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Jack Nicholson: Knocking Round the Nest

On the set of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Jack Nicholson, film, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Jack Nicholson looking through fence in a scene from the film 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest', in 1975.

United Artists/Getty

Jack Nicholson was thinking about very special chickens – specifically those deadly flying hens, reeking with venom: the kind that will bury their beaks in your belly as you sleep, the ones that cackle in dark closets and lurk like vultures just beyond the transom. More properly, Jack Nicholson was thinking about people who are obsessively concerned with such chickens. “People who see chickens,” he concluded, “don’t belong in places like this.”

It was just before Christmas of 1974 and Nicholson was in his second week of researching his role of Randle Patrick McMurphy for the upcoming filming of Ken Kesey’s classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was 6 a.m.–an hour to go until dawn–and Nicholson, a nurse, a doctor and a technician were tiptoeing own a long drab hallway on the third floor of the Oregon State Hospital. The technician was pushing a small machine which rolled silently on four rubber wheels. A long electric cord was coiled on top of the machine.

Every few feet there was another barred door and, above, a heavily wired transom. The four were as quiet as possible. Behind the doors slept the most certifiable deranged individuals in the state. No reason to wake them unnecessarily, perhaps stir them to anger at the sight of the machine.

Nicholson considered himself a reasonably conversant parlor psychiatrist. He had read Frances Farmer’s Will There Really Be a Morning, a horrifying account of one actress’s battle with insanity, had dipped into Freud and Jung, occasionally paged through an issue of Psychology Today.

A decade ago he had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, never dreaming that he would one day play the lead in the movie version of that book, never dreaming he would see what he was queasily about to see.

Prior to his research in Oregon, Nicholson had been convinced that the term “insanity” was archaic. He associated it with people who saw chickens.

But the patients he met in the OSH wards seldom saw chickens and their behavior seemed to Nicholson no more loony than that of an average weekday shopper in Salem’s Pay Less department store. The problem was that a few of these people had been involved in crimes of extreme violence and cruelty. One friendly fellow had inflicted 20 stab wounds on a person he had never met before. A gentle, dignified, older man had committed rape twice, and the rapes involved mutilation and maiming. One spindly, prematurely gray man discussed bombs in the same leering, lustful tone that another man might use to describe a sexual conquest. This last broke Nicholson.

He was living in a rented house in Salem, getting up before dawn every morning and plodding off to the hospital in a dank fog. After 12 to 14 hours of talking with patients and doctors and aides, he plodded back home in what seemed to him to be arctic desolation. Winter in Salem, Oregon, can add several hundred pounds of bad psychic baggage to the soul of a Southern Californian like Jack Nicholson.

There is a constant chill fog and the sun, at high noon, could possibly be that faint glimmer behind the brightest cloud bank. It is like living inside an Edgar Allan Poe poem, minus 20-degree centigrade.

Further, something about Salem failed to lend itself to after-dark socializing. By state law, all Oregon institutions must be located in Marion County–which in practice means Salem, which is also the state capital. The town is overladen with cons and ex-cons, with social workers and therapists and hardship cases, with psychiatrists and mental patients and ex-mental patients and politicians. The cliché, of course, is that it is impossible to tell one from the other.

There are a number of bars in Salem but Nicholson is not much of a drinker. He imagines that he is amusing after four or five stiff ones. After that, he says, he is likely to wake up in his garage with half his entrails on his chest, the taste of soiled sweat socks in his mouth and two tiny men playing bass drums just behind either eyeball.

Nicholson much prefers to light up, mellow back and listen to music. Compatible company–of either sex–for Nicholson, was not to be found. So he went home alone, to an empty house, and brooded about what he was learning.

The gray and gawky young man who loved bombs had constructed, of discarded electronics parts, a cigar box electroshock machine.

One morning before dawn he had strolled through his ward, shocking his fellow patients into a sudden, startled wakefulness. It seemed perfectly obvious to Nicholson that a man capable of building such a machine would also be capable of building one of his beloved bombs. This young man was slated for release very soon: some kind of state law. Nicholson, despite himself, didn’t think the young man was ready; he imagined him back within a month, likely leaving destruction and possibly death behind him.

The truly mad and violent ones they ought to keep locked up forever, Nicholson found himself thinking. He did not much admire himself for these thoughts and the first level of depression settled in like a bitter winter fog. Wasn’t he the man who made his fortune playing alienated losers? Shouldn’t his most natural sympathy lie with the patients?

Nicholson is deeply concerned with justice: He will tell you that Charlie Manson was railroaded and that the total evidence against him was one fingerprint and the testimony of someone involved who got total immunity. He will also tell you that he slept with a hammer under his pillow for weeks after the Tate-LaBianca slayings–that he would be bullshitting himself to pretend he didn’t fear that kind of murderous irrationality.

