Kurtwood Smith Reflects on ‘Dead Poets Society’ and Being a Recognizable Actor

Kurtwood-smith-dead-poets-societyIt’s difficult to look at actor Kurtwood Smith — even if you don’t initially recognize his name — and not say “Dumbass.” 

Of course, that has less to do with Smith than it does with Red Forman, the character that Smith portrayed on That’s 70’s Show from 1998-2006.

But Smith has had an extensive career in film too, including playing a significant role in the 1989 Robin Williams movie Dead Poets Society, which has recently been released on Blu-ray.  Smith talked to NBC New York about the classic film and the recognition he has gotten in his career. 

Smith confesses that he almost didn’t end up in the film even though he wanted to work with Robin Williams and director Peter Weir.  He says, “Well, I had done RoboCop a couple of years before that, which had garnered me some attention. And then I got a few films, one of which kind of sank even before it came out. The other film – called True Believer with James Wood and Robert Downey [Jr.], which I still think is a good film – works pretty well and is a good old leftie movie based on this true case. So I was looking for stuff. The first time that they sent me the script I was interested and Robin [Williams] was going to be doing it. Then Robin dropped out, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t think I’m interested either,’ and it was with a different director and all of that, and then six months to a year later my agent called and said, ‘That film is back and Robin is doing it and Peter Weir is directing it.’ I went, ‘Oh, gosh, get me in on that.’ So, I had a meeting with Peter and read the part for him and I remember he filmed it with his own movie camera. And he actually did the filming himself. We talked about the part and then a short time later I found out I got the role. I was very excited. I was a big fan of Peter Weir’s.”

Smith benefited immensely from the role because he explains it allowed him to demonstrate his range as an actor.  He explains, “What this film did, this film, coupled with RoboCop from a few years earlier, it kind of gave me a reputation of having a wide range as an actor. That can really help you to maintain a long career and it did.”

However, Smith admits that despite the popularity of Dead Poets Society it was really That 70’s Show which made him a recognizable actor.  “It’s weird, and a lot of times it doesn’t really register with me. I’m used to sort of being the guy that you were talking about in the sense that people either know me or I can tell that people recognize me, either from the movies or people just think that they know me. It was that way for a long time, but it was that way back when I was doing theater in Los Gatos, California. I’d go to the grocery store and those are the people that are going to theater. So I was kind of used to that. That’s kind of the way that I think I still am, but I know it’s not true. I know that people I’m with are saying, ‘Everyone in the room is staring at you,’ and I say, ‘Well, when I look around they aren’t staring at me.’ So that aspect of it, I forget myself at times. You want to be a regular person. You want to be able to get angry at a clerk because they do something stupid. You don’t want to feel that you have to sort of suck it up because you don’t want people going around going, ‘Geez, what a putz that guy is.’ That element of it is something that I have a tendency to forget at times. I think it’s because of the kind of recognition that you’re talking about came fairly late in my career. But it’s great getting seats to restaurants and tickets to shows and stuff. That’s not a bad element.”

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