Juicy Fruit: The Long Journey of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, released in theaters 40 years ago today, almost never got made. Hollywood star Kirk Douglas owned the rights to the book on which the movie was based, and he struggled for years to convince the studios the story would be box-office gold. But Hollywood wasn’t interested.

Ken Kesey’s semiautobiographical counterculture novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, published in 1962, captured the new decade’s rebellious zeitgeist. This story about patients in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, who witness the life-and-death struggle between new inmate R.P. McMurphy and head nurse Mildred Ratched for control of the ward, became a best-seller, especially on college campuses. Decades later, two copies could be found in the Occupy Wall Street library at New York City’s Zuccotti Park.

Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas onstage as R.P. McMurphy in 1963.

Douglas had granted the novel’s stage rights to writer Dale Wasserman, and his theatrical adaptation, with Douglas in the lead, opened on Broadway in November 1963. (During a break from school, Kirk’s son Michael Douglas made his stage debut as an orderly in the production.) So devoted was he to this project, Kirk Douglas turned down more than a million dollars he’d been offered to star in the sword-and-sandal epic The Fall of the Roman Empire. But the reviews for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were scathing. In an era of light comedies, Broadway audiences avoided this dark tragedy set in a psych ward, and the show closed after five months. Dejected, Douglas returned to Los Angeles, telling his wife, “I gave New York a classic, and they don’t even realize it.”

According to Douglas’s autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Michael Douglas, then filming TV’s Streets of San Francisco, approached his father, saying, “Dad, let me try to set up Cuckoo’s Nest.” The elder Douglas agreed, adding he would “do anything” to play McMurphy. After making a deal with record company executive Saul Zaentz to produce the film, Michael had to deliver “a blow” that Kirk found “almost incomprehensible.” His dream role would be played by Jack Nicholson. Another disappointment befell Kesey. The producers rejected his several attempts at adapting his novel for the screen and instead hired Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman to write the script. When Kesey was asked if he planned to visit Cuckoo’s location set, he allegedly replied, “Does a mother preside over her own abortion?”

Director Miloš Forman, in exile from his native Czechoslovakia, was living at New York’s bohemian Chelsea Hotel when he received a package from Michael Douglas and Zaentz that changed his life. “There was a book inside I’d never heard of by an author I’d never heard of,” he said. “But when I started to read, I saw right away that this was the best material I’d come across in America.” Apparently, Forman had been sent a copy of Cuckoo’s Nest years earlier, but it was confiscated by the communist authorities.

Forman cast Ratched by accident. Watching Robert Altman’s 1974 crime drama Thieves Like Us, the director was surprised by the performance of Louise Fletcher in a supporting role. “I couldn’t take my eyes off her,” he said. “She had a certain mystery which I thought was very, very important for Nurse Ratched.” The virtually unknown Fletcher beat out such major stars as Angela Lansbury, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft for the role. Forman was attracted to Fletcher’s interpretation of Ratched as “only an instrument of evil. She doesn’t even know she is evil.”

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, Jack Nicholson, Brad Dourif, 1975It’s hard to believe Nicholson wasn’t the first choice to play Ratched’s foil, McMurphy. Both producers wanted Marlon Brando—who wasn’t interested. Other actors to turn down the role included Burt Reynolds, James Caan and Gene Hackman. Marc Eliot writes in Nicholson that after the success of Chinatown in 1974, the actor wanted a project that “would take him out of himself and allow him to concentrate on the acting of a complex character’s personality; a character that would be remarkably close to who he really was.”

Filming at the Oregon State Hospital started in January 1975. Nicholson, a Method actor, decided to stay in character even when the cameras weren’t running; the rest of the cast, including Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif, followed his lead. Nicholson told a reporter, “They tell me I’m getting crazier every day,” and noted, “Usually I don’t have trouble slipping out of a film role, but here I don’t go home from a movie studio. I go home from a mental institution.”

MSDONFL EC001The grueling shoot paid off: After being nominated four times, Nicholson finally won a best actor Oscar for his iconic performance. Accepting the award, Nicholson joked, “I guess this proves there are as many nuts in the Academy as anywhere else.” One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won all of the big-five Oscars in 1976: best adapted screenplay, director, actor, actress and picture. It grossed more than $100 million, making it one of the biggest money earners of the 1970s, and it ranks at number 33 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movies—not bad for a film no studio wanted to make.

After the Oscars, producer Michael Douglas quipped, “The best thing that could happen is that some studio heads go back and reread some of the scripts they’ve turned down.” Douglas’s father, however, didn’t attend the ceremony. He called the movie “one of the biggest disappointments in his life.” Even though he made more money from Cuckoo’s Nest as a rights holder than from any film he’d ever acted in, Kirk Douglas said he would “gladly” give back “every cent” to have played R.P. McMurphy.

Photos: Everett