Nicholson worried about what he identified as a personal twinge of self-righteous injustice. If you could deny due process to the gray and gawky man who saw bombs instead of chickens, or possibly to Charlie Manson, wasn’t it possible that you could be the kind of man who would one day find himself in some howling lynch mob?

The first depression had to do with fundamental values and induced a kind of migraine circular reasoning. The second depression was philosophical, emotional. It had to do with the machine and the long electric cord.

***

I want it understood at the outset that I consider myself a sane man. What happened in Italy over a dozen years ago was a fluke–which had more to do with language barrier problems and bad chianti than with serious mental instability. Still, the incident has left me chary of institutions and, on that bleak February morning when I first visited the Cuckoo’s Nest set, I noticed a certain coiling of the intestines as we approached the hospital.

There was an early morning fog swirling about the three-story solid brick structure; all the surrounding trees were gnarled and bare. Thunderheads were massing for another storm. The place would have looked just fine with lightning bolts churning madly on all sides and with huge bats spewing out of nonexistent turrets.

Driving the car was a jovial publicity man who described how coproducers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz held a New Year’s Eve party for the inmates when these supposedly hard-eyed movie folks could have been out swiping starlets, or whatever it is they do on their off time. I found myself chain-smoking and recounting the scenario of a science fiction film I had seen years ago:

“It was about these spacemen who came upon a strange planet and in the scene I’m thinking of, they are scouting a cave and come upon a spiral pattern of ropes. A guy goes up to see what the ropes are made of …goes right up and touches them. Boom. A giant spider drops out of nowhere and eats the guy. Cut to the next scene which is a real classic. The brilliant scientist, captain of the crew, is sitting on a rock with his head in his hands. He blames himself for what happened and he keeps saying, ‘I should have known as soon as I saw the web.'”

“So?” A security guard for the film crew motioned the car in and we walked through a gate in the century fence with the concertina wire on top. So nothing, really. The concept is a snaky little joke about paranoia, about how this is all a plot, a bit of devilment if you will, designed to get me safely wedged into the puzzle factory without an unseemly tussle. And my thought was: “I should have known as soon as I saw the hospital.”

The publicity man laughed and said that that was what he thought. In fact, he bet that half the cast thought the same thing. Some of them had never acted in a film before. Will Sampson, who plays Chief Broom, was working for Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington, way the hell out, and gone up on the mountain when a couple of guys on horses tracked him down and told him they wanted him to be in a movie. Imagine how he felt, pulling into the hospital for the first time.

The publicist allowed that a running joke had started among cast and crew that they weren’t going to be released after the filming had been completed. I lit another cigarette and rehearsed some lines from still another film, this one a hoary gothic in which a young woman is driven to the brink of gibbering insanity by the machinations of rapacious relatives out after her inheritance.

In the last scenes, a horse and carriage are taking her to a remote asylum in the company of an evil aunt. When they get there, the no-longer-naive young woman speaks first to the man at the door. “This is she,” she says, pointing to the evil aunt, “but since she becomes violent, we have let her believe that I am the one.”

“I see,” says the man; and two burly attendants in white coats take the aunt away, kicking and screaming: “It’s her, you fools!”

A heart-lifting ploy. As we approached the back door to the hospital, where the fog was scuttling among the overstuffed garbage cans, I formulated the tongue-in-cheek statement to be used at the proper time. The publicist would serve. “This poor unfortunate believes that he is a public relations man fronting for a movie we told him is being filmed here, ha ha, in the hospital.”

As it happened there was no one at the door and presently we were walking down a long hallway, 15 feet wide, institutional green hallways on either side–some unhealthy bursts of déjà vu here–our footsteps echoing off the aged linoleum floor. I am not ordinarily given to phrases like “bad vibes,” but I tell you, in those hallways, one can feel the palpable presence.

We passed through a door into a bleak game room where strange men shot pool in their pajamas. Intent as loons, they were, on thumping the little balls into holes only slightly larger. An old man with an unruly shock of white hair watched dully and a tall man with no hair or fingernails wandered about aimlessly. An attendant in a starched white coat kept a wary eye on the game. These men, as it turned out, were not patients at all, but actors enjoying themselves during a break in the filming. The attendant was a patient in costume; he plays an attendant in the film.

The publicist hustled me off to a room that had been converted into an office and introduced me to Michael Douglas, the son of Kirk Douglas, co star of the highly rated TV series Streets of San Francisco and coproducer of the Cuckoo’s Nest film.

Casually dressed in jeans and light jacket, Douglas seemed young and vulnerable, not at all your basic cigar-chomping producer. Over coffee, he recounted Cuckoo’s Nest’s snafu-plagued 13-year history as a property.

Kirk Douglas had purchased stage and screen rights in 1962, when the book was still in galleys. He hired playwright Dale Wasserman to adapt it for the stage. The play ran on Broadway in the fall of 1963. Kirk Douglas himself played McMurphy. Reviews were mixed and the play ran only about six months. The play became a “property” at one major studio, then another. The wrong people kept being fired or demoted at those studios and a film never developed.

