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Renaissance RoboCop

By Mary Daily

Published May 16, 2013 2:47 PM

art

If you'd dropped by Room 314 in Royce Hall on the afternoon of May 14, you'd have found a scene that's familiar all over campus: a middle-aged scholar lecturing at a podium, with slides projected behind him to illustrate his talk.

This particular speaker was making a case for the Italian city of Padua, rather than Florence, as the true cradle of the Renaissance. In particular, he was saying that the ideas presented in Leon Battista Alberti's De pictura, a treatise on visual art, were developed not in Florence, as generally believed, but in Padua, reflecting that city's visual and humanist legacy. For 40 minutes, he talked with great conviction in a rapid baritone cadence. He never missed a beat, never hesitated, never stammered.

Yet you'd have sworn he looked just like an older Buckaroo Banzai and sounded just like Robocop. And you'd be right. The scholar and actor are one and the same. Peter Weller, who is probably best known as the lead character in 1987's RoboCop and its 1990 sequel, and also stars in the current hit Star Trek Into Darkness, is a UCLA Ph.D. candidate in Italian Renaissance Art History.

The award-winning actor has long had an interest in art and scholarship. A native of Wisconsin, he studied literature, theater and music at North Texas State University, earning his bachelor's degree in 1969. Some 35 years later he completed a master's in Renaissance Art History at Syracuse University in Florence, Italy. Meanwhile, he built a thriving acting career on stage and screen.

The son of a U.S. Army helicopter pilot made his Broadway debut in 1972 as a standby in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Sticks and Bones and his television debut in the movie, The Man Without a Country, in 1973. He continued to work regularly on stage and television and, in 1979, appeared in his first film, Butch and Sundance: The Early Days. He followed this with a number of supporting roles and, in 1983, the lead in the horror film Of Unknown Origin, for which he received Best Actor honors at the Paris Film Festival. After that came the cult character in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, then A Killing Affair and the RoboCop productions, after which he tried his hand at directing.

But he also actively pursued his love of art history. Between 2001 and 2004 he was a popular professor at the Syracuse University campuses in New York and Florence. His class on "Hollywood and the Roman Empire" attracted lots of students, but some didn't stay when they discovered the course required hard work.

Weller's talk on May 14 was part of the Voces Nostrates (Voices of Our Own) Lecture Series presented by the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. At the beginning, he expressed appreciation for the fellowship and scholarship he received. "I'm thankful for the loot," he said, adding that today's price for higher education would make even Howard Hughes flinch. At the conclusion, he admonished the audience firmly, "Don't lose your handout"—a detailed timeline of Alberti's life—adding that "a lot of work went into compiling it." Then he said he had to go. It was almost time to walk the red carpet in Hollywood for the premiere of the Star Trek picture that was opening in two days.