Prime time

History prof’s work lands in Hollywood movie


(Feb. 5, 1998, Gazette)

By David Sorensen

He’s not an actor. He’s not a producer, director or a film technician.

So how did Memorial history professor Dr. Danny Vickers end up in Miramax Films latest hit movie, Good Will Hunting?

Well, Dr. Vickers didn’t actually appear in the movie, but, in a pivotal scene, the film’s hero paraphrases material from Dr. Vickers’ award winning text to win a barroom argument with a Harvard grad student.

Good Will Hunting is the story of a young genius from Boston, Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon, whose emotional problems prevent him from fulfilling his intellectual promise. That is until he meets counsellor Sean Maguire, played by Robin Williams.

In a key passage, Will paraphrases the work of Colonial American historians Pete Garrison, James Lemon, Gordon Wood and Dr. Vickers.

The movie was written by the stars Mr. Damon and Ben Affleck and Dr. Vickers said the references show a good knowledge of the subject matter.

“It’s obvious the person studied,” he said of the writer. “He’s got the arguments of the historians correct.”

Dr. Vickers first heard about the project last May when he received a letter from the University of North Carolina Press, publishers of his 1984 book Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts. The book was an important addition to the study of Colonial America, as evidenced by subsequent acclaim.

In 1985, the American Historical Association awarded the book the Dunning Prize as the Best Book on American History by a Young Author; the Society of 18th Century Studies picked it for the Gottschalk Prize for the best book; and it received honorable mention from the Canadian Historical Association as best book by a Canadian historian on a non Canadian subject.

Dr. Vickers said the passage in the film moves so quickly, you could easily miss it. But “all these colonial historians picked it up.”

And because the argument leads to an amorous encounter between the protagonist and the female lead, Dr. Vickers was on the receiving end of some good natured ribbing from his peers.

“If you read my book, you can pick up girls,” Dr. Vickers related the gist of many of the jokes.

An e mail from another colleague said, “Damon initially conceived of the story for a Harvard creative writing class (but perhaps first sketched it out on the back of a syllabus while dozing through a colonial history discussion session?)”

The scene following the barroom argument also led to another connection between Dr. Vickers and the movie. While the setting is Boston, when the new couple head back to the dorm room, Dr. Vickers recognized the location as not Boston, but Whitney Hall on the campus of the University of Toronto - the very residence in which Dr. Vickers’ wife lived while he did graduate work. And when the movie couple entered room 206, the coincidence was complete. Christine McManus (now Vickers) lived in dorm room 208.

Good Will Hunting

Will: You just finished reading some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison prob’ly, and so naturally that’s what you believe until next month when you get to James Lemon and get convinced that Virginia and Pennsylvania were strongly entrepreneurial and capitalist back in 1740. That’ll last until some time in your second year, then you’ll be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood about the pre revolutionary utopia and the capital forming effects of military mobilization

Clark (taken aback): Well, as a matter of fact, I won’t, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of . . .

Will: . . . Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth . . . you got that from Vickers’ Work in Essex County, was it page 98, 102, what? Do you have any thoughts of your own on the subject or were you just gonna plagiarize the whole book for me?

Clark is stunned

Will continues: Look, don’t try to pass yourself off as some kind of intellect at the expense of my friend just to impress these girls.


Copyright Miramax Films