Meanwhile, Dale Wasserman sued the elder Douglas over rights to the screenplay and lost. A subsequent appeal, which failed, kept Cuckoo’s Nest in legal limbo until 1966.

Douglas again tried to launch a movie version of the book and again failed. “By 1970,” said Michael Douglas, “he was getting discouraged and thinking of selling the screen rights. The book was showing up on college reading lists and the play was being revived on both coasts with great success. He got some serious offers.

“I had read the book several times and I loved it. I said to my father, ‘Why don’t you let me take it over, and I promise that I’ll at least make your original investment back for you.’ That was in 1970.

“C’mon, let me show you the set.” Off we went, down another long hallway, our footsteps echoing off the walls like Last Year at Marienbad except that it was all in living color and the fluorescent light, glaring off of the drab greenness, gave our faces a sickly-complected cast the color of rotting limes.

The set was a reconstructed ward, circa 1962, but the walls had been painted a warm off-white and the ceiling had been lowered and covered over with an acoustic tile–which killed the omnipresent echo. It was by far the most pleasant place in the hospital. “We could have left it that awful stark green,” Douglas said, “but I think it would have hurt. There are some scenes of high comedy in the film. Christ, I remember spending years trying to raise the money for this. I was talking to people who had never read the book and trying to describe how funny it was and when I finished they’d ask me, ‘So how come you want to make another Snake Pit?'”

(In defense of movie producers everywhere, let it be said they are extremely busy people who must often get up quite early in the morning, make dozens of phone calls a day and be prepared to fly off to the French Riviera at a moment’s notice. They don’t have time to read books. They read “treatments” which are at best a few pages long. Writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne came up with a classic money raising–albeit tongue in-cheek–single sentence treatment for The Panic in Needle Park: Romeo and Juliet on junk.)

In 1971, Michael Douglas connected with Saul Zaentz, chairman of Fantasy Records, which by then was taking a serious interest in films. After watching an unreleased two-and-a-half hour cut of The Last Detail, the coproducers settled on Jack Nicholson as their McMurphy. Czechoslovakian-born Milos Forman was the odd, inspired choice for director. His films out of Prague in the Sixties–Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde, The Fireman’s Ball–were lovely, funny, unstructured tales about ordinary people. Although most of the actors in those films were nonprofessionals, many of the scenes were totally improvised.

His American debut, Taking Off, an amusing but slightly off-the-mark film about the generation gap, followed the same pattern.

“We wanted Forman,” Douglas said, “because he is a realistic and a funny director. We knew we needed someone who could handle the comedy. He has a very delicate eye: a great ability to go from humor to pathos, sometimes in the same frame. He’s been living in the States long enough to understand the peculiarly American aspects of the book but he still has that profound Central European sensibility.”

Douglas and I tried to define exactly what that sensibility was, deciding finally that it had something to do with a fear of institutions so minutely refined that the fear itself becomes an object of the blackest humor.

***

Casting, says Milos Forman, is 50 percent of a film. He and Michael Douglas scrutinized more than 900 actors for 16 roles, excluding McMurphy and Chief Broom. The actors were narrowed down into a series of what amounted to therapy groups and were asked to improvise against someone reading Nurse Ratched’s lines. They did not always pick the best actors; they think they picked the right actors.

Forman was greatly encouraged in this belief when a flustered geriatrics nurse tried to quickly process four of the older choices so they wouldn’t be standing around aimlessly when the professional actors arrived. After casting, Forman spent six weeks living at the hospital, working on the final script and doing research.

“The research is important. We have funny ideas about how people in mental institutions act. We think of drooling and people going booga-booga and climbing the wall. These are exceptional cases. It’s like playing alcoholics. Only naive actors play drunkenness with–blah–big sloppy gestures. Real alcoholics are desperately trying to act sober. It is the same with mentally disturbed people. They are basically normal except for one thing which may not show up for weeks or may be so subtle you can hardly notice it.”

Forman noted patients with problems similar to those of the characters in Kesey’s book. He asked his actors to study the behavior of those patients. Peter Brocco, who plays Colonel Matterson, visited an elderly gentleman, no longer incarcerated, who is the emperor of the world.

A polite white-haired man who walks humbly in the sight of the Lord, the emperor nevertheless has divided the world into eight subempires and has installed eight cousins as the rulers of those realms. The emperor also took it upon himself to design postage stamps for each of his fumbling cousins. The eight national anthems–composed by the emperor–can be played on conventional instruments and it is said that they have a certain stirring quality about them­–which raises goose flesh along the spine. The cousins, unfortunately, often lie and scheme and rattle sabers and form treacherous alliances.

In times of crisis, the emperor intercedes, and this he does with the resigned and amused tolerance of his many years. Much of what seems to be Colonel Matterson’s raving in this film is derived from the emperor of the world. Forman, according to Jack Nitzche, who will be doing the music for the film, even stumbled onto a “perfect McMurphy” during his research. The patient was young, contemptuous of authority and full of life. He wore a black leather jacket on the wards and had one of those macho-jockey senses of humor.

