Jeff Kanew was the original director attached to “Dead Poets Society”. Mel Gibson was offered the role of Keating, but was ultimately not cast. Liam Neeson was actually Kanew’s first choice to play John Keating, but Disney intended to cast Robin Williams in the role (via IMDb). In an interview with University of California TelevisionTom Schulman revealed that Williams didn’t want to work with Kanew, saying “Robin wouldn’t say no, but he wouldn’t say yes, to working with this director.”
Disney continued production, built sets, and prepared to shoot outside of Atlanta with the intention of filming with Williams as Keating. However, according to Schulman, “It [Williams] never said he would, but Disney kept trying to pressure him into moving forward. Director Kanew had a horrible first day of filming. In his interview with UCTV, Schulman said: [Williams] didn’t show up, they canceled the production and burned the sets. We actually have dailies of sets burning.”
After this disastrous start, the film was dead in the water. For a brief period, Dustin Hoffman was attached to the project, playing Keating and directing, until a scheduling conflict once again derailed the project. Eventually, Peter Weir signed on as director, and Williams officially accepted the lead role. This new production team began scouting locations, and “Dead Poets Society” was resurrected.