Making your New York stage debut in a role made famous by Robin Williams isn’t for the faint of heart. Making it in an adaptation of one of Williams’ most beloved movies — “Dead Poets Society” — makes it doubly daunting.
But comedian and actor Jason Sudeikis wasn’t scared away. The former “Saturday Night Live” star who grew up in Overland Park adored the 1989 film and has embraced a critical line from it as he tackles it onstage: “carpe diem,” or seize the day.
“The bar is so high for this story and this role that it doesn’t intimidate me,” he said. “All it does is it makes you honor the amount of intention and the amount of hard work you have to do — the enthusiasm you have to bring, the industriousness you have — to get even close.”
The story is about a maverick English teacher named John Keating who inspires students at a straight-laced, conformist prep school to follow their dreams. In one speech, he pleads: “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
“John Keating is as epic of a character as Hamlet or the devil,” said Sudeikis. “I believed in this story when I was 14 when it first came out. I believed in it throughout my 20s and here I have the opportunity to get to play it and bring that story back.”
Academy Award winner Tom Schulman has adapted his screenplay, and the play’s world premiere is being staged off-Broadway by Classic Stage Company under the direction of its artistic director, John Doyle.
When Doyle was thinking about casting Keating, he decided to follow Williams’ lead by looking for an actor with strong improv skills, natural ease and experience in front of a live audience. “To be frank with you, I just liked him so much,” he said. “He’s a lovely guy and what you see is what you get.”
For Sudeikis, it was a project he had to do, regardless of location. “Broadway, off-Broadway, if we did it in a nine-passenger-seat van and picked up one person every 95 minutes — I would have done it that way, too.”
Sudeikis might be new to theater but he’s very used to performing live. He spent time in Las Vegas with the comedy group Second City and became a regular cast member of “SNL” in 2005, known for mimicking Joe Biden and Mitt Romney. (He made a quick and funny return as Romney a few weeks back.)
If others flee from classic material, Sudeikis doesn’t. “Working at places that are incredible institutions like Second City, like ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you’re going up against ghosts all the time,” he says. “I relish it. I want to play Maverick someday. I want to be the Karate Kid.”
He grew up a sports nut. His uncle is George Wendt, who played Norm on “Cheers” and is now starring in the barbershop quartet comedy “The Fabulous Lipitones” at New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park. His mom, local travel agent Kathy Sudeikis, introduced him to show tunes.
“I know every word of Mark’s and Roger’s parts in ‘Rent’ and I can sing both male leads in ‘La Cage aux Folles,’ ” he says. “You just have to get me drunk enough.”
Sudeikis, who is partial to sneakers and baseball hats — especially the ones touting KU and the Royals — was the sort of point guard at Shawnee Mission West who liked no-look, behind-the-back passes. He revered flashy players like Pete Maravich and Magic Johnson.
“If there was a chest pass to be thrown, it was coming some other way,” Sudeikis says. “I was making jokes in class and then making fancy passes, to the chagrin of many of my coaches.”
“He doesn’t get it yet,” he says. “Ringo’s beat is too complicated.”
From screen to stage
“Dead Poets Society” is just one of many movies being adapted into plays.
▪ “Terms of Endearment,” opened in November. Molly Ringwald stars in Shirley MacLaine’s Oscar-winning role of a grandma whose daughter is stricken with cancer.
▪ “Clue,” opens in May in Pennsylvania before a national tour. Jonathan Lynn is adapting his own screenplay for this mystery involving Miss Scarlett, Col. Mustard, etc.
▪ “Rear Window,” played in Connecticut and is aiming for Broadway. Kevin Bacon starred in the Jimmy Stewart role of a man recuperating from a broken leg who thinks he’s witnessed a murder.
Sharon Hoffmann, email@example.com