15 Facts About Dead Poets Society

Touchstone Pictures
Touchstone Pictures

Robin Williams's portrayal of John Keating was one of his iconic roles, and this drama about boys at a prep school in 1959 still endures. Here are 15 things you may not have known about Dead Poets Society, which arrived in theaters on June 2, 1989.

1. Dead Poets Society was loosely based on its screenwriter's life.

Dead Poets Society was written by Tom Schulman, who also wrote Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and What About Bob? It was the first screenplay he sold to Hollywood, though not the first one he wrote—in fact, Schulman wrote four scripts before Dead Poets Society. The story is based in part on his experiences at Montgomery Bell Academy, a prep school in Nashville, Tennessee. Most of the characters were modeled on people he knew from real life.

2. John Keating was based on two of Tom Schulman's teachers.

Robin Williams's character, John Keating, was based on two of Schulman's former teachers: Harold Clurman, who taught at the Actors and Directors Lab, and Samuel Pickering, who taught Schulman's sophomore English class. While Keating's inspiring speeches may have come from Clurman, his quirky teaching style came from Pickering. In an essay, Pickering wrote that he sometimes taught class while standing on a desk (as Keating does) or in a trashcan. One of his students remembers Pickering making him stand on a chair and flap his arms every time the class said the word “nevermore” while reading Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven.

“I did such things not so much to awaken students as entertain myself,” Pickering wrote. “If I had fun, I suppose I thought, the boys would have fun, too, and maybe even enjoy reading and writing.”

3. The studio considered turning Dead Poets Society into a musical.

They even had a title: The Sultans of Strut. Apparently, it was going to be like Fame.

4. It was originally going to be helmed by the director of Revenge of the Nerds.

Before Peter Weir came along, Jeff Kanew—who had found success with Revenge of the Nerds—was set to direct the film. Kanew wanted Liam Neeson to play Keating, but the studio wanted Robin Williams. For his part, Williams seemed reluctant to work with Kanew, which led to a disastrously botched first day of shooting, according to Schulman:

“The studio wanted Robin Williams, and Robin wouldn't say no, but he wouldn't say yes, to working with that director. 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. He never said he would, but Disney kept trying to pressure him by moving forward. After the first day he didn't show up, they canceled the production and burned the sets. We actually have dailies of the sets burning.”

5. At one point, Dustin Hoffman was going to direct and star in Dead Poets Society.

After Kanew, Dustin Hoffman signed on to direct, as well as play the role of Keating, but there were scheduling conflicts and arguments about the start date. Finally, the studio gave the movie to six-time Oscar nominee Peter Weir, who would later direct The Truman Show.

6. In the original script, John Keating is dying of cancer.

The movie is faithful to Schulman's screenplay except for a scene in which the boys discover that Keating has Hodgkin's disease. The scene was intended to show the audience why Keating is so intent on seizing the day, but Weir thought the movie was stronger without it. “You don’t have to explain it,” Weir told Schulman.

7. Filming was moved from Georgia to Delaware because fake snow is expensive.

The movie was originally going to be filmed in Rome, Georgia, but the director wanted snow to enhance the feel of a New England prep school. Since snow is expensive to replicate, they moved filming to Delaware, where snow is free.

8. Dead Poets Society is rife with literary references, both obvious and obscure.

Keating tells the boys to sound their “barbaric yawp” from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. He quotes Henry David Thoreau's line from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The boys chant lines from Vachel Lindsay's almost-forgotten poem "The Congo": “Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black, cutting through the forest with a golden track.” Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Lord Byron are also mentioned.

Of course, the most memorable literary reference is the use of Whitman's elegy for Abraham Lincoln. At the end of the movie, after Keating has been fired, the boys climb on their desks and declare their loyalty by saying, “Oh Captain, My Captain.”

9. Robin Williams seemed somewhat uncomfortable in the role ... until he started improvising.

When Williams first arrived on set, his portrayal of Keating was wooden and uncomfortable, so Weir suggested they improvise. He asked Williams what he wanted to “teach” the class, and he said Shakespeare. Then Williams did an improv of Marlon Brando and John Wayne doing Shakespeare, a scene that made it into the movie. After that, he relaxed into the role, and the movie started to come together.

