Kurtwood Smith talks Dead Poets Society

Kurtwood Smith reminisces on Dead Poets Society, which debuts on Blu-ray January 17

Dead Poets Society is one of those movies that is not only a classic, but is fun to revisit to see so many familiar faces when they were much younger. The drama helped launch the careers of Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, House's Robert Sean Leonard, Melora Walters, and showed that funnyman Robin Williams could do dramas as well. The film also starred Kurtwood Smith, who had just come off Robocop and Rambo III. He would later be known as Topher Grace's cantankerous father in That '70s Show, but he plays a different sort of dad in Dead Poets Society, the overbearing disciplinarian who wants his son (Robert Sean Leonard) to do him proud. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Kurtwood Smith for Dead Poets Society, which makes its Blu-ray debut January 17. Here's what he had to say below.

Robert Sean Leonard has a line fairly early on where he mentions that his family isn't as well of as the others in school. Did you or (director) Peter (Weir) come up with any kind of a background, why he has this growing desire to see his son succeed in this way?

Kurtwood Smith: Yeah, I think we decided that he was a self-made man. He didn't really have much of a family background, which is another reason why he really didn't understand how to deal with this kid. He never really had a concept of that, and he really just had to work hard all his life to get where he was. He was presenting his son with a lot of advantages that he never had, and was insistent that his son would take them, and not waste his life, with something like being an actor. Basically, he loved his son and was insistent that his son was going to have a good life, but he didn't really know how to relate to the kid, beyond that.

I read that this was actually shot in sequence, which is pretty rare, and you were planning your wedding at the time as well. Was it hard to stay in character, when you were going back and forth like that?

Kurtwood Smith: Yeah, it was. I don't think we entirely shot it in sequence, but pretty much. But it was one reason why it's one of my favorite films, and one of the films I'm most proud of, and yet, it wasn't always fun to do, acting-wise. He was such a downer kind of a guy. When I was on the set, because I was so rarely around, when I wasn't working, if I had a couple of days off, I would have to go back to L.A. I pretty much had to focus on what I was doing, so I didn't have a whole lot of time to hang out, which is unfortunate, because it's a great group to hang out with. Basically, yeah, I had to focus on what I was doing, while I was there, because when I was gone, I was focused on other things.

It sounds like they had all the actors living in a dorm-type setting as well.

Kurtwood Smith: Yeah, we were at this hotel, and it wasn't anything special, but it was a nice place. I remember that the boys were all on the same floor. The adults just didn't go up there, because who knows what was going on. You just pretty much stayed away from that, but there were a lot of hijinks going on upstairs. They were very respectful of the rest of the folks on the floor.

Most of your scenes were with Robert, but there was a scene at the beginning with the whole group also. This was, for a lot of the guys, their first or second or third movie. Did you get any sort of a glimpse at how good these kids were at the time when you were shooting this, and that they might go onto careers like they've had?

Kurtwood Smith: Well, Robert, obviously. He was not only talented, but he was also very professional. He was always on top of what he was doing, and we never had to shoot scenes over because he wasn't on top of it. He was right there, all the time, a very professional kid. He had such a personality and such a charm, that I didn't have any doubt about it. I ran into him a year and a half after that in Paris, when the film was opening there, and they were getting mobbed. They were just like little stars even then. It was like, here they go, and they did. Robert stuck to theater for a long time and had a great Broadway career, and Ethan (Hawke) worked his way right up.

I was watching the bonus features and it has this story you told about how Peter Weir went back and reshot your scenes from the last day, because of what you saw in the dailies. I was wondering if there are any other little anecdotes like that which capture what Peter was really like on the set?

Kurtwood Smith: Did they have the story about the slippers on there?

No, I don't believe so.

Kurtwood Smith: There's that scene when we go to bed, and we wake up at night when we hear the noise. When we were rehearsing the scene, I straightened up my slippers at the side of the bed, and got in. The next time we did it, I didn't even think about it, and I didn't do it. He just jumped right on it. He said, 'No no no, you've gotta do that slipper thing. That's really good.' Sure enough, he made kind of a point of it in the scene. It tells you so much about the character, and that's something he saw. It wasn't something I brought to the set with me. It was something I just did and he jumped on it. That's what I mean about him paying attention to what you're doing, and always looking at his actors. He knows what he needs, and beyond that, he wants to get more, and he does. That's why I love working with him, because he's so appreciative of what you do.

Is there anything you're currently working on that you can talk about it? I believe you're voicing Commissioner Gordon in Beware the Batman. Is there anything you can say about that?

Kurtwood Smith: Not too much. We just started. We've only recorded two, before Christmas. I like the general thrust of the show. It's early in the Batman story. Commissioner Gordon isn't even Commissioner yet, he's just Lieutenant Gordon. He doesn't trust Batman, even though they kind of end up helping each other out on an early case. Batman, in a lot of ways, is learning his way, and the relationship between he and Alfred is developing. It's fun and it's kind of straight in that regard, as opposed to being campy. I think it's going to be good, but it won't be out for at least a year or so.

Finally, what would you like to say to any fans of Dead Poets Society or anyone who wants to revisit it, about why they should pick up the Blu-ray this week?

Kurtwood Smith: Well, it is a classic film, and they still show it in English classes today, for a variety of reasons. But beyond that, it is a beautiful film. John Seale, the cinematographer, and Peter worked so well together. The Blu-ray should be a great reason to buy it, because you'll not only have the film, but you'll have something much closer to the original beauty of it.

Excellent. That's my time. Thanks so much. It was great talking to you, Kurtwood.

Kurtwood Smith: Nice talking to you too, Brian. Good luck.

You can watch Kurtwood Smith in Dead Poets Society, which will finally be available on Blu-ray starting January 17.