Forman watched him with interest. One morning, in one of the upstairs wards, an aide came upon a grisly sight. Lying on a bed in one of those barred rooms was the corpse of a feeble old man. He had been murdered and the blood on the wall attested to the brutality of the slaying. It was said that the killer was Forman’s “perfect McMurphy.” He explained that the old man was in pain and wanted to die.

Records at OSH show that the story cannot be true. The last murder of one patient by another occurred over five years ago. The fact that the story was widely repeated among the crew probably has more to do with the vertiginous effect of the institution on the minds of sane folks than with behavior of the patients.

“It sounds asshole-ish, I know,” said William Redfield, who plays the patient Harding in the film, “but you become used to these constant tragic stories. You know what bothers me most? It’s the echo in the game room. Your voice gets lost in the rumbling babble and you keep catching disjointed comments and phrases that don’t seem to make any sense. You get disoriented and start thinking that there are men two floors above you playing the same games, probably talking about the same things. You wonder about yourself.”

Redfield was a child actor–among his literally hundreds of radio roles, he once played the voice of King Farouk as an eight-year-old boy–who has acted in over 30 Broadway plays. In what is perhaps his most memorable screen role, he played the cinéma-vérité filmmaker in Shirley Clarke’s film version of Jack Gelber’s largely improvisatory play, The Connection. “Forman,” said Redfield, “is very good with improvisation. I’d guess that 20 to 30 percent of what you eventually see on the screen will be pure improvisation. He knows the magic thing–which is achieving the effect that it is really happening to you, happening for the first time.

“Surprise is probably the most difficult emotion to play. I remember at one point McMurphy has hidden his medication in his mouth. I tell him he can get in trouble for that and he spits it right in my face. Well, that’s in the script. I know it. Jack knows it. And it has to happen on cue. Luckily we’ve both been around long enough to know we’re in trouble here. So he did everything possible to fool me: not only where he spat it, but when and how. Out of the seven takes there was one time he got me. I was totally surprised. And that was it, the magic moment.”

The least improvisatory role is that of Nurse Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher, last seen in Thieves like Us. Ratched is the straight woman and she has been played as a bitter, intractable tyrant in most of the stage versions.

“I play her differently,” Fletcher said. “She smiles and greets the patients and really believes her methods are good ones.” Forman has cursed her with a 1945 hairdo for a film set in 1962. He says this is because she is a woman who stopped relating to people in the mid-Forties.

“In thinking out this role of Nurse Ratched,” Fletcher said, “I have drawn on a very rich background. That’s a pun, because there is a specific person in my past–not my mother–who, in my childhood, used to give me and my brother and my sister an enema every Saturday night. It hurt, a lot. But she told us it was for our own good and we accepted it as something everybody did. It wasn’t until I was seven or eight–old enough to compare notes with my friends–that I realized everybody didn’t get an enema on Saturday night. She was so sure of herself, you see, that she convinced us that this painful, humiliating thing was perfectly normal. She was a lovely woman and we kids thought the world of her. But I’ve always remembered that: the indignity of it and the well-meaning distorted thinking that went into it.”

When I talked to Forman on the Cuckoo’s Nest set in February, I noticed an anthology of Kafka novels on his table. “In Czechoslovakia,” Forman said, “we consider Kafka a very funny man. A humorist. I first realized that Americans think differently when I saw Orson Wells’ The Trial. I think one of the reasons it didn’t come across is that he made it a deadly serious film. And if you read the book, it is very, very funny. There is nothing you can do with such awful absurdity but laugh.

“You ask me, is McMurphy crazy? I don’t want to know this. Is he a hero? I don’t know this either. A modern hero is very ambiguous. I went through some very rough times in Czechoslovakia–the occupation by the Germans at the end of the war. We had people going against their tanks with brooms. Are they nuts or are they heroes? Because when you see it, you say, ‘This man is insane.’ When it’s over, you yourself–who wouldn’t go–you call him a hero.”

Have I yet suggested that the effect of a winter’s day in Salem can best be experienced by wrapping oneself in 30 pounds of wet blankets and standing inside of a meat locker for 24 hours?

Even on the outside set–the scene of a basketball game between the Cuckoo patients and aides–the crew has set up enough lights and reflectors for standard twilight shooting. This at high noon. Rain threatened. The master shots of the game are in the can. Today the actors playing “chronics” will be shot reacting to the contest.

During the bulk of the shooting these men have been asked to act bored–no great task–wander around aimlessly, or stare at the wall in an interesting manner. This is their improvisatory day before the camera and there is a feeling of pleased anticipation under glowering skies.

