Secret Heartbreak, Unbreakable Bonds and Bombed Auditions: 30 Secrets You Might Not Know About Dead Poets Society

While Robin Williams earned an Oscar nomination for his turn in the 1989 classic, Mel Gibson and Liam Neeson almost landed the iconic role instead

By Tierney Bricker Jun 02, 2019 11:00 AMTags
Related: E! Looks Back at Robin Williams in 1990

30 years later, the Dead Poets Society lives on.

The iconic movie that starred Robin Williams in one of his first dramatic roles and launched the careers of then-unknown-teen-actors Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles and Robert Sean Leonard came out June 2, 1989, and immediately became an enduring coming-of-age tale that's impact has only grown. 

In the 30 years since the boarding school dram debuted, the poets have moved on, but the experience of filming Dead Poets Society and working with the legendary Williams, who tragically committed suicide in 2014, has stayed with them throughout their careers. 

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30 Secrets You Might Now Know About Dead Poets Society

Written by Tom Schulman and directed by Peter WeirDead Poets Society, which was  nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, told the story of the unconventional English teacher John Keating, played by a more relaxed and introspective Williams, and the group of seven students he inspired to create their own secret society over their love of poetry.

Touchstone Pictures

But it turns out the bond between the seven young actors on-set while filming was even closer than that of the society, with Weir using unusual tactics to forge their tight-knit friendships. Even before casting the Welton Academy students though, the movie needed its leading man...and there were a few options considered before Williams took on one of his most beloved roles. 

Here are 30 secrets you might not know about Dead Poets Society...

1. Disney liked the title Sultans of Strut and envisioned it as a coming-of-age musical a la Fame.  In 2016, an off-Broadway stage adaptation was announced, with Jason Sudeikis taking on the Keating role.

2. John Keating was based on a real-life professor: Samuel F. Pickering Jr., an English professor at the University of Connecticut. When screenwriter Tom Schulman was 15, he had taken a course taught by Pickering will attending Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, with the teacher leaving a lasting impact on him and helped cement his love for literature.

But Pickering was modest about his influence over the character, telling the Times Daily, "Whatever of me is in that character has got to be small. I was a kid and he was a child. 23 years go. How much of me could there be in the movie? Not much."

3. Dead Poets Society was Schulman's first screenplay to make it to the big screen and it netted him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1990. The same year DPS came out, Schulman's other film was a box office success: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

4. Before Williams was cast in the role that would net him his second Oscar nomination, several other high-profile actors were considered as Keating. Mel Gibson had turned it down, while Liam Neeson was the man one of the earlier directors, Revenge of the Nerds' Jeff Kanew, wanted. Disney, however, really wanted Williams, who didn't want to work with that initial director. At an impasse, the project came to a halt, with the sets even being burned down. Over a year later, director Peter Weir finally signed on and Williams following.

5. Before Weir joined the project, Dustin Hoffman was actually attached to star and direct with scheduling conflicts ultimately preventing it from happening.

6. Though he had been nominated for his work in Good Morning, Vietnam two years earlier, Dead Poets Society was Williams' first dramatic role. Infamous for his improvisation skills, Williams improved about 15 percent of his dialogue in the film. 

"He never stops acting. He's always cracking us up, but I don't get a sense of who he is," extra and real-life St. Andrews senior Robb Ellis told The News Journal of Williams on-set. 

7. Dead Poets Society was the first feature film to be shot entirely in Delaware (though iconic cave where the Poets Society held its meetings was not a real cave, sorry to disappoint). The residents of Middletown, Delaware, remembered Williams as being friendly, walking around town and engaging with the locals. "That's why everybody now feels a connection to him," mayor Ken Branner told Delaware Online after the actor's death. "We have a great legacy with him with Dead Poets. That'll never go away."

8. Then unknowns, Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles, who would go on to star in CBS' critically acclaimed The Good Wife, met when they auditioned for the first director and both landed roles. "We screentested together with other actors, and then the movie fell through," Charles told EW, "and there was a whole other year to wait, not knowing if it was even gonna happen again or if we were gonna [get recast]." 

