“Which one of you nuts has got any guts?”
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST
Milos Forman . 1974
“I’d doanythingtoplay Randle P McMurphy!” Kirk Douglas’ reaction on reading the galley proofs of Ken Kesey's 1962 novel. He boughtthe rights for $47,000, had the book adapted for the stage and starred - for free -on Broadway in1963. Not the success he’d planned to help set up a movie version (with producerJoseph E Levine, who finally said no in 1969). The play was regarded a flop - "extraordinary tastelessness." complainedcritic Walter Kerr in the New YorkHerald Tribune -and closedafter fivemonths.
A big fan of Loves of aBlonde,Kirk was also the first to feel the movie should be made by the Czechdirector Milos Forman. “We met in Prague in 1965 or 6,” recalled Forman, “and he asked: If I in send you a book will let me know if you can make a film ofit? He wasobviously interested in me because I’d made films with very little (of what would be his) money. The book never arrived...”
Well, not for another seven years -and then mailed byKirk’s son, Michael,and his production partner, Saul Zaentz. Forman finally realised Czech censors had blockedthe delivery of the book from Kirk.
By 1970, director Richard Rush tried to set it up - with Nicholson, who had“tried to option the book as a 26-year-old producer when it first came out in 1963.”
WhenDouglas and Lewis could not get backing for the movie, Peter Fonda was the first to try and buy the rights for himself. Then...
“Dad, let me try,” said Michael Douglas in 1971.
“I promise I won't loseyour money.”
Immediately, the script hit Marvin Josephson's desk for Steve McQueen.And Cassavetes told his actor buddySeymour Cassel: "I'm going to buy it from Michael and do it with you, Seymour." "Great!"
"I loved it," Cassel told me in Cannes. "I'd also read the bookin galley proofs.Cassavetes worked on getting the rights and it got down to that theywanteda huge percentage as executive producers. Then, they also wantedfinal cut.And John left it."
After colossal disinterest, Michael Douglas finally drummed up a deal with independent producer Saul Zaentz.Mike was a fan of Milos Forman - The Fireman’s Ball - and wanted the same capture of human foibles and humour. “If we didn’t havehumour it would have been be a long, dark evening.”Forman alone had a clear visison (humour included)and “his own demons.”
"After ten years of telling everybody what a great role it was,"noted Kirk, "they finally agreed...
“It was finally going to happen.
My dream of a production,
for a company named after my mother,
working with my son, in the role of my life...
But no. You're too old, Kirk!”
"Nicholson played my part - brilliantly ,dammit! But... differently. He won an AcademyAward .But Ken Kesey told the Press,I should have played it. That made two of us… I'd have loved if it Nicholson had been terrible."
Kesey also saidthat"going to see the film would be like a mother paying to see her 13-year-old daughter raped."
"Jack was great," agreed Cassel." Oh God,what I could have done with that .I'm half-Irish after all! It would have beena different fili if John Cassavetes had madeit."
Or, indeed, Gene Hackman - depressed at the box-office failureofScarecrow,The Conversation,he had decided to make sure winners only,"then I'll have plenty of dough."Even stars need mortgages. And pensions.
Even the possibility of
Burt Reynolds had an airing.
Randle P McMurphy . Forman definitely wanted Burt. The studio, equally definite, did not. Sure, he was box-office. He was big. But drew a different crowd and that might turn critics against the movie. So, Jack got his Oscar. A decade later, Burt was James Brooks’ first choice for astronaut Garrett Breedlove romancing Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment. Burt passed. Result: Oscar #2 for Jack!
When Kirk Douglas still owned the rights and knew he was not the right name (or age), he phoned Stacy Keach in New York. "I knew the piece, I'd seen Kirk play it on stage - even seen him rehearse it! - when I was a Yale drama student. I was never overwhelmed by the play but I said: Of course I'd do it! But the studio didn't like Ken Kesey's script. Kesey was out! Hal Ashby was out! So was I. Milos Forman was in and he had the grace to invite me to breakfast to explain why Jack was going to do the part."
Jon Voight tried hard. James Caan pissed off four or five different directors offering him the lead. "I thought - because I’m a genius - it wasn’t visual enough. It's not a movie. Who wants to look at four institution walls?"
Caan later admitted: "Milos Forman made it great. Jack was great in it. I made a flat-out, fucking mistake."