A young man in orange slacks and a lime-colored sweater, his arm in a sling, hovered about on the periphery of the set. He smiled easily but his eyes were set in a contradictory and fearful frown. It was his first day downstairs since the unfortunate incident on 83, the men’s medium-security ward. The crew had been filming some scenes on that third-floor ward and had strung the needed electric cables through an unlatched window.

A technician blames himself for what happened. Joking with the patients–nice guys, stable fellows, don’t belong here, the technician thought–he had said something like, “Boy, if I was nuts, I’d go right out that window.”

Moments later there was some shouting, a powerful thud and a groan of pain. The leaper had gone out the window and was making his run for freedom, listing a bit to one side. Two of the patients working with the crew ran him down and took him off to the hospital medical facility. He had broken his collarbone.

“Hey, how are you,” Michael Douglas said to the leaper. “Welcome back.”

“Are you mad with me?” the leaper asked.

“Shit no. I thought you might be mad at us.” The leaper seemed not to have considered this possibility.

“You know, you made the papers,” Douglas said. The headline read, “One Flew out of the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The leaper raised his right fist to his temple in a gesture of pained amusement. “I didn’t fly. Who can fly? I tried to slide down the cable but I couldn’t hold on.”

“I know,” Douglas said. “But why did you slide down the cable in the first place? I mean, you had ground privileges. Why didn’t you just walk down the stairs?” “Well…” The leaper looked to the Lord for an appropriate answer. “I wanted to go home,” he said.

Time passed while the leaper seemed to meditate his own answer. Suddenly he shrugged and broke into a bright, helpless grin. “I was emotionally disturbed,” he said. The incident on ward 83 was exactly the kind of thing Michael Douglas had spent months trying to avoid. The politics of getting permission to film at OSH had been tricky enough–the superintendent of the hospital, Dean Brooks, said it was the sincerity of Douglas and Zaentz that finally convinced him to allow use of the facility – and the coproducers were committed by promise and inclination to the idea of securing the safety, privacy and integrity of the patients they were disrupting. 

(For the same reason, patients’ names, physical characteristics and, in some cases, the exact nature of their actions have been changed here.) This concern for the patients on the production side generated the only other unpleasant public incident of note during the filming.

Casting had wanted about 35 physically repulsive patients to mill about during a certain scene. Douglas, Zaentz and Dean Brooks had killed that idea straight off. No patients would be used simply because they were grotesques. This decision–which is to be stoutly applauded–still left the production in need of 35 repulsive looking extras.

Casting turned to Mel Lambert, a local used car dealer and part-time rodeo announcer. Lambert, the production’s local contact in Salem, had located Will Sampson, the brooding, 6’5″ full-blooded Creek Indian who plays Chief Broom. Finding a giant Indian who can act is no mean feat and casting felt that Lambert could help them in their search for 35 uglies in Salem. It was not, as Lambert tells it, his finest hour.

“Well, they said they wanted me to get them 35 goofs, you know, real grotesque bastards. Terrible people that’d make you scared just to look at them. Well, I put an ad in the paper and it said, ‘Wanted, 35 motion picture extras.’ I put right in the ad, ‘Do you have a face that scares timber wolves? Are you super fat? Super skinny? Do people get sick when they look at you?’ And I said that if they had those qualifications they should contact me.

“Well, the day that ad ran I had about 150 phone calls. I’d ask people, ‘Why are you qualified?’ One guy said he had a nose like Cyrano Bearjack. I had a guy call and say, ‘My old lady’s nuts. You can use her for five days, ten days, whatever, and when you’re done with her, throw her in the damn booby hatch and lock the door.’ People would call that I knew. I’d say, ‘Roy, we can’t use you. You ain’t weird enough.’ We had real nuts call that had been criminally insane and cured, but none of them was grotesque enough either.

“This woman called and told me her son was an awful son of a bitch. I said, ‘Well, in what way is he qualified?’ She said, ‘He’s grotesque and terribly spooky.’ I figured if any mother would say that about her kid, he must be worth a look. So she brings him down and he’s 14 years old, the nicest looking blond-haired kid you’d ever want to see. He looked like Little Lord Font-Lee-Roy. I said, ‘Lady, is this the kid you explained to me about the qualifications?’ She says, ‘Yeah, ain’t he awful?’ I said, ‘Lady, we can’t use him, he’s too good looking.’ She walks out like I’m a rotten son of a bitch, her bringing down such a turkey and I can’t use him.

“Well, pretty soon everybody in town was talking about that ad. There was an editorial in the paper about how they didn’t think anybody would respond to an ad that wanted people who could scare werewolves. I put timber wolves in the ad but they said werewolves. Then Joel Douglas, that’s Michael’s brother, he called me up about it and just tore my ass off about that ad. They said they didn’t want that kind of publicity. They just kicked my poor ass up and down until I was sorry I ran the ad in the first place.”

Incidents like those of the leaper and the 35 terrible spooks–especially in the state capital–might easily have ended the film then and there. A pious state assemblyman, for instance, might take the time to read the book, then make an issue out of “dirty words being filmed in our state institutions.”

