Actor Sam Jaeger (Parenthood) Talks the Enduring, Evolving Influence of Dead Poets Society

26 years after it inspired him to seize the day and follow his dream, the actor-director reflects on the impact Peter Weir's film has had on his life.

It was seventh grade when I discovered what I wanted to do with my life. My eyes still adjusting to the pale Ohio sky above the Southwyck Mall, I turned to my two closest friends. “I’m going to be an actor,” I said. One of them laughed. Perhaps it was the context of what we had just seen. A movie at night, no matter how graphic or bombastic, is still a fitting prelude to dreams. But a matinee is by its very nature invasive. The images and themes linger — especially if it’s a film that finds you at the right moment in your life, the way Dead Poets Society found me 26 years ago.

If you were to engineer a film for the 12-year-old me, codifying every yearning and hope and shame and lustful thought into a unit of celluloid, you’d have something resembling Dead Poets Society. It was everything I didn’t know I wanted in a movie. In a summer when even Batman failed to live up to my fantasies, the Dead Poets conquered me entirely. There was the introvert (played by a doe-eyed Ethan Hawke) welcomed into a brotherhood of affable, un-muscled teens; the unrequited love of the unattainable cheerleader; the gentle guidance of a nonconformist teacher (Robin Williams); and most impactful to me, the ambitious actor (Robert Sean Leonard) who reluctantly defies the wishes of his militant father. For a seventh-grade loner or artist in a whitewashed American suburb, there was nothing more satiating.

“It was a movie you could go to with your buddies that wasn’t an action or fart-joke movie. It was like a rallying cry for outsiders. It gave you permission to feel.” This is my brother-in-law, Joe, recalling the impact it made on his life. “It put the emphasis on the moment — which, if you’re a teenager, basically gives you justification for what you’re doing already.” For the polite nonconformist I was, that meant buying anything emblazoned with “carpe diem” and even a navy duffel coat (because nothing screams “rebel” more than shopping at American Eagle with your mom). How was I to know this notion of living for the moment, this attempt to “suck all the marrow out of life” would lead to two decades of misguided overreaching?

In my early twenties, I was professing my love to any pretty girl that I took a shine to, regardless of the warning signs. I once brought flowers into a college classroom for a foreign exchange girl (not realizing until exactly now that this was a move stolen straight from Dead Poets). In my late twenties, I barreled into a myriad of lofty projects that never came to fruition (including, but not limited to: a podcast, a blog, a musical, an artists’ retreat (?!) and several screenplays about the hazards of professing love to pretty girls). But these stumblings are to be expected in your twenties. What I didn’t expect was the screeching halt that was my mid-thirties.

“Carpe diem” is a mantra at age 12. At age 25, it’s a challenge. At 33, it’s a burden. I remember laying in the grass with my son, all of one year old, chastising myself for not enjoying the moment more. Watching him watch the world, I should have been overcome by gratitude. This should have been a high, like a life-insurance commercial fully realized. Perhaps that’s where Dead Poets Society failed me. There are few phrases more deceiving than “a promising future.” Life has to settle into some form. Diapers need to be changed and whatnot. And after two decades of boundless potential, I found myself staring down the barrel of that other Latin phrase: “status quo.”

This is not to say I blame the film for my disappointments. Perhaps it’s easy to give movies more credit than they’re due. Kevin J.H. Dettmar’s article in The Atlantic last year attacked Dead Poets Society for perpetuating the belief that the arts don’t require critical analysis; to create the next Leaves of Grass we need only get in touch with our feelings. And I agree: the film comes up woefully short as an argument for humanities.

Yet while I understand Dettmar’s anger at Dead Poets Society for not representing a healthy study of the arts, that was never the film’s intention. Nor should it have been. Movies are at their best when they keep to two simple ambitions: warning us of humanity’s pitfalls (see Goodfellas) or reminding us of its potential (see Seven Samurai). It’s a shame any movie has ever been made about teaching. Movies simply don’t have time for the quieter moments that cultivate an education. But Dead Poets Society is not about education, nor educators. My initial attraction to Dead Poets Society was for what it did, and still does, so effectively: call the young to action.

At the end of the first day of school, we meet John Keating. He leads the kids out of the classroom to look at the school’s alumni in display cases. “Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you.” The boys lean in, and we too see the lifeless faces inside the display. We too are left to imagine their funerals, their ambitions capped by time. As cinema goes, it remains a sacred moment to me. Suddenly death wasn’t just the province of the elderly — it’s everyone’s timeshare. The most terrifying thing to a young mind is an long life poorly spent.

This is why we look to characters like John Keating, Dead Poets Society’s mentor. Midway through the film, Williams’s character outs Ethan Hawke’s for failing to write a poem for class. “Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside him is worthless and embarrassing. Isn’t that right, Todd? Isn’t that your worst fear? Well, I think you’re wrong.” Williams made a career out of swing-for-the-fences, feel-good dramedies. Many of his characters, such as the titular protagonists of Jakob the Liar, Patch Adams and Mrs. Doubtfire, were but aspects of a man who spent a great deal of energy lifting spirits. Knowing how Williams struggled with depression, it’s a strange paradox.

“In the last 10 years, I’ve had trouble watching Robin Williams.” My brother-in-law again. “The comedy was so big and manic and ‘look at me.’ This need to be seen and make people laugh… I felt almost pity for him.” While it’s unfair to associate the life of an actor with the fictional character he embodies, Williams’ performance in Dead Poets Society was one of the first times audiences got to see beyond the frenetic persona. Director Peter Weir saw in Williams not only his sense of humor but his quiet, emotional depth.

There’s a look that Williams gives to Ethan Hawke in the final moments of the film. Having been fired from the school, he returns to the classroom to gather the last of his belongings. He looks up at Hawke’s face through the doorway and smiles. It’s a sobering acknowledgment that, despite the turmoil, despite the hands unfairly dealt, things are going to be all right.

Five years after laying in the yard with my first son, I have another. He is as buoyant a human as I’ve ever seen. And after seeking answers everywhere (including but not limited to: meditation, medication, alcohol, weed, hypnotherapy, prayer, push-ups, charity work, self-help books and dark-ass chocolate), I’ve somehow arrived on the other side of my struggles more content than I’ve ever been. It feels as though, perhaps, things are going to be all right. Yet they weren’t for Williams.

And, 26 years later, this is what’s so striking about Dead Poets Society. Its impact is less uplifting, yet all the more compelling in the shadow of that tragedy. Here is our inspirer, gentlemen, now fertilizing daffodils — his death a reinforcement of the fragility and singularity of our own existence. For, as it should, the powerful play goes on. Williams’ contributions, then, are in both his life and death — reminding us of our potential, warning us of our pitfalls.

Sam Jaeger is an actor, writer and director, best known for playing Mark Tuello in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Joel Graham on NBC’s Parenthood. Among Sam’s numerous film and television credits as an actor are American Sniper, Inherent Vice, Lucky Number Slevin, Catch and Release, Eli Stone and Girl’s Club. He made his feature debut as writer-director in 2011 with the acclaimed indie romantic comedy Take Me Home, in which he starred opposite his wife, Amber Jaeger.