“Michael Douglas talked to Jack’s lady, Anjelica Huston, early on... “I don’t know if I was the instrumental factor... but I mentioned to Jack that Michael wanted to see him about it.”
Michael was first planning it with director Hal Ashby, who had just directed Jack in The Last Detail - far from his Easy Rider, Fiver Easy Pieces passivity... “When I saw him as the flamboyant yet sensitive shore patrolman... I knew he could do it.” So did Jack. He was merely holding out, so he told his pal, Bruce Dern, for his first $1m pay-cheque.
Nurse Ratched . Louise Fletcher had no idea there had been a Ratched battle until a journo mentioned it to her during a set visit.
"Again Marlon told me to go for it," said Brando’s friend and former lover, Geraldine Page. "Once again, I didn't listen to him." (The other time had been about The Exorcist; and yet, when he warned her off John Wayne’s 3-D Western, Hondo, she accepted it!). "As long as there is an eccentric and kooky lady to play," she told Tennessee Williams, who had created some for her, "there will be a role for me. A drunken, fading actress. A neurotic schoolteacher. An ageing spinster. A vulnerable lady hanging on to life by an emotional thread."
Following his pal Brando’s lead, Jack Nicholson tried hard but could not persuade Anne Bancroft - "I don't want to be this person."
Hard to believe but Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey’s vile mother in The Manchurian Candidate, 1962, did not feel she could handle the equally terrible Ratched! Nor did a flock of strong and stellar actresses: Burstyn, Colleen Dewhurst, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Jeanne Moreau.
Fletcher was officially chosen and signed up a mere week before filming began at the Oregon State Mental Hospital in Salem. She was a Nicholson pal from acting class and had been auditioning for more than six months for a difficult to satisfy Forman. "No, no, no! You're just not approaching the part correctly."
The problem was not the actress but the director. For Forman, Ratched was evil personified - and Fletcher was not. They continued exploring the character until Forman saw the light. Fletcher’s light. He slowly started to realize that it would be much more powerful if she’ was only an instrument of evil. "She doesn’t know that she’s evil. She, as a matter of fact, believes that she’s helping people.”
Until then, Ratched been reserved for Lily Tomlin, a clever comic on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In TV show who would finally went straight two years later in The Late Show (produced by the same Bob Altman who impressed Forman so much). By the time Forman made up his mind and called Fletcher, she was about to start Nashville (Altman again!). A deal was struck. Fletcher and Tomlin swopped roles, films and directors. Both were up for Oscars on March 29, 1976. Fletcher won Best Actress, Tomlin lost Support Actress to Lee Grant in Shampoo.
Candy . Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us had impressed Forman in 1973. . Or, the women therein did. That’s where he found his Ratched, Louise Fletche - and nearly one of her nurses. He saw Shelley Duvall as Candy; she did not. And Candy became Marya Small, a Pasadena actress who kept changing her name to Merrya, Mary and finally Mews Small for some 43 screen roles across 46 years - including Forman’s Man on the Moon, 1998.
Rose . Said Forman to Duvall: OK, how about Rose the hooker? Said Duvall to Forman: How about not?. Which is why he signed the Cuban-born Louisa Moritz. Duvall got Nicholson - and all to herself, well more or less - in The Shining, 1980.
Billy Bibbit . Having made his stage debut as an orderly in the Broadway play...
Douglas nearly chose
a role for himself
"I flirted with the idea of playing Billy Bibbit," he told me at Cap d'Antibes. "But as the cast began to come together, there were just better people than me for the part. Milos and I saw 900 actors for the 16 roles. Also, as a first time producer,I hadmy hands full."
Saying his Harold and Maude breakthrough (at 20) "was a blessing and a curse," Bud Cort passed, he was only interested in being McMurphy. Fat chance ! Once Nicholson was signed, Cort went back and asked Douglas for Bibbit. Too late. Brad Dourif had won the gig.
And so Michael’s movie became only the second film to win the Oscar grand slam - Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Adapted Screenplay - since It Happened One Night, , 1934.
Despite the legend, Kirk was too canny a businessman to simply give the rights to his son - he kept 7 1/2% and made around $15m from the deal. Certainly more money than any film he acted in. "And I'd gladly give back every cent if I could have played that role."