In the fall of 1988, St. Andrew’s School headmaster Jon O’Brien announced that our campus had been cast in the role of “Welton Academy” in a film titled “Dead Poets Society,” and that the star of the movie would be none other than Robin Williams. At the time, Williams was coming off his Oscar-nominated performance in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” and was easily one of the brightest stars in the Hollywood pantheon.
Headmaster O’Brien might as well have set off a low-yield nuclear device in the dining hall. A visit from Robin Williams! And then, Director Peter Weir’s army of movie-makers arrived. The production literally defined the year. Everyone was affected, often profoundly. While some students secured legitimate speaking parts (the skeptic-turned-believer “Hopkins” was played by SAS junior Matt Carey, who reportedly hauled in more for his performance than most of our professors made in a year) and others made brief appearances (my star turn was limited to approximately half a second onscreen), still others were forced into mild-to-major inconvenience — St. Andrew’s is a coed school, but “Welton” was all boys. Our girls faced all sorts of rigamarole in order to get to class without stepping into frame.
Academia fought entertainment to a standstill that year, as students occasionally had to live according to shooting schedules, including night shoots on campus. As the decidedly less-than-glamorous reality of movie production settled over us, my fellow students and I responded by:
- Getting nowhere near enough sleep.
- Getting acquainted with Williams’ co-stars. Gale Hansen, who played “Charlie/Nwanda,” was a particularly fun guy. Some of my female classmates favored a then-youthful Ethan Hawke, leaving my male classmates and me feeling decidedly nonplussed. James Waterston, who played “Pitts,” returned to campus that spring to escort one of my classmates to the prom.
- Gawking shamelessly whenever Williams stepped into view. The production company hired an SAS alumna as location liaison. She sternly commanded us to behave. We ignored her.
Our behavior, which included a coordinated plan involving putting mirrors in our windows to ruin the occasional night shoot, could well have jeopardized our beloved school’s role in the film. To be fair, Weir and his crew were probably a great deal more patient than we deserved. But we had a not-so-secret ally: The star of the show thought it was a riot. Williams encouraged us. He wasn’t present as often as the younger men were; but when he was, he was approachable, charming and every bit as funny as his onscreen persona.
One afternoon, they were shooting a scene in the driveway below our dorm. My roommates and I set up on our balcony to watch the goings-on. The location liaison caught sight of us, and gave us her best “I thought we discussed this after the ‘mirrors in the windows’ prank” look. Unbeknownst to her, Williams was behind her, doing a pantomime routine to beat the band. I honestly believe she left after the location shoot convinced that we were laughing in her face. We were nobodies, a bunch of high school punks behaving like high school punks. And rather than laugh at us, he laughed with us; rather than ignore us, he included us in the joke. He might as well have given us each an Oscar. And though he certainly didn’t owe it to anyone, Williams returned after the shoot to do a private show for the students, faculty and staff. To this day, I’ve laughed at only one other stand-up performance as hard as I did that night.
I had been as much a fan as anyone was before that winter. I was an outright cheerleader for Williams afterward. Robin Williams wasn’t just a talented actor; he was a talented actor who’d shaken my hand — on purpose! This was Mr. Keating, from Welton Academy. This was the guy who’d taken what would already have been an outstanding senior year of high school (SAS was — and is — one of the finest secondary schools in the nation) and made it extraordinary. He made no undue effort to keep us at arms’ length; nor did he deliberately draw attention to himself (as if he had to). Robin Williams, the star, was also Robin Williams, the genuinely friendly fellow. Robin Williams, the comedian, was also Robin Williams, the guy who looked you in the eye when he shook your hand even though he was Robin Williams and you were nobody significant. Robin Williams, the superstar, was also Robin Williams, the guy who cracked a joke and patted me on the shoulder when I nearly ran him over while sprinting down the back stairs from Hillier Corridor to the mail room.
Williams fought demons his whole adult life. He struggled with drugs, women and fame; and they clearly created a monster that overpowered him. I suppose there’s an almost stereotypical aspect to his fate, a clown who cries on the inside. But he also worked tirelessly for charities such as the Comic Relief series, took special pride in his association with the USO and even managed to bring a smile to the face of a gravely injured Christopher Reeve on a day when Reeve faced a surgery that stood a good chance of killing him. Say what you will about his personal issues, it’s hard not to grin at the idea of Williams striding into a Virginia hospital room impersonating an insane Russian proctologist. Reeve certainly did, saying: “For the first time since the accident, I laughed.” I can speak for neither Reeve nor his family, but I know there’s no price you can put on that kind of joy. Years later, when my younger brother lay in an Atlanta hospital’s ICU following a terrible accident, I shamelessly ripped off Williams’ bit. My brother didn’t laugh, but he also didn’t throw anything.
I’m glad I got to meet Robin Williams. I’m glad I got to know that not everyone in Hollywood is a simpering buffoon who’s long on wind and short on wisdom. I’m glad I met someone who sincerely sought to bring laughter to so many for so long. And I’m terribly sorry that he’s gone. It’s always tricky eulogizing famous people. Too often, the effort comes off as maudlin self-importance. After all, I’m just a guy who met someone famous. But he was a remarkable man. And meeting someone so radically different than anyone I’d yet encountered during what is arguably the most important year of any young person’s life was (forgive me) extraordinary.