Robin Williams: 'Dead Poets Society' showcased the power of poetry – and an unusual teacher

Robin Williams starred in the movie as fictional teacher John Keating, who was based on real-life teacher and author Samuel F. Pickering. 

Reed Saxon/AP
Robin Williams starred in the movie 'Dead Poets Society.'

The death of actor Robin Williams has inspired a flood of fond memories from his life and work, but Williams’s special connection to the world of letters shouldn’t be overlooked.

Dead Poets Society,” the 1989 movie starring Williams as the fictional John Keating, was a break-out role for the comedian, establishing him as an actor who could also play nuanced dramatic roles. But the film was also a landmark piece of cinema for book lovers, celebrating the power of poetry – and, by extension, the broader universe of the written word – as a crucial form of personal discovery.

“Dead Poets Society” came by its literary enthusiasm honestly. Williams’s character, the passionately energetic prep school English teacher John Keating, was based on a real-life teacher and author, Samuel F. Pickering.

Pickering has written many collections of essays and a memoir exploring his life as a university professor, father, and husband. Among his numerous books are “The Right Distance,” “Let It Ride,” and “A Continuing Education.”

In a 1992 interview promoting the release of “Let It Ride,” Pickering told me about his connection with “Dead Poets Society.” Before his academic career at the University of Connecticut, Pickering taught at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, where the students included Tom Schulman. Later, in writing the screenplay for “Dead Poets Society,” Schulman based the Keating character on Pickering.

Like Keating, Pickering used unconventional means to engage his students. “I was just back from Cambridge, and they were very bright kids,” Pickering recalled. “But they were 15-year-olds, and 15-year-olds are, well, 15-year-olds. I just did little things to entertain them.”

One day, for example, Pickering taught his class while sitting underneath his desk. “It had no high purpose,” he remembered. “It kept me amused. I was young, and I had hormones screaming out of my body.”

But unlike the fictional Keating, who battled the school administration, Pickering enjoyed a warm relationship with his headmaster, who was a family friend. The movie’s plot line about the suicide of an anguished student also bears no relation to Pickering’s experience.

“It’s been fun, but at times it’s been like a turkey buzzard around my neck,” Pickering said of his connection to the movie.

Although Pickering’s link to the film prompted a few speaking gigs for him, it didn’t help his book sales very much. And his profile as the alter ego of Williams’s Keating also led observers to view Pickering as either a profound education guru or a showboat. He shunned both labels.

Since inspiring the role played by Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” Pickering has led a steady and relatively low-profile literary career. “Heroes always sell,” he told me. “Heroes that write those bogus things of one sort or another about healing the inner child. I don’t try to heal anybody. I try to make them smile. I don’t have any answers for anybody.”

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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