WAMG Interview: Actor Kurtwood Smith
Interview conducted by Tom Stockman January 9th, 2012
Though disarming in appearance, actor Kurtwood Smith’s two best-known big-screen roles are memorable villains. He was the psychotic Clarence in ROBOCOP in 1988 and played a very different scoundrel the next year in DEAD POET’S SOCIETY where he was the unforgettable Mr. Perry, the overbearing bully father of aspiring actor Neil (played by Robert Sean Leonard) who meets a tragic end. He played a comedy variation on that role as the conservative, tough-loving dad on the TV sitcom That ‘70’s Show from 1998 to 2006. Smith’s other credits include FLASHPOINT, RAMBO III, TO DIE FOR, DEEP IMPACT, and roles on both Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He can currently be seen on the TV series Chaos. The Disney classic DEAD POET’S SOCIETY has been digitally restored and presented for the first time in Blu-ray High Definition this week, and We Are Movie Geeks spoke to Kurtwood Smith about the film.
We Are Movie Geeks: When you filmed DEAD POET’S SOCIETY did you realize you were making a classic?
Kurtwood Smith: I didn’t realize we were making a classic but I knew that, with Peter Weir directing, that we were making a very good film. There were so many talented people involved. Tom Schulman the writer, and of course Robin and these young actors Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke and, in particular Josh Charles. Those guys were really really talented so I knew we had a good chance of making an excellent movie.
WAMG: How did you get the role as Mr. Perry in DEAD POET’S SOCIETY?
KS: They sent the script to my agent and wanted to know if I was interested. They started out asking me if I was interested in either the part of the father or of the headmaster (eventually played by Norman Lloyd). I said I was, and then it fell apart. Peter Weir was not connected with it at the time. Then about a year later they came back and said that Peter Weir was going to direct this so I went in and read the scene for Peter and we filmed it. That was the only time I had the director do the filming of the audition himself. We talked at length about the role and then a couple of weeks later I got it.
WAMG: What was Robin Williams like?
KS: I knew Robin from before. I had worked with him doing Theater in Marin County and I’d seen him on and off over the years. I only had two scenes with him in the movie and one of those was cut. Peter had cut it and put it back in, then cut it out again. It was a scene after Neil’s funeral . We decided it was redundant and cut it.
WAMG: Have you worked with Robin Williams since then?
KS: No, I’ve seen him and seen his stage shows and recently saw him in New York in the play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, and we caught up a bit, but that’s the only film we made together.
WAMG: Let’s talk about the character you played in DEAD POET’S SOCIETY, Mr. Perry. Why did Mr. Perry have such a hard time with his son Neil wanting to be an actor?
KS: I think Mr. Perry thought that sort of life would be a waste. Peter Weir and I decided that, as far as Mr. Perry’s back story went, we were determined that the character be understandable. He didn’t know how to express it but he obviously loved his son and was determined that his son was going to take advantage of the advantages given him and do something with his life. Obviously Mr. Perry struggled throughout his life and he saw, as most parents do today, going into theater as a very chancy, difficult future so he was determined his son wasn’t going to waste his life that way.
WAMG: Could you relate to Neil Perry? What did your family think of your chosen profession?
KS: My family was fine with my acting career, as long as I went to college.
WAMG: Did you discourage or encourage your daughter Laurel from becoming an actress?
KS: I didn’t encourage her because I know it’s a difficult thing but at the same time it would have been improper of me to discourage her. I stressed that I wanted her to get an education and graduate from college. Then it was up to her, and she’s made it work. She does mostly commercials now.
WAMG: At the end of the day, do you think Mr. Perry blames Mr. Keating for his son’s death or does he recognize his own bullying?
KS: If we had left that scene in that I mentioned, you wouldn’t have aslked the question because it’s still clear in that scene that he blames Mr. Keating but obviously in that kind of situation he would have had to know responsible. Whether or not he’s willing to accept that, given the kind of guy that he is, he wouldn’t accept that. It would be a hard thing for him to admit.
WAMG: Were there any other scenes in DEAD POET SOCIETY featuring you as Mr. Perry that were cut out besides the one you mentioned?
KS: That’s the only one I remember. There were some scenes that were cut from the script when Peter Weir took it over. In the original script, Mr. Perry drags his son off the stage while he’s performing Midsummer Nights Dream, but we all agreed that was over the top. But I don’t recall any other scenes being shot and then cut, but that’s over 25 years ago so, who knows.
(At this point in the interview, a rep from Disney breaks in the phone line and lets me know I have only one more question left ! I haven’t even brought up ROBOCOP or any of Mr. Smith’s many great film roles – oh well – one last question:)
WAMG: Were you in THE DEER HUNTER (the IMDB has him listed as “POW in Cage ” Uncredited -Unconfirmed)?
KS: No, I was not in THE DEER HUNTER but I keep hearing that I was. I really need to go back and watch that film again and see why everyone thinks I’m in there.
WAMG: Good luck with the Blu-ray release of DEAD POET’S SOCIETY and with your future projects and thanks for talking to We Are Movie Geeks.
KS: My pleasure, thank you.
The We Are Movie Geeks Blu-ray review of DEAD POET’S SOCIETY can be found HERE