Allow me to paint you a word picture.
You’re a sophomore cinema studies major at the University of Tennessee. You aren’t really 100 percent certain what you want to do with your life yet, but you know you love movies. So you find yourself pursuing UT’s cinema studies program because—why not?
You walk into Dr. Bill Larsen’s Intro to Film Studies class on a swelteringly hot August afternoon hoping this class will be a cool reprieve from your already hectic morning. You take a seat toward the back of the auditorium because you aren’t trying to seem too eager just yet. You’re only 19 years old, after all.
Then the professor walks in. He wears a blue shirt, and his face is set in a stony expression. You can’t help feeling there’s something else behind it, too. You are intimidated. This isn’t what you expected from a film professor. The man who stands before you seems a little scary. Daunting.
And then he speaks.
Larsen, you note, has a very distinctive accent, and it isn’t the kind you normally hear in East Tennessee. Is he from New York? Boston? New Jersey? It’s definitely Northern.
It is only the first day of class, so you expect he will simply hand out the syllabus and let class out 30 minutes early. It almost immediately becomes very clear, however, that this will not be the case.
As he hands out papers with what appear to be brain teasers, he begins talking about the class. He isn’t shy about guaranteeing that students will have to work hard to make an A. He tells you this may be one of the hardest college courses you’ll ever take. It is at this exact moment you consider dropping the class to take something easier.
Cut to several months later. You have already screened Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, among other movies you found confusing but intriguing. Lots of French films. You’ve spent many nights studying for difficult quizzes. And, most importantly, you realize Larsen is perhaps the most influential professor you will ever have the privilege of taking.
The man who first appeared hard-shelled and scary is actually a huge teddy bear who cares deeply about each individual student in class (of which there are a lot). He is not only a professor, but he is a mentor and a friend. He encourages you to always do your best, to never stop trying, and to remember what movies have to teach us about life.
Professor Larsen passed away on September 7, 2021, and I will never, ever forget him and the impact he made on me in my sophomore year at UT. I may not have ended up getting that degree in cinema studies, but I will always take with me the lessons he taught me about creativity and following my dreams.
Larsen grew up in New York and graduated with a degree in government in 1970 from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. During his time at Notre Dame, he began considering teaching and education. After student teaching at John Marshall Middle School in South Bend, Indiana, he realized he wanted to teach for the rest of his life. Lucky for all of us who were his students, Dr. Larsen would go on to teach for 51 years—31 of them at UT.
Chuck Maland, professor emeritus of English and cinema studies at UT, taught with Larsen for 25 years. They first met when Larsen applied to graduate school in 1989 or 1990. “He took a film class from me in his first semester at UT,” Maland says. “I then directed his dissertation on the film adaptations of Edith Wharton novels, and I asked him to team-teach Introduction to Film Studies with me two or three years later.”
Maland says he will remember Larsen’s passion for teaching as well as his special ability to connect with students and encourage them to pursue their dreams.
One way he did this, Maland explains, was to give students a handout on the first day of class with quotations. Sometimes these quotations pertained to whatever he was teaching that day, but other times, they were simply meant to encourage students or provide them with life lessons worth learning.
Maland notes that Larsen’s commitment to his family and roots is another aspect of his life to be remembered and admired.
“He always went home to Long Island for the first summer session to spend time with his mother—until she passed away—and his sister,” Maland says. “I remember his quiet and unsung kindness and generosity to people he cared about. Many who knew him well will know what I’m talking about.
“I think those of us who knew him as a colleague and as students will honor his legacy by passing forward the outstanding qualities he showed in his life: hard work, passionate commitment to his vocation, and generosity.”
Erin Perry, a current senior majoring in English and theatre at UT, will remember Larsen for his sincere passion for helping students learn. “Dr. Larsen was a man who genuinely loved what he taught, and you could tell,” she says. “He loved movies, and he wanted to share that with his students. I’ll always remember how funny he was and that he just really, really cared. That was special.”
Larsen even has a Facebook group dedicated to him—the Bill Larsen Fan Club. It was created in 2009 and currently has 625 members. Knoxville’s Bijou Theatre put up the following message on its marquee after his passing: “Rest in peace, Dr. Bill Larsen.”
Larsen was loved by so many, and this love could not be more evident than in a YouTube video created by cinema studies student Olivia Aylsworth as a project for one of her classes. Her touching tribute has more than 1,600 views.
Aylsworth says she first encountered Larsen when she took his Intro to Film Studies course. “I heard so many people talk about his screenwriting class, so I took the class in spring of 2020,” she says. “When I later took my documentary class, I decided to make a mini-doc about him because of the impact he’s had on so many students.”
Aylsworth met up with Larsen a few times before filming the documentary, and she says they had the best conversations about film, life, and future goals. “I wanted to share who he was and have people get to know the Larsen I had come to know through the last couple years,” she says. “My favorite memory is the last time I saw him. We had a long conversation about different movies, his experiences in life, and what’s next for me. I had never felt more motivated and encouraged by someone to follow my dreams than I had in that moment with Larsen.”
A memorial for Larsen was held November 6, 2021, in the pavilion at UT Gardens. Friends gathered to watch one of his favorite films, The Graduate, as well as Aylsworth’s documentary.
Aylsworth remembers talking to Larsen about his passion for teaching. “He confirmed that doing what makes you happy can sustain you for years and spread a positive light on others, and that’s exactly what he did,” she says.
According to Maland, we would all do well to remember a line from Larsen’s obituary, which he helped write himself: “It all comes down to this—whatever you do to help others is all that really matters.”
I think it’s safe to say that Larsen helped a lot of people, and his words and actions will continue to inspire those of us who had the honor of knowing him for years to come. To quote director Martin Scorsese, “Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things.”
The same can be said about Dr. Larsen.
Photos courtesy of Chuck Maland