The Man Behind RoboCop
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Dr. Peter Weller: The Man Behind RoboCop
Detroit built a mythology from the halcyon days of the American auto industry and the Motown vibe. However, the political and social problems that descended when the automakers collapsed transformed the city into a textbook metaphor for a burned-out and crime-ridden dystopia.
Thirty years ago, a production crew began making a movie that would re-cast downtown Dallas as Detroit, albeit to appropriate the skyline of Reunion Tower, Fountain Place, and two postmodern towers by SOM as a more futuristic backdrop which the Motor City lacked. In focusing on the graphic violence of the film, many critics overlooked that it was actually written as a commentary on the perils of privatizing society, all told through a story about a company that manufactured cyborgs to replace the police. RoboCop was the prototype and a young actor who had spent his youth in Texas—Peter Weller—starred in the role.
RoboCop brought Peter Weller back to the Lone Star State for filming. Credit: RoboCop, Orion Pictures Corporation
Born on June 24, 1947, Weller’s early years were shaped by the lives of his parents. His father, Frederick Weller, was an Army helicopter pilot who fought in Korea and Vietnam and later became President Lyndon Johnson’s personal helicopter pilot from 1965 to 1968. After that, Frederick retired from the military to go to law school at the University of Texas-Austin. In the legal career that followed, he served as a district judge in Palo Pinto County and a federal administrative law judge in Fort Worth during the 1980s.
Peter attended Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio. His mother was a jazz pianist, who instilled an early appreciation for the progressive music of the late 1950s and early ‘60s when musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Cool Jazz movement were in ascendancy. Later, when his acting career was established, Weller became a close personal friend of Miles. “I was at Miles’s last gig (in 1992),” Weller said. “My mother turned me on to Miles when I was nine, and if there is any artist in any field that influenced me more than anyone, it is Miles. Each of his albums parallels an emotional transition in my life. Miles is my timepiece. The guy and his music are in my blood.”
Weller attended the University of North Texas where he gained exposure to UNT’s highly regarded music program and drama school. He graduated with a bachelor of arts in theater and soon thereafter moved to New York to enroll at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts—the first acting school in America and one that many consider the finest.
Weller’s acting accomplishments from 1972 to the present are impressive and include appearances in over 50 movies and television series. Notable motion picture works include the part of Jerry Bender in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite; the lead part of Peter Witner in Oliver Stone’s production of The New Age, as well as the lead in David Cronenberg’s movie based on William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch. Weller’s musical talent was showcased during a scene for The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension, which has become a cult classic.
Acting awards and distinctions include the 1988 Saturn Award for Best Actor (for RoboCop), a 1992 Genie award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Naked Lunch), a 1993 Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film (Partner), and a 2002 Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male (Ivans XTC).
Weller’s work as a stage actor should interest architects and designers. In 2006, he starred as Frank Lloyd Wright in a play at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Many prior roles prepared him to portray the egomaniacal and narcissistic genius of Wright: an authoritative ship captain, a Star Trek admiral, an invincible cyborg policeman, as well as voice acting for cartoon superheroes.
When asked why there has never been a movie about Frank Lloyd Wright, Weller said, “Should there be a movie about him? I saw Mike Wallace interview him when he was about 88. He was impenetrable. Wallace tried to get his goat, but he never could. A movie about Wright would be a one-way ego trip. Maybe a modern opera would be better.”
As his acting career matured, Weller’s intellectual interests also advanced into scholarship and academia. He earned a master of arts degree in Roman and Renaissance art history in 2004 from Syracuse University. Syracuse was uniquely suited for his historical interests, with their renowned study-abroad program in Florence Italy, a venue that afforded him contact with celebrated scholars such as Robert (Rab) Hatfield, world renown for his scholarship on Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. “Rab was my Michelangelo professor,” Weller said. “He was a curmudgeon, but students love him. I love him. He was an inspiration.”
Weller’s summary lecture at Syracuse in Florence was “legendary.” According to Randall Korman, an architectural professor in Florence, “Peter lectured on the crucifixion and the different ways that Renaissance art represented it in painting. The lecture began with a dramatic and graphic description of a crucifixion that went on for several minutes. You could have heard a pin drop when it ended. Peter never disappointed.”
Weller was awarded a Ph.D in Renaissance art history from UCLA in 2014 after filing his dissertation, “Alberti Before Florence: Early Sources Informing Leon Battista Alberti’s ‘De Pictura.’” In a moment that brought together acting and his scholarship, Weller revealed at a Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas—he had played Admiral Alexander Marcus in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013—that he had just been conferred his doctorate.
A comment on the “Rate Your Professor” website demonstrates that Dr. Peter Weller inspires respect and admiration from his students. “Having RoboCop for a professor was awesome,” noted the commentator. “One day after attending his class, I went back to my room to watch 24—the best show ever, btw—and boom, there he was … the history professor himself, blowing up Jack Bauer. HE IS THE MAN.”
Kevin Sloan, Hon. AIA Dallas, ASLA is the founding principal of Kevin Sloan Studio in Dallas and teaches in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas-Arlington College of Architecture, Planning, and Public Affairs.
Read a transcript of the interview with Peter Weller to get more on his life, influences, and perspectives. For additional reading, check out RoboCob: Resilience and a Tale of Two Cities by James Adams, AIA