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15 Inspiring Celebrity Commencement Speeches

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With graduation season well underway, it’s important that recent grads start their journey into the real world with strong words of encouragement and advice. Here are 15 famous people who gave inspiring and rousing commencement speeches.

1. OPRAH WINFREY // STANFORD UNIVERSITY

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey gave a 28-minute commencement speech at Stanford University. She spoke about her early career as a local news anchor in Nashville and her personal and professional journey of failure, success, and finding happiness in life.

"The secret I've learned to getting ahead is being open to the lessons," Winfrey said. "It's being able to walk through life eager and open to self-improvement and that which is going to best help you evolve, because that's really why we're here—to evolve as human beings. I believe that there is a lesson in almost everything that you do and every experience. Getting the lesson is how you move forward, is how you enrich your spirit. And trust me; I know that inner wisdom is more precious than wealth. The more you spend it, the more you gain."

2. STEVE JOBS // STANFORD UNIVERSITY

In 2005, Steve Jobs was the commencement speaker at Stanford University. He spoke about his work, but emphasized his failures in life, including getting fired at Apple and starting NeXT Computer. Jobs believed that failing at life made you better at working and living it.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work,” Jobs said. “And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

3. JON STEWART // COLLEGE OF WILLIAM & MARY

Twenty years after talk show host/comedian Jon Stewart graduated from the College of William and Mary, he returned as the commencement speaker for the graduating class of 2004. He spoke about his time at the Virginia college and offered up advice about the future.

“Love what you do. Get good at it. Competence is a rare commodity in this day and age. And let the chips fall where they may,” Stewart told the crowd. “College is something you complete. Life is something you experience. So don’t worry about your grade, or the results or success.”

4. STEPHEN COLBERT // WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY

Stephen Colbert gave the commencement speech to the Class of 2015 at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. It was about six months after he finished his nine-year run as host of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report and the talk show host/comedian compared his transition to The Late Show on CBS to graduating from college and entering the real world.

“It’s time to say goodbye to the person we’ve become, who we’ve worked so hard to perfect, and to make some crucial decisions in becoming who we’re going to be,” Colbert told the graduating class. “For me, I’ll have to figure out how to do an hour-long show every night. And you at some point will have to sleep. I am told the Adderall wears off eventually.”

Colbert also began and ended his speech with references to Mad Max: Fury Road, by telling the graduates, “May you ride eternal, shiny, and chrome.”

5. KATIE COURIC // UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN—MADISON

Katie Couric delivered the commencement speech at the University of Wisconsin—Madison in 2015, where she urged the students to “work hard, and then work even harder ... There may be days when you’ll say to yourself, ‘I can’t. I literally can’t even.’ But you can! You can even!”

6. JOHN GREEN // KENYON COLLEGE

In 2000, author and YouTube star (and mental_floss contributor) John Green graduated from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He recently returned to his alma mater to give the commencement speech for the graduating Class of 2016. During his speech, Green admitted that being an adult is terrible.

“All of it, actually—from the electricity bills to the job where your co-workers call themselves teammates even though this isn’t football for God’s sake—all these so-called horrors of adulthood emerge from living in a world where you are inextricably connected to other people to whom you must learn to listen,” Green said. “And that turns out to be great news. And if you can remember that conversations about grass length and the weather are really conversations about how we are going to get through, and how we are going to get through together, they become not just bearable but almost kind of transcendent.”

7. MAYA RUDOLPH // TULANE UNIVERSITY

In 2015, Maya Rudolph gave the commencement speech at Tulane University in New Orleans. The Saturday Night Live alum did her famous impressions of Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé, while giving the Class of 2015 some words of wisdom about creating your own life and destiny.

"During senior year, my father asked me what I planned to do after I graduated, and I told him 'I want to be on Saturday Night Live,'" she shared. "But until that moment, I never wanted to admit that being on SNL was my dream. I never wanted to admit that I was a thespian ... So if I must give any of you advice it would be say yes. Say yes, and create your own destiny."

8. JIM CARREY // MAHARISHI UNIVERSITY OF MANAGEMENT

In 2014, Jim Carrey surprised the graduating class at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa with a touching and emotional commencement speech about his father. He implored graduates to choose their own paths in life and to not settle out of practicality. Carrey also received an honorary doctorate for his achievements in comedy, art, acting, and philanthropy.

“The decisions we make in this moment are based in either love or fear,” Carrey told the students. “So many of us chose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect so we never ask the universe for it. I’m saying I’m the proof that you can ask the universe for it. And if it doesn’t happen for you right away, it’s only because the universe is so busy fulfilling my order.”

