One of the late Robin Williams‘ most beloved films is Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society. In the movie, Williams played John Keating, the unorthodox teacher at a 1959 boys prep school. Even just writing those words makes me want to stand on a table and proclaim “oh captain my captain.”
As with many loved movies though, there’s a story or two lying behind the success of Dead Poets Society (a movie that Dustin Hoffman was once upon a time going to star in and direct). In particular, after one day of shooting, it looked like the film wasn’t going to happen at all. As screenwriter Tom Schulman told From Script To Screen at the University Of California, Revenge Of The Nerds director Jeff Kanew was set to direct at one stage, and he wanted Liam Neeson to take on the role of Keating. The studio, however, wanted Robin Williams, and got its wish.
Come the first day of shooting, Kanew was directing and Williams was starring – but it had already become clear before that the actor wasn’t keen on working with his director. So much so that the first day of shooting was pretty much a disaster.
“The studio wanted Robin Williams and Robin wouldn’t say no, but he wouldn’t say yes, to working with that director,” Schulman recalled. “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.”
Schulman defended the star, adding that “he never said he would, but Disney kept trying to pressure him by moving forward.”
The gamble failed, at least in the short term. “After the first day he didn’t show up, they cancelled the production and burned the sets. We actually have daillies of the sets burning.”
That was supposedly that. Kanew left the project, and in came another director (unnamed!), but that didn’t work out either and “they [Disney] took it away from him.” The film only ultimately moved forward when Peter Weir became available, and production could start all over again.
Fortunately, that finally set the production firmly on the road to success…
Here’s Schulman’s recounting the story, and talking about the film.