Thirty years after the release of "Dead Poets Society," the movie still influences Middletown where it was filmed.
St. Andrew’s School students and faculty lined up around the multi-purpose field on the school’s front lawn, eyes fixed upon a group of people kicking around a soccer ball before the 1988 Christmas break.
Among the group was Robin Williams.
It was a chance for the few hundred people to witness Williams portray a fictional teacher giving a lesson to a small handful of fictional students in a scene that soon would be watched by millions.
Williams was on set filming the Academy Award-winning movie “Dead Poets Society,” set to premiere the following year.
“It was one of the few times where they told the administration if you want to bring your students out to watch you can do it,” Peter Hoopes, a senior at the time, said.
When the camera stopped rolling, Hoopes said, the actor entertained the crowd of students with comedic commentary.
“It was a neat moment,” Hoopes said.
Hoopes didn’t work with Williams, but he was cast as an extra for scenes in the dining halls and on the football field.
The effect of having been involved in the film has lasted 30 years. In 2019, Hoopes is back at St. Andrew’s as a film studies teacher. Being on set during the filming put him on the path to come back to the school he attended and inspired his career path.
“I think the filming experience helped me get interested in film production,” he said. “The logistics, the tech, and the whole process.”
Teaching the students
During this time in 1988, Williams, Kurtwood Smith and Ethan Hawke were filming around the town, including right on Main Street, inside and outside Everett Theatre. As fake snow was flying around outside the theater, residents would try to catch glimpses of stars.
Director Peter Weir scouted multiple colleges and high schools up and down New England, Hoopes said, but what matched his vision was the boarding school in a town with 3,000 people: St. Andrew’s School.
The move was set in 1959 — 30 years in the past at the time — at the fictional elite all-male conservative Vermont boarding school Welton Academy. It tells the story of English teacher John Keating, played by Williams, who inspires students through teaching poetry.
Williams inspired people himself.
Hoopes uses themes from the film to teach his students at St. Andrew’s.
The film studies teacher returned to St. Andrew’s about 10 years after he graduated from high school.
One of his goals is to analyze, appreciate and understand what writers and directors try to accomplish, just as the Keating character does.
“It’s very much like a literature study, but we’re looking at images, sound, dialogue, color, and other elements to decipher the story,” Hoopes said. “Finding an appreciation for films and hopefully getting the students to have a ‘eureka!’ moment like Robin Williams’ character is trying to do is very much the same for me and many of our teachers.”
Hoopes was not the only one whose career was influenced.
Chuck Purnell, another former extra, works for ABC6 in Philadelphia and credits Dead Poets Society for spurring his decision to work in television.
“Being on the set and seeing the cinematographers shooting with the pan, working with the lights and the extras. It was the whole ambiance of working on a film,” Purnell said in a documentary entitled “Everett Theater Dead Poets 25th Anniversary.”
The producers and directors came to town in August 1988 to do final location scouting and talk to St. Andrew’s about logistics, which included student extras.
Hoopes said boys who were interested could read a couple of lines because they were not only casting for background actors, but students in the classroom scenes.
He appears when Keating’s students give him his old yearbook with a picture of the Dead Poets Society. Hoopes is one of the students running out of the building when the bell rings.
“I know where I am, but it’s tough to see me,” he said.
When Williams wasn’t doing a scene, Hoopes said, he would take the time to talk with the extras and students.
“He wasn’t always performing. When he wasn’t, he was just a regular guy,” Hoopes said. “He was very low-key. When he’s not performing, he was very shy and calm. He’s not always hyper like when he does his acts.”
Chuck Kuzminski, who appeared in the Everett documentary, said he was called during Christmas break to be an extra in the opening scene.
He said there was a lot of waiting for filming to begin, but Williams was willing to entertain. Kuzminski remembers him coming out to speak to them, doing his comedy routine and spending time with the extras.
“I remember him playing cards with a few of my friends from high school,” he said during the documentary. “It made an impression on me that he took the time to actually keep us occupied.”
Looking closely, Kuzminski can be seen sitting right in front of Robert Sean Leonard and Kurtwood Smith in the opening scene.
Town councilman James Reynolds, who lived in Middletown during the filming, said he remembers seeing the church parking lot across the street from the Everett filled with people trying to spot Williams.
Reynolds distinctly remembers a young boy standing with his father as the crew was filming the scene in front of the theater. Smith, who played Clarence Boddicke in the 1987 science fiction film RoboCop, entered and the boy yelled, “Dad, that’s the guy who killed RoboCop.”
“It was neat being able to see actors you have seen in other films out on Main Street,” he said.
The councilman said he is a big Williams fan, naming ‘Good Will Hunting’ as a favorite.
“It’s a sentimental thing,” Reynolds said. “It’s neat being able to recognize parts of St. Andrew’s and the Everett.”
He said Middletown residents and students from private Delaware schools were extras in the Shakespeare play. Classroom and dorm room scenes were filmed at a studio in Wilmington.
Everett Theatre board president Rob Stout said in 15 years in town, he has seen how much this movie means to those who were walking the same streets as Williams.
“I have heard so many stories from residents about their interactions with Robin Williams. I can just see how much this movie has affected this place,” he said.
Helping keep Everett alive
Reynolds said the Everett Theatre was just an old theater before the movie came to town and that movie was able to bring it back to life.
“I think that piqued people’s interest again,” he said. “Now when people come here, they can point to the theater and say, ‘That’s where Dead Poets Society was filmed.’”
The Everett used to have 35 mm projectors. This became a problem about a decade ago. Studios “stopped making them on film, it went completely digital,” he said. “We needed a digital projector so we could still show movies.”
When the nonprofit needed money to get a $50,000 projector, Stout got in touch with Williams. He was more than willing to help. In 2014, a fundraiser tied in with the film’s 25th anniversary.
Stout said Williams signed three Dead Poets posters: two to auction and one for the theater to keep in a glass case in the lobby. Williams wanted to attend the two-day fundraiser but was in London working on another movie, he said
The fundraiser ended up raising enough to buy the projector and helped keep the Everett in business. The Everett bought and installed the projector August 10, 2014, Stout said. The next day news broke that Williams had died by suicide.
To honor his memory, the theater reupholstered one of the 500 red seats in black.
From the stage, Row G, seat 104 can be seen right in the middle, Stout said.
"People try to get the Robin Williams seat.”