10. A large amount of Williams's dialogue was improvised.

And not just the scene mentioned above. Producers estimated that about 15 percent of Williams's dialogue was improvised by the actor.

11. Director Peter Weir made the young actors live together.

Since the characters in Dead Poets Society live in a boarding school, Weir had the boys room together so they could bond. He also made them study movies, radio shows, and music from the 1950s.

12. The cave in Dead Poets Society is fake.

The cave where the society meets wasn't an actual cave, but rather a set piece made of latex. It was, however, based on a real location: Wolf Cave in Delaware.

13. It wasn't beloved by all critics: even Roger Ebert was rather lukewarm to it.

While Dead Poets Society was generally well received, some critics thought it was emotionally manipulative and intellectually shallow. Roger Ebert gave it two stars and said of the film: “It is, of course, inevitable that the brilliant teacher will eventually be fired from the school, and when his students stood on their desks to protest his dismissal, I was so moved, I wanted to throw up.”

14. Ethan Hawke credits a scene with Williams for introducing him to the possibilities of acting.

In an interview with Jian Ghomeshi, Ethan Hawke talked about the impact working with Robin Williams on Dead Poets Society had on his career, particularly in a scene where Keating teaches him to sound his “barbaric yawp.”

“That was the scene where I was supposed to read a poem in front of the class and it was the first time in my life that I ever experienced the thrill of acting and the thrill of losing yourself. You know, there's this whole thing in the public that acting is this huge celebration of the personality and the ego, of course, and the irony is that whenever it's any good, it's devoid of ego. It's a high that I've chased my whole life since that day with Robin. It's this way of losing yourself, where you lose yourself inside a story, a story that's in service of something way beyond you. And I felt that in Dead Poets Society.”

15. Hawke was pretty sure that Williams hated him.

While working with Williams proved to be a career-changing moment for Hawke, the actor recently admitted that he and Williams didn't have the smoothest working relationship while filming Dead Poets Society. "I really wanted to be a serious actor," Hawke said of his approach to the craft. "I had read Stanislavsky and I had what was supposed to be in my pockets and I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn't want to laugh. The more I didn't laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of [me]. 'Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.' And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn't understand, I was trying to do a good job. I want to be Montgomery Clift over here, you're trying to be Zero Mostel or something. So I thought he hated me because he would constantly lay into me. No sooner would action start and he would lay into 'Todd' over here. That was my character's name."

This story has been updated for 2019.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Black Friday is finally here, and Amazon is offering great deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

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Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

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Video games

Sony

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Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

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Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

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Beats/Amazon

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HBO/Amazon

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Toys and Games

Amazon

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Casper/Amazon

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Haus/Amazon

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Clothes

Ganni/Amazon

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12 Spirited Facts About How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Each year, millions of Americans welcome the holiday season by tuning into their favorite TV specials. For most people, this includes at least one viewing of the 1966 animated classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Adapted from Dr. Seuss’s equally famous children’s book by legendary animator Chuck Jones, How the Grinch Stole Christmas first aired more than 50 years ago, on December 18, 1966. Here are 12 facts about the TV special that will surely make your heart grow three sizes this holiday season.

1. Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel And Chuck Jones previously worked together on Army training videos.

During World War II, Geisel joined the United States Army Air Forces and served as commander of the Animation Department for the First Motion Picture Unit, a unit tasked with creating various training and pro-war propaganda films. It was here that Geisel soon found himself working closely with Chuck Jones on an instructional cartoon called Private Snafu. Originally classified as for-military-personnel-only, Private Snafu featured a bumbling protagonist who helped illustrate the dos and don’ts of Army safety and security protocols.

2. It was because of their previous working relationship that Ted Geisel agreed to hand over the rights to The Grinch to Chuck Jones.

After several unpleasant encounters in relation to his previous film work—including the removal of his name from credits and instances of pirated redistribution—Geisel became notoriously “anti-Hollywood.” Because of this, he was reluctant to sell the rights to How the Grinch Stole Christmas. However, when Jones personally approached him about making an adaptation, Geisel relented, knowing he could trust Jones and his vision.

