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Dead Poets Society, which was released 25 years ago, is one of the films for which Robin Williams, who died on Monday, will always be remembered. Williams, already a celebrated comedian, played a major dramatic screen role for the first time in the Peter Weir classic: John Keating, an English teacher at a rigid prep school who inspires a love of learning in his young pupils, but who is ultimately fired after his unconventional teaching methods are blamed for a tragedy.
In the film’s most iconic scene, Williams’ Keating visits his classroom one final time to collect his belongings — whereupon his former students stand on their desks in defiance of their rigid headmaster, who is temporarily teaching their class, and state in reference to an 1865 Walt Whitman poem that Keating taught them, “O Captain! My Captain!”
The headmaster, who fired Keating and admonishes his students (“Sit down! Sit down I tell you!”) to no avail, was played by the veteran character actor Norman Lloyd — a tennis partner of Charlie Chaplin, protege of Orson Welles and villain in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Saboteur (1942) — who is now 99 years old, and who shared his memories of Williams today with The Hollywood Reporter.
“This is a shock — I cannot understand it,” Lloyd said somberly after learning that Williams apparently took his own life. He recalled that Williams had been on his radar long before they ever worked together. “I always had a special interest in Robin because he came out of the Juilliard School, which was co-founded by John Houseman,” the late actor-writer-producer who had also, with Welles, co-founded the Mercury Theatre group of which Lloyd had been a part.
Of the “wonderful scene” that he and Williams shared together in Dead Poets Society, Lloyd said, “It was so much Robin, because this was actually his relationship with the young actors who were playing those parts — who have now grown into serious adult actors, like Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles.” On the basis of that scene and the others that they shared in the film, he concluded about Williams, “He was a brilliant actor and had such a great range. I loved working with him. It was a dream.”
Lloyd found it interesting that Williams wasn’t his usual manically funny self during the making of Dead Poets Society: “He was very serious during this piece. There was no horsing around, none of the Robin one-man-show stuff. He was just an absolutely serious dramatic actor.” Lloyd suspects he knows why. “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 masked the whole thing very carefully. It was never evident in the work. It was all kept under control.”
“You know, it’s almost a curse of too much talent,” Lloyd reflected. “The guy was so talented, and it ran away with him.”
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