Bill Rago (DeVito) is a divorced advertising executive down on his luck. When he loses his job in Detroit, the unemployment agency finds him a temporary job: teaching a class at a nearby U.S. Army training base, Fort McClane.
Initially unenthusiastic, Rago finds that he has only six weeks to teach a group of "squeakers," or low achievers, the basics of comprehension and use of English language. Most of the soldiers are only semi-literate and equally unenthusiastic.
Unable to connect with his pupils and desperate to spark their interest, Rago quotes from his favorite play, Hamlet by William Shakespeare. They are unfamiliar with it (or even the concept of a "play") and a small initial spark of interest is generated. He casts each student as a character in a classroom reading, then takes everyone on a field trip across the Blue Water Bridge to Stratford, Ontario, to a live performance by professionals. He introduces them to Shakespeare's Henry V as well.
Despite the disapproval of their hard-as-nails Drill Sergeant Cass (Hines), and the loss of one of the trainees, Pvt. Hobbs, who is revealed as a drug dealer hiding under an assumed identity, Rago sets an end-of-term oral examination. Even the friendly Capt. Murdoch in charge of the project doesn't expect the soldiers to pass Rago's class, adding that if they fail, they will be discharged from the Army.
Hobbs writes a letter to Rago and Murdoch, whose letters to the prison warden may result in him getting an early parole. Hobbs says he read Othello in the prison library (the librarian said he was the first inmate in 16 years to request Shakespeare) and was thinking about taking college classes once he's released.
While on duty, on a dare from Cass in front of other men, one of the soldiers recites the St. Crispin's Day Speech by King Henry V while in full combat gear in the middle of a rainstorm during a night exercise; the speech moves even the hardened Sgt. Cass. The students then all pass Rago's class, with flying colors.
Rago meets and dates Marie, a soldier in the records department, who helps him do some investigation before the base's graduation ceremony. It results in one of his students being presented with the Silver Star medal his father was to have been awarded posthumously, after he was killed in Vietnam.
As the proud soldiers march at their graduation parade, Rago is saluted by his "graduates." He signs on to continue teaching soldiers-in-training.
Filming began on September 13, 1993, and ended on November 20, 1993. The scenes at the fictional "Fort McClane" were actually filmed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The production trailers were set up alongside the barracks on "Tank Hill". During the filming, countless soldiers were filmed doing P.T. (physical training) and B.R.M. (basic rifle marksmanship), and the graduation scene of the film was shot during numerous takes of an actual basic training graduation. The scene of Danny DeVito on a pay phone was shot at a phone bank that countless soldiers have used to call home during basic training. The scenes of DeVito going over the bridge from Detroit to Canada are actually him driving over the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, Point Edward, Ontario and Port Huron, Michigan.
Renaissance Man received many negative reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film one and a half stars out of a possible four. Ebert said that "the touch that was used so well in director Penny Marshall's previous films Big and A League of Their Own are totally missing in Renaissance Man and it feels like a cross between Dead Poets Society and Private Benjamin but does not have the warmth or spirit of those films." He also wondered what Devito's character teaching Shakespeare's plays had to do with the training of the military recruits. Ebert gave it a thumbs-down on his television show, but partner Gene Siskel enjoyed it as pleasant fare and gave it a thumbs-up. It currently holds a 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film flopped at the U.S box office, grossing only US$24 million domestically on an estimated budget of US$40 million. It was hindered by competing with summer blockbusters such as Speed, True Lies, The Flintstones, and The Lion King.