On this day in 1989, the boys’ prep school drama Dead Poets Society, starring Robin Williams, is released in selected U.S. theaters.
Set in 1959 at a fictional all-male preparatory school called Welton Academy, the film starred Robin Williams as John Keating, a charismatic English teacher who encourages his students to “seize the day” (“carpe diem” in Latin) and embrace the passion for life expressed by great poets like Walt Whitman. With Keating’s guidance, several students (including characters played by Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles) revive an underground campus organization known as the Dead Poets Society. When their rebellious behavior gets the boys in trouble with school and family authority figures (with tragic consequences in one case), Keating is taken to task for his influence on them. Directed by Peter Weir from a screenplay by Tom Schulman, Dead Poets Society featured a soaring score by the multiple Oscar-winning composer Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India).
Though Dead Poets Society was generally well received, some negative reviews stood out: Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called the film “a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as a courageous stand in favor of something” and said that during the film’s final scene “I was so moved, I wanted to throw up.” Best known for his zany, manic style of comedy, Williams turned in a relatively understated performance that garnered some of the best reviews of his career. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, one of four nominations the film would receive, including Best Director and Best Picture. It won in one category, for Best Original Screenplay.
After winning over fans as the alien Mork from Ork on the hit television comedy Mork and Mindy (1978-1982), Williams had a successful career in stand-up comedy before making his big-screen breakout in Good Morning Vietnam (1987), for which he earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination. After Dead Poets Society, Williams received two more Academy Award nominations: Best Actor for The Fisher King (1991) and Best Supporting Actor for Good Will Hunting (1997); he won for the latter film. He also scored comedic hits such as Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and The Birdcage (1996).
Williams died in 2014, by suicide.