Cuckoo’s Nest, as a screen property, has been buffeted by controversy. Ken Kesey wrote the first screenplay for the production. Rumors about Fantasy Records had it that Kesey–true to the book–had kept Chief Broom as narrator. The producers, along with Forman and later Nicholson, felt that the Indian’s introspective interior monologues in voice-over would weigh the film down and interfere with the objective reality of what was happening.

Larry Hauben and Bo Goldman collaborated on the final script and the Kesey effort was rejected. At press time, Kesey, claiming that his creative efforts were being exploited without proper remuneration, was threatening a boycott-Cuckoo movement. In reply Saul Zaentz said that Kesey was paid $10,000 plus expenses for the rejected screenplay and that Kesey would receive 2.5% of the net on the film.

“You know,” Michael Douglas told me on the outside set in February, “we cast the crew as carefully as the actors. We knew we were going to be cooped up here for a long time and we wanted to be sure everyone got along with everyone else.” There was, however, one major conflict.

Within the first month of filming, it became apparent that director Forman and cinematographer Haskell Wexler differed significantly on a number of major points. Talk on the set had it that Wexler was pushing for a more organized approach, for a more moody feel with greater emphasis on framing the shots. Forman preferred to flow more loosely, to trust more to improvisation and inspiration. Whatever the reasons, Douglas and Zaentz were forced to fire Wexler. Bill Butler took over the cinematography, as he did on The Conversation when Wexler was fired from that film.

“Firing Haskell,” said Douglas, “was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. He’s a strong intelligent man who has directed before. It wasn’t a reflection on his talent, nor even his concept. It just wasn’t our concept. We had to go with Milos. He has the eye we wanted.”

An assistant director called for quiet on the set and Forman took a position behind the cameras. Behind him, two stand-ins played a full court one-on-one basketball game. Dwight Marfield, the first of the chronics, danced a delightful jig of anticipation, his eyes following the ball down court, up court and…two points for the patients.

Marfield, a mime, fluttered about in helpless ecstasy. The entire set erupted into spontaneous applause and they were joined by patients at the windows of wards 83 and 84.

The mood, suddenly, was one of wondrous good cheer. After each of the chronic’s performances–Peter Brocco in his wheelchair raving on about my bully boys taking the fort–there was more laughter and applause. Forman once or twice literally doubled over with laughter. For the first time that day, my intestines stopped tying themselves into knots. Someone even claimed to have seen the sun.

***

December 1974. The new man on ward 84 noticed that his hands were shaking ever so slightly as he stood at the urinal. A dozen other men, some still woozy from yesterday’s medication, padded about the communal bathroom, relieving bladders and bowels, preparatory to another gray day in the hospital’s “penitentiary standard” ward. No one spoke to the new fish, which was just fine with Jack Nicholson.

His immediate plan was to zip up quickly and get back out by the main door where two sleepy attendants would be able to pull him out of the middle of any unexpected outbreak of violent lunacy. Ward 84, with its double barred doors and barred and wired windows, housed the most dangerous mentally ill men in the state of Oregon.

Nicholson considered the muscular black fellow at the next urinal. For all he knew, the man could be a convicted axe murderer–they have their share in the rural areas of Oregon–at OSH for a few years of therapy before serving a life term of straight time. On the other hand, the guy could be in for dining and dashing, then being seriously goofy at the point of arrest.

Nicholson threaded his way out of the bathroom–careful not to accidentally bump someone–and made his way to the bench opposite the attendants. Letting himself get surrounded in that bathroom, out of sight of the attendants, had not been one of the very brightest moves of his life.

Watching ward 84 gather out in the sitting room, Nicholson was struck once again by a curious anomaly: These supposedly dangerous men seem considerably less confused than some of the really loopy people in the minimum security wards, especially geriatrics. There was something peculiarly unsettling about that observation.

More unsettling had been the effect of the electroshock machine on the fat man two hours earlier. The patient had been asleep, loose-lidded, Nicholson concluded, from yesterday’s medication. As the nurse brought him conscious the doctor poked about in the suet with his needle. He missed once, twice, then found the vein. The powerful muscle relaxant hit in about ten seconds: The fat man jellied visibly.

Nicholson watched as they fitted him with a device that looked like an aviator’s headphone, except that one part came up under the jaw and another fitted over the areas near the temple.

The doctor nodded and the technician readied the machine for the single prescribed jolt. Nicholson tensed. A week earlier he had asked the administration if he could see a lobotomy patient but they had none to show him. At the time, he had assumed that the same would be true of electroshock–that it was a punishment more than a treatment and that it had gone the way of other Bedlamite relics.

Not so, he had learned. By Oregon law, electroshock may not be administered unless the patient gives his “express and informed consent.” This right may be denied by the director of the hospital after consultation with and approval of an independent examining physician. Electroshock, though used sparingly, is considered “a good therapeutic modality” at OSH.