Of course, they both kept their roles, with Weir telling People, "Josh was the one to beat in auditions. No one came close to him in terms of charm and acting ability."

9. Dead Poets Society was only Ethan Hawke's second movie ever, and landing the part of the shy Todd meant everything to him at the time.

"I was 18 years old and I thought getting this part would change my life, I had instilled it with that kind of importance," he said in a DVD extra. Hawke would go on to become one of the most highly sought after actors of his generation, starring in Reality Bites, the Sunrise trilogy, Training Day, Boyhood and many more, going on to earn four Oscar nominations. 

10. In order to establish a believable onscreen bond between the young men that only a boarding school could create, Weir had his young stars live together two weeks prior to and during filming, immersing themselves in everything '50s—getting era-appropriate haircuts (much to Hawke's chagrin) and studying up on the pop culture of the time; he even had them write poetry and perform theater games together. "We really felt like by the time filming started we had been to school together," Kussman said. 

11. They became so close that all seven took a weekend trip to New York City together, accompanying Hawke and Leonard as they auditioned for the same role in Dad. (Hawke ended up getting it.)

12. Weir was so invested in making the growing bond between Mr. Keating and the poets realistic that he made the unusual choice to film the movie in chronological order. 

13. One of the movie's most memorable scenes—when Todd and Neil toss the desk Todd's parents had sent him for his birthday—wasn't in the original script. Initially, Hawke was going to deliver a "self-pitying" monologue, but during filming, the two actors and Weir quickly realized it "didn't really work very well," Leonard recalled. So Weir sent the pair off to think about what would work, with Hawke and Leonard eventually coming up with the idea that they would throw it off the roof. Weir loved it, much to their surprise.

"I remember Bob and I in the van ride home afterwards were like, ‘Is he really going to put that in the movie?'" Hawke recalled. "It was too much fun to be sitting there and w were just making up these lines and he was just writing them down. It was fun."

14. For Charles, who was 17 when the movie was made, Williams was by far the biggest star he had ever met, but told The Hollywood Reporter he was "struck" by how down to earth the actor, then super-famous for Mork & Mindy and Good Morning, Vietnam, was.

"I think I was most struck by how kind he was and how nice he was to these 17 year old, 18 year old kids and while he was clearly the star of the movie, [he] made great effort to just be one part of the ensemble." 

And Charles can still remember the time he made Williams laugh "doing a Richard Pryor impersonation." 

15. Leonard and Hawke developed a close friendship, even starting their own theatre company in New York City years later with several of their other actor friends.

"We would be sitting around New York a lot and we bowled a lot, and eventually we thought, 'When we're not doing anything, why don't we see if we can put some new plays on?'' Leonard explained of the troupe's origin. "I'm really proud of a lot of what we've done."

16. In  2004, Leonard co-starred alongside Hugh Laurie in Fox's hit medical drama House, which would run for eight seasons. Considering himself a theater actor, Leonard openly struggled with the demands of network television. 

"Look, I was proud of the show. I thought it was good," he told the UK's The Standard. "I wasn't embarrassed by it and I have plenty of friends who are on TV series who are, so I knew the difference. The money's great. My wife and I were having children and I really wanted to have security financially, which I'd never had doing theatre. I felt a little noble going to do House because I was earning money for my family, which a good father does."

17. While many were distracted by Williams' larger-than-life persona, those on the set of Dead Poets Society could sense the sadness in the actor. 

"Even (to me) at 18, it was obvious he was in a tremendous amount of pain," Hawke told CBC Radio. "Anybody who was watching knew." 

Norman Lloyd, who played Keating's nemesis, revealed the personal turmoil Williams was going through at the time in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter

"When we were doing Dead Poets Society, his first marriage [to Valerie Velardi] was breaking up, and it was then that he began to go with and then married the babysitter of his kids [Marsha Garces]," he recalled. "He masked the whole thing very carefully. It was never evident in the work. It was all kept under control."

18. Although the movie never hit No. 1 at the U.S. box office, it went on to gross almost $100 million and made over $235 million internationally, making it the fifth highest grossing movie in the world that year. 

19. While it was a critical and commercial success, there was one famed critic who did not like the movie: Roger Ebert, who gave it two stars and said of the final scene, "I was so moved, I wanted to throw up."