3. Even with Ted Geisel’s approval, the special almost didn’t happen.

By Al Ravenna, World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Whereas today’s studios and production companies provide funding for projects of interest, television specials of the past, like A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, had to rely on company sponsorship in order to get made. While A Charlie Brown Christmas found its financier in the form of Coca-Cola, How the Grinch Stole Christmas struggled to find a benefactor. With storyboards in hand, Jones pitched the story to more than two dozen potential sponsors—breakfast foods, candy companies, and the like—all without any luck. Down to the wire, Jones finally found his sponsor in an unlikely source: the Foundation for Commercial Banks. “I thought that was very odd, because one of the great lines in there is that the Grinch says, ‘Perhaps Christmas doesn’t come from a store,’” Jones said of the surprise endorsement. “I never thought of a banker endorsing that kind of a line. But they overlooked it, so we went ahead and made the picture.”

4. How the Grinch Stole Christmas had a massive budget.

Coming in at over $300,000, or $2.2 million in today’s dollars, the special’s budget was unheard of at the time for a 26-minute cartoon adaptation. For comparison’s sake, A Charlie Brown Christmas’s budget was reported as $96,000, or roughly $722,000 today (and this was after production had gone $20,000 over the original budget).

5. Ted Geisel wrote the song lyrics for the special.

No one had a way with words quite like Dr. Seuss, so Jones felt that Geisel should provide the lyrics to the songs featured in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

6. Fans requested translations of the “Fahoo Foraze” song.

True to his persona’s tongue-twisting trickery, Geisel mimicked sounds of classical Latin in his nonsensical lyrics. After the special aired, viewers wrote to the network requesting translations of the song as they were convinced that the lyrics were, in fact, real Latin phrases.

7. Thurl Ravenscroft didn’t receive credit for his singing of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

The famous voice actor and singer, best known for providing the voice of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger, wasn’t recognized for his work in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Because of this, most viewers wrongly assumed that the narrator of the special, Boris Karloff, also sang the piece in question. Upset by this oversight, Geisel personally apologized to Ravenscroft and vowed to make amends. Geisel went on to pen a letter, urging all the major columnists that he knew to help him rectify the mistake by issuing a notice of correction in their publications.

8. Chuck Jones had to find ways to fill out the 26-minute time slot.

Because reading the book out loud only takes about 12 minutes, Jones was faced with the challenge of extending the story. For this, he turned to Max the dog. “That whole center section where Max is tied up to the sleigh, and goes down through the mountainside, and has all those problems getting down there, was good comic business as it turns out,” Jones explained in TNT’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas special, which is a special feature on the movie’s DVD. “But it was all added; it was not part of the book.” Jones would go on to name Max as his favorite character from the special, as he felt that he directly represented the audience.

9. The Grinch’s green coloring was inspired by a rental car.

Warner Home Video

In the original book, the Grinch is illustrated as black and white, with hints of pink and red. Rumor has it that Jones was inspired to give the Grinch his iconic coloring after he rented a car that was painted an ugly shade of green.

10. Ted Geisel thought the Grinch looked like Chuck Jones.

When Geisel first saw Jones’s drawings of the Grinch, he exclaimed, “That doesn’t look like the Grinch, that looks like you!” Jones’s response, according to TNT’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas Special: “Well, it happens.”

11. At one point, the special received a “censored” edit.

Over the years, How the Grinch Stole Christmas has been edited in order to shorten its running time (in order to allow for more commercials). However, one edit—which ran for several years—censored the line “You’re a rotter, Mr. Grinch” from the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Additionally, the shot in which the Grinch smiles creepily just before approaching the bed filled with young Whos was deemed inappropriate for certain networks and was removed.

12. The special’s success led to both a prequel and a crossover special.

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Given the popularity of the Christmas special, two more Grinch tales were produced: Halloween is Grinch Night and The Grinch Grinches The Cat in the Hat. Airing on October 29, 1977, Halloween is Grinch Night tells the story of the Grinch making his way down to Whoville to scare all the Whos on Halloween. In The Grinch Grinches The Cat in the Hat, which aired on May 20, 1982, the Grinch finds himself wanting to renew his mean spirit by picking on the Cat in the Hat. Unlike the original, neither special was deemed a classic. But this is not to say they weren’t well-received; in fact, both went on to win Emmy Awards.