have remained tight even after Madden’s brutal on-screen murder. In June 2018, Madden was a guest at Harington and fellow Game of Thrones co-star Rose Leslie’s wedding. Just a few months later, the 32-year-old actor—who won a Golden Globe earlier this year for his Netflix series The Bodyguard—was there to support his on-screen little sister Maisie Williams when she made her stage debut in I and You at London’s Hampstead Theatre. Which means that Madden might know more than any of us do in terms of how Game of Thrones will end, and could have been on to something when he predicted that ultimately, "[I]t’s just going to be three dragons flying around and everyone else is dead.” Hey, it could happen!

[h/t People]

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