Dead Poets Society: Remembering Robin Williams

Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. Courtesy of Disney/Touchstone.

Robin Williams may have been famous because of his comedy work but his non-comedy role in Dead Poets Society is one of his best performances.

Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” – John Keating (Robin Williams)

I try and watch a film every year in Robin William’s memory. Last year, it was Hook. Next year might be Good Will Hunting even if I hold my review for the film’s 25th anniversary. In any event, Robin Williams absolutely earned the Oscar nomination for his work here. I was only four/five years old in 1989 but make no mistake that Dead Poets Society is one of the best pictures that year among the films I’ve seen.

This film is as much about the students as it is about Keating. It’s the late 1950s at the elite all-male Welton in Vermont where Gale Nolan (Norman Lloyd) is the headmaster. It’s because of Keating’s past involvement with the Dead Poets Society at Welton that star pupil Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) brings the club back. Sure, they’re not officially sanctioned but oh, well. Coming into the new semester, Neil gets a new roommate, the sky Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke). Neil introduces him to his friends group, which includes a young Josh Charles as Knox Overstreet, and they find that the unorthodox Keating is their new English teacher.

John Keating isn’t the traditional type of teacher. Gale Nolan is not a fan of his methods and when he learns of students demanding girls be admitted into Welton, he wants to know who else is in the Dead Poets Society. Nolan and Keating are members of two different generations and it certainly shows. It especially shows during the final scene of the film, which I’ll discuss shortly.

Keating may have a strong influence on the students but Neil just doesn’t have the courage in him to stand up to his strict father, Thomas (Kurtwood Smith), and ends up committing suicide. Thomas had pulled Neil out of Welton and decided to send him to military school because he doesn’t want Neil to act. He’d rather Neil go into the Ivy Leagues and med school. Nolan investigates the death and the blame ends up falling on Keating.

Watching Williams exit the classroom as all of the students are jumping onto their desks to recite “O Captain! My Captain!” is a scene that gives me chills. How can it not? It’s one of the clips that we saw repeatedly on the news following the passing of Williams. But anyway, this scene shows how much respect Keating commanded from his students, the Dead Poets Society or otherwise. These students may have been under pressure to sign the papers that got Keating fired but he still had faith in his students.

It’s interesting to imagine an alternate universe where Peter Weir never comes on board. Weir would ultimately earn the second of four Oscar nominations for Best Director. Before Weir, Liam Neeson was set to play John Keating rather than the late Robin Williams. I have no doubt that it would still be an Oscar-worthy performance but it wouldn’t be the same. It’s always fascinating to think what would happen if casting went in a different direction. Of course, the film is better off for making some changes to the script. The original version had John Keating dying of illness and of course, it would have taken all of the focus of the film. And so, by changing the script, we’re all the better for it. That and ignoring Disney’s notes to switch the focus from poetry to dancing. There would be no seizing the day without the focus on poetry.

DIRECTOR: Peter Weir
CAST: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Dylan Kussman, Allelon Ruggiero, James Waterston, Alexandra Powers, Norman Lloyd, Kurtwood Smith, George Martin, Leon Pownall

Touchstone Pictures released Dead Poets Society in theaters on June 2, 1989.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.