This is where Nicholson sank into the second level of depression. Before his research, he had been willing to consider electroshock one of the great manifestations of psychic evil.

A film that depicted such treatments, he assumed, could conceivably be guilty of a kind of celluloid yellow journalism. And yet he could see with his own eyes that there were some people so violent or depressed they simply couldn’t be contacted for meaningful therapy without shock treatment. These people, the administrators claimed, would have to be strapped up for years–a condition that violated the officially stated major goal of the hospital, which is “to help [the patient] return to the community as soon as possible.”

The technician loosed a single measured jolt. The fat man winced, as if he had heard an unexpected and extremely loud noise, very close. He lay in a special hospital bed–it looked like a crib–and was held at the shoulders as the convulsions started. The fat man made an uh-uh-uh grunting sound as the convulsions rippled down his torso in irregular waves. It was, Nicholson thought, as if the patient was in the throes of some delirious orgasm, trying vainly to control the thrust and angle of his dick.

Nicholson saw then the reason for the muscle relaxant. A strong man, in the midst of such convulsions, could literally crack the vertebrae in his own back.

The facial contortions–and these Nicholson noted with a mixture of professionalism and pain–were unimaginably grotesque. The fat man’s face contracted as if it had been placed in a vise just at the moment of some terrible pain. The eyes clamped tightly shut, like the eyes of a man about to burst into tears.

Within an hour and a half the fat man was up and walking about. He seemed childlike in his docileness and complained only about the fact that he couldn’t seem to recall where he was or who anybody was or what had happened in the past few days. Other electroshock patients told Nicholson that the machine was a horror to them but the administrators cited statistics that showed electroshock to be beneficial in a majority of cases. They introduced him to articulate patients who considered the treatment the equivalent of going to the dentist: It isn’t pleasant and it hurts, but one emerges from the session a healthier individual.

So, sitting on the bench in ward 84, Jack Nicholson dealt with his depression. There are some issues you can think through for so long that nothing seems to make sense. To the left of Nicholson, there was a heavy hanging bag which a patient may punch at will without saying that he is striking doctor or hospital or woman or life.

A big man with huge hands and greasy black hair began to pound away methodically at the bag. Nicholson watched for a while and he thought, the only conclusion you can reach is that you can’t make a conclusion–not until it happens to a relative or a loved one or you yourself.

Breakfast was served on 84: pancakes, a favorite. Nicholson took his place in line, waited, then ordered a single flapjack. No use putting on extra pounds during research.

But why were people looking at him like that? Ward 84 regarded Jack Nicholson in silent freeze frame as he moved away from the table in slow motion. Is this all because I only ordered one pancake, Nicholson wondered. Look at them looking. Ultimately I am the sanest man in this room, he thought, and it is strange that I have managed to do the craziest thing any of them have seen so far this morning.

***

“We can’t promise you an interview with Jack Nicholson,” the publicity man enthused to the gathering, “but…you’ll be given a no-holds-barred tour of the hospital.” I suspect that the other members of the press–a young man in a checked sport coat representing a Los Angeles trade publication, a man from Cosmopolitan, a stringer for the New York Times and, everyone’s favorite, a feisty middle-aged female reporter for one of those movie magazines which always feature intriguing propositions splashed across the cover (“Jackie’s Wild Night with Telly”)–would have gladly skipped the no-holds-barred tour for ten minutes alone with Nicholson.

Each of the reporters was expected to do a feature about a film; none of the reporters was even remotely qualified to reflect on the quality of treatment at OSH. Nevertheless, we were herded like goats through the wards and expected to ask penetrating questions of the doctors and to relate, to the best of our limited abilities, to both the articulate patients and the walking comatose.

The tour started in the office of Dean Brooks, the progressive and youthfully gray superintendent of the hospital. Brooks began with a short history of OSH and remarked proudly on the fact that in 1958 the hospital housed 3,600 patients, compared to a figure of 592 for that February day.

Powerful tranquilizers, an upswing in community health programs and a more tolerant public had all contributed to the decline in patient population. “We now measure the average stay of our patients in days rather than years,” Brooks said. In answer to the obvious question, Brooks said, “Certainly there were people who were reluctant to have the movie brought here. We didn’t want the hospital to be portrayed in such a way that people would be afraid to seek us out if they needed help. But no matter where they made it, it would still be stated that it was Oregon State Hospital, because that is where Ken Kesey set the locus of the book. He had never been here when he wrote it, by the way. He did his research at the VA hospital in Palo Alto, California. Anyway, the matter was presented to the Department of Human Resources and went on up to the governor for final approval.

“The film is not about Oregon State Hospital, nor is it meant to be. It is an allegory, not a documentary. And there were advantages to having it here. We estimate that at least half of the nearly $3.5 million budget will accrue to the State of Oregon in terms of hotels, services and rental of the facility. Also, there is an excitement in having the production here. I play Dr. Spivey in the film and I know it was a thrill to work with Jack Nicholson. Many patients are in the cast and crew. It is good therapy for them, and they are being paid for their work.”

