Ethan Hawke has Robin Williams to thank for his career

Art is such a central part of life, not only from a fun perspective but also from a personal perspective. And perhaps one of the greatest examples dates back to the 1989s Society of Dead Poets, a film that showed the beauty and importance of poetry and the pursuit of your dreams. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. The film acted as a launch pad for many of its younger performers in particular Ethan Hawke, who played Todd Anderson; a shy and reserved boy who belongs to the group of boys taken under the wing of John Keating (Robin Williams). The role was Hawke’s second-ever film role, and it secured him the star we see him as today. But while his talent and charisma as an actor undoubtedly helped him get to where he is today, Robin Williams played a big part in launching his career.

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What is the Dead Poets Society about?

The class stands on the desks and looks down at Mr. Keating

Society of Dead Poets tells the story of an all-boys preparatory school in the 1950s that welcomes an energetic new English teacher who uses unconventional methods to connect and reach out to his students. The class includes Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) and Todd Anderson, who serve as the main protagonists of the film. Keating helps his students break out of their stuck lives and chase their dreams, but most importantly, seize the day (“carpe diem” in Latin). He inspires boys to rebel against their strict teachers and families and to find their true passion in life. Thanks to Keating’s alumni status at the school, the boys learn about the eponymous Dead Poets Society, a secret group started by Keating and his classmates while he was at the school. He introduces the boys to the club, saying they sneak into caves to read poetry, to “suck the marrow out of life” — and of course to get girls. Keating and the poetry the boys read inspire each of them not only to pursue what they want out of life, but to find themselves in the process.

Robin Williams hasn’t given up his comedic talents entirely

Mr. Keating reads to his students at the Dead Poet's Society
Pictures from Buena Vista

With the late, great Robin Williams in the cast, it was a fun set to be on filming and in an interview with Script Mag, director Peter Weir I talked about training Williams’ character with him.

“Robin and I had several good conversations about how to go about this because he wanted to do more straight-forward roles and open up his career. As you said, he had already conquered the comedy world. But I didn’t want to bury his talent completely because that was what the public loved about him, so it was really a matter of scale – sort of like turning down a volume knob. How deep can you go before people see Robin in the character?”

But knowing Williams, it would be difficult to fully control his comedic talent.

“I felt like he couldn’t hide his ability to make you laugh, so just in case I planned a half-day off-plan shoot where I let Robin do his thing. We kept this a complete secret from the Disney office – and today you can never get away with it because the cost of filming is so high. But that afternoon we set up three cameras in the corners of the room and I told the guys, “Robin is coming in after lunch to shoot a scene that wasn’t in the script.” Remember, he’s still yours Teacher, Mr. Keating, and you’re going to ruin the scene by laughing like you’re watching a standup comedian. So act amused, but don’t overdo it.’”

The scene in question was the one in which Keating impersonates John Wayne And Marlon Brando. Weir also added, “When Robin improvises, he gives off an electrical charge that you can feel. You simply suggest an odd phrase or an evocative word and trigger a litany of Tourettes-like associations and ideas in him.”

Robin Williams brought in Ethan Hawke as his first agent after ‘Dead Poets Society’

Society of Dead Poets Ethan Hawke
Image via Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

But while the rest of the cast indulged in Robin’s often wacky antics and comedic charm, Ethan Hawke was so committed to method acting that he didn’t join in the laughter of his cast. Of course it was just that, method acting. But in the same interview with Script Mag, Hawke revealed his lack of laughter drove Williams insane. “When Robin sees a person not laughing, it becomes his job to make them laugh. But I really tried to put myself in Todd’s shoes, and I really didn’t think Todd would find any of it funny. It just drove Robin crazy — so much so that I thought he really didn’t like me.” Hawke also shared this story in an interview with Conan O’Brien in 2018, where he said the more serious he was, the more Williams got involved with him, made fun of him, called him names and teased him mercilessly. Still, Hawke refused to break his character. All of this led Hawke to genuinely believe Williams didn’t like him, however, a day after filming wrapped, he received a call from Robin’s own agent, Hawke told Conan. Robin Williams had told his agent that Hawke was really good and that he needed an agent – an agent Hawke is still working with as of the 2018 Conan interview!

Ethan Hawke has also helped other actors

Vincent Freeman walks down a hallway in Gattaca.

It’s a beautiful connection between film and real life. Keating helped Todd come out of his shell and grow into the outspoken and strong man he is by the end of the film. Similarly, Robin Williams helped Ethan Hawke advance his career by getting him an agent and in turn helped him grow and thrive into the A-lister we know him as today. He also did for others what Williams did for him, with Zoe Kazan After thanking Ethan Hawke for casting her in a play at the age of 23. In an interview with Collider, she said, “He was one of the biggest advocates, not just of my acting but of my writing, and he encouraged me to write in all sorts of different ways.” He’s a person who really took me seriously before I really took myself seriously in a way. I’ve had so many female mentors, but I never thought that this Gen X guy would become an incredibly important mentor to me. I just have so much love for him.”

Since then, Hawke has had an outstanding career spanning all genres from sci-fi to romance to horror and everything in between. He has received numerous nominations as an actor, including four Oscar nominations, and has also specialized in directing films. He’s a household name now and while he’s certainly shown his talent time and time again and worked hard to get where he is, Robin Williams is the one who really helped him launch his career.

Dustin Huang

Dustin Huang is a 24ssports U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Dustin Huang joined 24ssports in 2021 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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