Art is such a pivotal piece of life, not just from an entertainment standpoint, but also from a personal one. And perhaps one of the greatest examples comes from 1989’s Dead Poets Society, a film that showed the beauty and importance of poetry and chasing your dreams. It won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, along with scoring nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. The film also acted as a launching pad for a lot of its younger cast, specifically Ethan Hawke, who played Todd Anderson; a shy and reserved boy who is among the group of boys taken under the wing of John Keating (Robin Williams). The role was Hawke’s second-ever film role, and it secured him as the star we see him as now. But while his talent and charisma as an actor certainly helped him to get where he is today, Robin Williams played a huge part in getting his career off the ground.
What is ‘Dead Poets Society’ About?
Dead Poets Society tells the story of an all-boys prep school in the ’50s that welcomes an energetic new English teacher who uses unconventional methods in an attempt to connect and reach out to his students. Among the class are Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) and Todd Anderson, who serve as the film’s main protagonists. Keating helps his students to break free from their stalemate lives and chase their dreams, but most importantly, to seize the day (“carpe diem” in Latin). He inspires the boys to rebel against their strict teachers and families and to find their true passion in life. It’s thanks to Keating’s alumni status at the school that the boys find out about the titular Dead Poets Society, a secret group that was initiated by Keating and his classmates during his time at the school. He explains the club to the boys, saying that they would sneak off into caves to read poetry in an attempt to suck the “marrow out of life” — and to get girls, of course. Keating and the poetry the boys read inspire each of them to not only pursue what they want out of life but to find themselves in the process.
Robin Williams Didn’t Completely Abandon His Comedic Talents
With the late, great Robin Williams in the cast, it was a fun set to be on while filming, and in an interview with Script Mag, director Peter Weir talked about workshopping Williams’ character with him.
“Robin and I had several good talks about how to go about this, because he wanted to play more straight parts and open up his career. As you said, he’d already conquered the comedy world. But I didn’t want to completely bury his gift, because that’s what the public loved about him, so it was really a case of a scale—sort of like turning down a volume control. How low can you go, where people will see Robin inside the character?”
But knowing Williams, it was going to be hard to completely keep his comedic gift in check.
“There was a feeling that he wasn’t going to be able to hide his ability to make you chuckle, so just in case, I planned a half-day unscheduled shoot where I let Robin do his thing. We completely concealed this from Disney’s front office — and you could never get away with this today, with the cost of filming being so high. But on that afternoon, we set up three cameras in the corners of the room, and I told the boys, ‘Robin’s coming in after lunch to do a scene that isn’t in the script. Just remember: he’s still your teacher, Mr. Keating, and you’ll wreck the scene if you laugh like you’re watching a standup comic. So act amused, but don’t overdo it.’”
The scene in question was the one in which Keating impersonates John Wayne and Marlon Brando. Weir also added, “When Robin’s improvising, he gives off an electric charge you can feel. You just suggest an odd phrase or an evocative word, and you trigger a litany of Tourettes-like associations and ideas from him.”
Robin Williams Got Ethan Hawke His First Agent After ‘Dead Poets Society’
But while the rest of the cast leaned into Robin’s often zany antics and comedic charm, Ethan Hawke was so committed to method acting that he didn’t participate in the laughter of his cast mates. Of course, it was just that, method acting. But in the same interview with Script Mag, Hawke revealed that his lack of laughter drove Williams nuts. “When Robin sees a person not laughing, it becomes his mission to make them laugh. But I was really trying hard to be in Todd’s skin, and I really didn’t think Todd would think any of this shit was funny. This just made Robin nuts — so much so, that I thought he really didn’t like me.” Hawke also shared this story in an interview with Conan O’Brien in 2018, where he said that the more serious he was the more Williams keyed into him, making fun of him, calling him names, and mercilessly teasing him. But still, Hawke refused to break character. All of this led to Hawke truly believing Williams didn’t like him, but one day after filming had concluded he received a phone call from Robin’s own agent, Hawke told Conan. Robin Williams had told his agent that Hawke was really good and that he needed an agent — an agent that Hawke still works with as of that 2018 Conan interview!
Ethan Hawke Has Helped Other Actors Too
It’s a beautiful connection between film and real life. Keating helped Todd come out of his shell and grow into the outspoken and strong man he is by the end of the film. Similarly, Robin Williams helped Ethan Hawke further his career by getting him an agent and in return, helped him grow and flourish into the A-lister we know him as today. He’s also done the same for others as Williams did for him, with Zoe Kazan having thanked Ethan Hawke for casting her in a play at 23 years old. In an interview with Collider, she said: “He has been one of the biggest champions, not just of my acting, but of my writing, encouraging me to write in all different kinds of ways. He’s a person who really took me seriously before I really even took myself seriously in some ways. I’ve had so many female mentors, but I never expected to have this Gen X dude become an incredibly important mentor for me. I just have so much love for him.”
Hawke has since gone on to have an outstanding career that spans all genres, from sci-fi, to romance, to horror, and everything in between. He has plenty of acting nominations under his belt, including four Academy Award nominations, and he’s also branched into directing films. He’s now a household name, and while he certainly has proven his talent time and time again, and worked hard to get where he is, Robin Williams is the one who truly helped jump-start his career.