9. MINDY KALING // HARVARD LAW SCHOOL

Comedy writer/actress Mindy Kaling gave the commencement speech to the Class of 2014 at Harvard Law School, where she joked about her “glamorous” lifestyle, and questioned why Harvard would even ask her to be the commencement speaker in the first place. Kaling also joked that celebrities are the worst people in the world to give advice to recent graduates.

“What advice could I give you guys?” said the star of The Mindy Project. “Celebrities give too much advice and people listen to it too much. Most of us have no education whatsoever. Who should be giving advice and the answer is people like you. You are better educated and you are going to go out into the world and people are going to listen to what you say, whether you are good or evil, and that probably scares you because some of you look really young.”

10. STEVE CARELL // PRINCETON UNIVERSITY

In 2012, Steve Carell spoke to Princeton University graduates during Class Day. His niece was in the audience as one of the Ivy League school’s graduates. He spoke about his attempt to enter law school, but ultimately not becoming a lawyer once he read the question “Why do you want to be an attorney?" on the law school application. Carell then ended his speech with a few tidbits about what to expect from the real world.

“I would like to leave you with a few random thoughts. Not advice per se, but some helpful hints,” Carell told the graduating class. “Show up on time. Because to be late is to show disrespect. Remember that the words 'regime' and 'regimen' are not interchangeable. Get a dog, because cats are lame. Only use a 'That's what she said' joke if you absolutely cannot resist. Never try to explain a 'That's what she said' joke to your parents. When out to eat, tip on the entire check. Do not subtract the tax first. And every once in a while, put something positive into the world. We have become so cynical these days. And by we I mean us. So do something kind, make someone laugh, and don't take yourself too seriously.”

11. J.K. ROWLING // HARVARD UNIVERSITY

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling gave the commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008. During her speech, Rowling talked about the value of imagination, failing in life to succeed, and friendship throughout school into the real world.

“The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life,” Rowling shared. “They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again.”

12. TOM HANKS // YALE UNIVERSITY

In 2011, Tom Hanks was the commencement speaker at Yale University. He told the graduates how they can make a deep impression on the world based on how they handle fear and if they inspire faith.

"Fear has become the commodity that sells as certainly as sex," Hanks said. "Fear is cheap, fear is easy, fear gets attention ... It's fast, it's gossip and it's just as glamorous, juicy and profitable. Fear twists facts into fictions that become indistinguishable from ignorance."

13. ELLEN DEGENERES // TULANE UNIVERSITY

Talk show host/comedian Ellen DeGeneres was the commencement speaker for Tulane University’s Class of 2009. At the ceremony, she was also awarded the Tulane University President's Medal. DeGeneres spoke about the importance of following your passions in life.

“Success is to live your life with integrity and to not give in to peer pressure to try to be something that you're not,” DeGeneres told the class. “Success is to be honest and to contribute in some way ... Follow your passion, stay true to yourself, never follow someone else's path unless you're in the woods and you're lost and you see a path then by all means you should follow that.”

14. CONAN O’BRIEN // DARTMOUTH COLLEGE

Late night talk show host Conan O’Brien addressed the Class of 2011 at Dartmouth College, along with “faculty, parents, relatives, undergraduates, and old people that just come to these things.” He spoke about his success and failures at NBC, while highlighting why it’s important to be disappointed in life: “Today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”

O’Brien ended his speech by saying, “At the end of my final program with NBC, just before signing off, I said ‘Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.’ Today … I have never believed that more.”

15. KERRY WASHINGTON // GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY

In 2013, Scandal star Kerry Washington gave the commencement speech at George Washington University, from which she herself graduated in 1998. She received an honorary degree from her alma mater and gave some words of advice to the recent graduates, “You and you alone are the only person who can live the life that can write the story that you were meant to tell.”

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “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.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Neilson Barnard, Getty Images
5 Actors Who Have Quit Movies After Backlash
Neilson Barnard, Getty Images
Neilson Barnard, Getty Images

Sometimes a movie and an actor love each other very much, and the pair of them sail to critical and commercial success together on golden wings. Other times … it's a little different. Less than two weeks after the announcement that Scarlett Johansson would play a transgender man in Rub & Tug, a biopic of crime boss Dante “Tex” Gill, the four-time Golden Globe nominee dropped out of the project after a wave of critical backlash about the casting decision.

"In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante Tex Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project," Johansson said in a statement to Out.com. "Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I've learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive."

