Kurtwood Smith had a pretty good acting career going even before “That 70s Show.” Dumbass.
In the 80s, Smith was working regularly in Hollywood, bringing that trademark stern stone-face he’d later mine for laughs as Red Forman to a lot of heavies in supporting film and TV roles, most notably in “RoboCop.” But the actor first got to demonstrate his range with a turn in 1989’s “Dead Poet’s Society” opposite Robin Williams, with Smith playing the demanding father of one of Williams’ prep school students.
With the film making its Blu Ray debut, Smith remembers making that transcition from a semi-familiar face to a well-known character actor.
Where were you in your career when "Dead Poets’ Society" came around? How did you get involved in it?
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.
How familiar were you with Robin's abilities beyond comedy? Did you go in knowing he could handle any type of material?
I knew Robin. I worked with Robin in theater in Marin County in the early '70's, so I'd known Robin for some time. We weren't paling around or anything like that, but I was certainly aware of his abilities, so I was not surprised at all. I thought that it was a great part for him and that he would really shine in it, because I knew he had the ability to play the more serious aspects of the role.
Did you see this sort of improvisational genius in Robin in dramatic moments that audiences expect from him in comedic moments?
I always thought that Robin was brilliant, and obviously what people mostly saw was comedy. But I did a couple of straight plays with him as well in which he was equally wonderful without feeling that he had to make everyone in the room laugh. So, I knew that he had that potential.
Did you feel as you were making the film that something special was happening, that it wasn't just another film, or were you surprised when you saw the finished product?
I was thrilled when I saw the finished product. I thought that it was a beautiful movie and I was proud to be in it, and I wasn't really surprised because working with Peter Weir, he's the best of the best. So when you're working with him you know the attention to detail that he's spending with you and I knew from talking to other people in the cast what was going on in the other work. I just thought that the whole time it had really terrific potential. It paid off. I was glad to see it. It was a movie that I would've just been dumbfounded if it had been a failure, if somehow someone else had gotten their hands involved after it was finished and messed it up or something. Fortunately that didn't happen.
What was the ripple effect on your career? Did that increase the phone calls coming to your agent for you?
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.
What was the transition from being a somewhat familiar face on screen to being a known actor as a result of 'That '70's Show' like for you? Where you go from getting looks like “Did we go to high school together?” to recognizing you for who you are?
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.
A lot of your young costars from 'That '70's Show' – Ashton Kutcher, Laura Prepon, Wilmer Valderrama – are back on television all of a sudden. Did you see longevity in these young actors that you worked with?
Well, I knew that they all had that potential because they were all talented, and then beyond that they were all smart and they all wanted to have a career. So the whole time they were keeping that in mind, and you could see it. At their age it would've been pretty easy to just go off and be wild and crazy, and they knew better than that. Occasionally they would do something like that, but very rarely. So I knew that talent-wise they had the potential and smarts-wise they had the potential, and then the rest of it is just a crapshoot. I mean, who knows? Mila [Kunis]: I love Mila and she's obviously talented and obviously pretty, but she was 14 years old when we started. Who knew that Mila was going to blow up in to this superstar that she is? Not that she doesn't deserve it – she certainly does. But it's really hard to predict something like that especially at that age.
What's right ahead for you these days?
I'm doing some animation. We just started recording a new 'Batman' series and I'm playing Commissioner Gordon – or Lieutenant Gordon as he is then – but that won't be out for about a year.
"Dead Poets Society" is available on Blu-ray for the first time now.