With that, the men and women of the press were off, in the company of a patient and an aide, on their obligatory tour of the wards, seeing for themselves that OSH is not the Cuckoo’s Nest. “These patients,” said the aide as we passed through men’s geriatrics, “are the loneliest people in the hospital. In many cases their wives and friends are dead and they have just given up.”

Sprawled in a classic wino position in the middle of the hallway lay an old man dressed in a mothy sweater and threadbare slacks. His thin white hair was uncombed and his ruined face carried a drifting expression of expectant resignation. It was impossible not to see him as a man waiting, hopefully, for death.

“Jesus,” said the man from Cosmo, “I ought to write a story about how not to see Jack Nicholson.”

“My readers are interested in romance,” the movie magazine woman said. “I wonder, are there trysts between male and female geriatrics?” Craig, the aide, said he didn’t know.

In the community psych ward, the man from Cosmo announced that he had met “Jack” at least five times. As he elaborated, a young patient with frizzy black hair and frightened eyes began tugging at his sleeve.

“Can polio back up on you, man?” he asked in a rush. “I think I had it when I was a kid and now my leg hurts and I think it’s backing up on me.” Cosmo smiled vacantly and said he didn’t know.

An enormously obese woman with a face as gnarled and twisted as a branch on the winter trees outside blocked our path to the door. She was literally chewing a nonfilter cigarette and specks of tobacco clung to her mouth and chin.

“Fancy doctors,” she sneered, “light my cigarette.” The man whose polio was backing up on him limped morosely after us. “When I saw Jack in Cannes last summer,” Cosmo said, “he said he’d sit down and talk with me any time.”

In one of the security wards, an attractive young woman nodded toward me. I smiled, said, “Hi.” “Get out,” she screamed, “you turd, you asshole shithead, I’ll kill you.” So surprised was I that I stood motionless as she stomped toward me. Gary, the patient tour guide, pushed me gently down the hallway. “Don’t worry about it,” Gary whispered, “that was for me. She hates me.”

Plainly Gary was a man used to rejection and his lie, which I thank him for, was an empathetic one. Seconds later, in the same ward, we passed a small room where a woman lay in a strange bed–like a crib. A doctor and nurse seemed to be giving her oxygen. “Electroshock,” the ward nurse explained. She said that woman had been “exhibiting violent and aggressive behavior.”

Behavior of that sort, rather than the officially stated charges–turning a hotel into a brothel and committing an outrage against a public official–had resulted in my unpleasant Italian experience.

Strapped wrist and ankle to a bed, I had been given an injection by an avuncular doctor and that shot had knocked me cold for 14 straight hours. This incident I have transformed into a jolly adventure which friends invariably find hilarious. It is a story that builds upon a series of lively punch lines, and not to spoil the fun, I never mention the jolt of molten terror I felt as the needle entered the vein.

I wondered if the woman in the ward knew the same uncomprehending fear, or if she understood her treatment as I understood that shot. There seemed little doubt of it. I am certain that most of the press tour felt, as I did, that we were seriously out of our depth. The sense of human suffering was suffocating in its intensity. I say most of the tour.

The man from Cosmo had cornered Gary, the patient guide, over by one of the wired windows. Pointing to a mobile home on the grounds, he anxiously asked, “Is that Jack’s trailer?”

***

Jack Nicholson likes to tell the story of Freddy the Banker because it was guys like Freddy who helped lift him out of his depressions. Freddy’s the fellow who robbed the same bank twice on the same day.

On a whim he had written a note that said his friend had a shotgun. The friend was a fantasy. When Freddy showed the note to a teller, she had handed over a whole drawerful of money. Freddy spent the remainder of the morning sampling intoxicants.

Presently he found himself in front of a bank–which seemed remotely familiar. The bank was full of police officers and FBI men, one of whom clamped the cuffs on Freddy. The judge gave Freddy to believe that while the criminal often returns to the scene of the crime, his case was something special.

“Ward 84 for you, Freddy,” the judge said.

By the time the Cuckoo cast had arrived, Freddy had worked his way down to the minimum-security wards. He was given a job with the crew. Nicholson liked Freddy straight off: He even gave him his nickname, the Banker. A cautious friendship ensued. Midway into the filming, Freddy was released from the hospital.  Nicholson saw it happen with increasing frequency: The most likable of the patients did, in fact, “return to the community.” Many people–he could see it with his own eyes–genuinely got better at OSH.

And that, the final uplifting note, is the spirit of the completed film. Building slowly, Forman has crafted a brilliantly understated movie about the human spirit, an anthem really, which has more to do with men like Freddy than with confinement and confusion.

“It’s an Easter pageant,” Nicholson said in Oregon. “That’s as broad a stroke as you can take at it.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Jack Nicholson

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