Johansson is not the only well-known actor who has taken action in the wake of public criticism. Here are five other times things just got too complicated.

1. WILL FERRELL

Will Ferrell
Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images

Will Ferrell, already famous for playing one President during his tenure on Saturday Night Live, was all set to play another one in a comedy based on Mike Rosolio’s Black List script, Reagan. Per Variety, Ferrell would have played President Ronald Reagan as he entered his second term, right around the time dementia started to kick in; to deal with the leader of the free world’s declining mental state, “an ambitious intern is tasked with convincing the commander-in-chief that he is an actor playing the president in a movie.” The “would have” is because, just days after it was announced that Ferrell would be starring in the film in 2016, it was announced that he was backing away from the project following extensive backlash, most notably from Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis.

“I watched as fear invaded my father’s eyes—this man who was never afraid of anything. I heard his voice tremble as he stood in the living room and said, ‘I don’t know where I am,’” Davis wrote in an open letter. “There was laughter in those years,” she continued, “but there was never humor.”

Ferrell’s spokesperson subsequently told Page Six that, “The Reagan script is one of a number of scripts that had been submitted to Will Ferrell which he had considered. While it is by no means an ‘Alzheimer’s comedy’ as has been suggested, Mr. Ferrell is not pursuing this project.”

2. LEONARDO DICAPRIO

In 2010, Mel Gibson’s planned Viking epic Berserker lost its lead actor in Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio has never offered a candid explanation as to why he left—unsurprisingly, actors tend to be pretty closed-lipped about that sort of thing—but given the news of his departure broke two and a half weeks after audio of (one of) Gibson’s infamous racist rant(s) was leaked online … we can guess a desire to avoid that particular PR firestorm probably had something to do with it. As of 2012, Gibson was still trying to get the movie made.

3. ZENDAYA

Zendaya
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images for Marie Claire

In 2014, up-and-coming actress/Disney Channel star Zendaya Coleman dropped out of the lead role in Lifetime’s biopic Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B. The main reasons, the actress explained, were the film’s production values (or lack thereof) and “complications with the music rights.” However, another major factor was the film’s lack of support from the family of the late singer, who died in a plane crash at the age of 22. “I tried my best to reach out to the family on my own, and I wrote a letter, but I was unable to do so; therefore, I felt not really morally OK with moving forward with the project,” explained Coleman. She was replaced by Alexandra Shipp.

4. CHRISTIAN BALE

Before Michael Fassbender took the lead in Steve Jobs, it was Christian Bale donning the black turtleneck and wire-rimmed glasses in Danny Boyle’s Jobs biopic. Bale, however, “couldn’t really see [how to play the part],” Boyle explained, and eventually dropped out. (Sources told The Hollywood Reporter that he “came to the conclusion he was not right for the part.”) This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that Jobs’ widow, Laurene, was actively trying to stop the movie from being made. An unnamed “key player” told The Hollywood Reporter that, “from the very beginning, Laurene Jobs has been trying to kill this movie … Laurene Jobs called up Leonardo DiCaprio [who was considering the role at one point] and said, ‘Don’t do it!’ Laurene Jobs called Christian Bale and said, ‘Don’t [do it].’” A Sony executive confirms that Jobs “had a strong desire not to have the movie made” and “did call one or two of the actors.”

5. SACHA BARON COHEN 

Sacha Baron Cohen
Christopher Polk, Getty Images

Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic of late Queen singer Freddie Mercury, has not had an easy time of things. Lingering in various circles of development hell since 2010, with directors (including David Fincher and Tom Hooper) dropping like flies, the film took a big hit in 2013 when star Sacha Baron Cohen dropped out. The reason? Backlash from the surviving members of Queen, who (per Cohen) wanted a more cleaned-up version of Mercury’s life that focused more on the band as a whole: “A member of the band—I won’t say who—said, ‘This is such a great movie, because such an amazing thing happens in the middle of the movie.’ I go, ‘What happens in the middle of the movie?’ He goes, ‘Freddie dies […] We see how the band carries on from strength to strength.’ And I said, ‘Listen, not one person is going to see a movie where the lead character dies from AIDS and then you carry on to see [what happens to the band].”

For his part, Queen’s Roger Taylor said he didn’t want the film to be “a joke,” while Brian May said that Cohen “became an arse” and “told untruths about what happened.” After languishing a bit longer, with Ben Whishaw being rumored to take the lead, it eventually proceeded into production with Mr. Robot star Rami Malek in the lead and Bryan Singer directing. It's scheduled for a November release.

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