20. While most of the cast was between the ages of 18-20, making them pretty close to the characters' ages, Gale Hansen (Charlie Dalton) was the oldest at age 29.

21. Oscar winner Sam Rockwell auditioned for the role of Charlie, but couldn't nail the part because "I looked so young, but I wasn't always good at playing young," he told The Guardian

22. Lara Flynn Boyle initially had a small role in the film as Chet's sister Ginny, but her scenes were later cut from the film. (She appears in some scenes, but as a non-speaking extra.)

23.  In 2016, over 25 years after Dead Poets came out, Saturday Night Live memorably parodied the film in a pre-taped sketch called "Farewell, Mr. Bunting," with guest host Fred Armisen taking on the teacher role and the inspirational final scene taking a horrific turn due to ceiling fans. 

24. In the very first scene with Keating and the seven poets, Weir instructed Williams to read a bit of Shakespeare aloud and then have the cast improvise it from there. "I had two cameras going, obviously, and I just said, 'Boys, this is not a scripted scene.," he told Premiere. "Treat Robin as your teacher and react accordingly, and don't forget that it's 1959.'"

24. Schulman's original version of the script included a scene that showed Keating dying in the hospital after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, which would be the motivation for his outlook on life throughout the movie. Weir, however, got him to cut it after "spending three days" debating it as the director argued Todd's decision to stand at the end of the film had more of an impact without the fatal illness as motivating factor.

25. Kussman took a gamble during his meeting with Weir before he was even officially cast as Richard Cameron: he pointed out something in the script that didn't feel true to the character, completely altering the final scene, which initially had all of the poets standing on their desks. 

"I said, 'I don't think my character would stand on the desk. I think it would be much more true to what the character is in the script if he's not allowed to get up or he doesn't allow himself to get up and defy [Mr. Nolan],'" he revealed. "Peter Weir said, ‘You're exactly right.'"

26. During that pivotal scene, Weir, who loved to create an environment on set by playing music, especially Irish-Celtic music during Poets, borrowed a speaker from Charles' dad to play a song while filming that the actor will never forget. 

"I do remember that when we shot that scene it was blaring Ennio Morricone's music from The Mission," he told EW. "It was beautiful, haunting music. The power of music is something that I took with me, realizing how it can trigger your emotions. That's something that I use a lot."

27. During an appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Hawke revealed his mom had made his children watch Dead Poets Society, which didn't exactly go as planned. "Three-quarters of the way through my son said, 'So when do you come on, dad?!' It's heartbreaking though, isn't it? 'Oh, the crooked teeth, yeah!'"

28. In an interview, Williams revealed Dead Poets Society was one of his favorite movies he ever appeared in.

"There was something in that movie that effected people beyond just a movie," he said. "I met a guy who said, 'Mr. Williams, I saw the movie Dead Poets and I used to work for a major corporation, I took off my business suit, I burned it and now I own an art gallery.' I went, 'I have to buy a lot of art from you now!'"

In a Reddit AMA, he revealed Weir was one of his favorite directors he'd ever worked with. For Weir, in a 1990 interview, he said he knew the comedic actor could play the "quieter, more thoughtful" Keating because he "had met that quieter, more thoughtful and funny man" when he first met Williams. 

29. After Williams' tragic death in 19, the words "O Captain, my Captain" took on a whole new meaning, with many tributes using the infamous Dead Poets Society line to pay homage to the actor. But it especially took on new meaning for Hawke, who said the line that had so often been repeated back to him by fans over the years. 

"When he died, I read that whole poem and it's kind of devastating," he told Vanity Fair of the Walt Whitman poem. 

30. When filming first began, Hawke believed Williams didn't like him, as he was trying to stay in character, much to the improv-loving actor's chagrin. "The more I didn't laugh, the more insane he got," Hawke recalled. "So I thought he hated me because he would constantly lay into me." Of course, he didn't, with Hawke receiving a phone call from Williams' agent after the movie that would change his career forever.

"'[Williams] says that you're going to be somebody and that I should sign you,'" he recalled. "He got my my first agent and he's still my agent now."