For the Benefit of Mister Kite:
I was only six years old in 1967, so I didn't really know that dad was "out inventing the culture." But I always felt that he was "working on something really important." As the music from the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band wafted through all our lives that summer, I experienced it the same way everyone else didas a cultural product so strong, so rich, so complete that it seemed to have an organo-metabolic effect over the whole populace. I didnt know dad was on the cover of the albumI only knew that the haunting strains of the songs were touching us all and helping to express the inexpressibly beautiful agitation that was in the air at that time. I recall walking with my mother during a protest march, wearing a hand-knit pancho covered with "Peace Now" buttons, and how the entire graduating class of my elementary school sang "To Everything Turn, Turn, Turn" by the Byrds for our graduation song.
The 60s became a hotwax of agit-prop psychedelia and Terry was its moltenman-on-fire, the guy who enflamed every scene worth ignition. Statements were being made, art was being stretched and everyone who was doing anything worthwhile in film looked to Terry for his imprimaturnot because of some "wild and crazy" zing he could add but because he had "the information" and the deadly accurate (hipster) instincts that could make your project relevant to the urgency of the times.
He was also trying all the "new tastes" that were exploding on the scene. And there were many, from the wonder-drug Dexamyl, a favorite "working stimulant" of Lenny Bruce, to Divorce, which was a novelty at the time. Terry disappeared from my world while the world itself was somehow taking shape in his image: Barbarella, Candy, Easy Rider, Dr. Strangeloveall the pop-vulture symbols of social change had his stamp (and his name) on them. But he was not leaving a stamp as a father on me that I could easily trace. Well, in a way he was, but in his own amazing way.
My Dear Son...
Over the years, and through the mails, postcards would comesigned by Clint Eastwood, my fave at the time, and Ringo, who was everybodys favorite Beatle at the time. One day in the dead of winter, a small red automobile arrived at Kennedy Airport addressed to "Master Nile Southern" from the Ferrari plant outside Rome. My mother went to the airports cargo terminal to pick it up. Terry was all over the placeLondon with the Beatles and Stones (making The Magic Christian), Hollywood, where he lived with Gail, his new woman (a ballerina/actress), doing The Cincinnati Kid, The Loved One, The Collector) and now Rome where, as if in explanation of everything, he sent me a virtual Batmobile. TV's Batman was all the rage for us kids at the time, and this grand toy had a sculpted fibreglass body, chrome wire wheels (with brass lions heads in the center!), an Italian pull-cord outboard motor under the rear hood, a plexiglass windshield, emergency brake and gray leather upholstered seat. The car was too fast (and illegal) for the streets of New York, but it became the hit of the Hamptonswhere my mother and her friends and their kids began spending summers of the 60s.
Groovin Up Slowly
When Terry finally came back to New York, he lavished me with gifts. As I grew older, I came to realize that generosity was part of his make-up so the line between his guilt assuagement and simple grand gesture was often blurred. I remember many trips to Rappaports Toy Shoppe on 2nd Avenue. Terry once bought a metal target practice device from Hammacher Schlemmer on which colored lenses lit up, according to which one you shot out on your target. Using a powerful air pistol, we used to target practice with this thing in his living room on 34th Street. He used a couple of telephone books to stop the bullets.
He knew I loved Dark Shadows and took me to the offbeat soap opera set to meet Barnabas Collins. I have Polaroid pictures of me posing with the Wolfman, who had just that week been introduced as a "character" on the vampire show. My introduction to T-Rex and the Slider album (probably the coolest album of the early 70s) happened when Terry took me to the recording studio where Ringo and Marc Bolan were having a session. As incense (and other sweet-smelling herbs) wafted about the small studio, T-Rexs soul-melting smile emerged from within the frame of the mighty ringlets of his long brown hair, and Ringo loaded me up with the album, signed by both of them. He also gave me a "T-REX Slider" T-shirt, which I wore everyday through middle school, especially around dodge-ball time.
Dirty Old Man
I didn't talk about Terry much in school. I remember a girl who sat behind me and seethed like a serpent in my ear: "Your dad's a dirty old man. He wrote a dirty book called Candy! Its dirty! And everybody knows it! My parents told me." I had the wherewithal to point out that they must like dirty books if they read it and still had it on their shelf.
I had a kind of silent chip on my shoulder, as I became more aware of Terrys film work. I remember a page of the New York Postthe "Top Ten Grossing Movies of All Time" chart, a little box they ran every week. Of the top ten films, something like four of them had his touch: Easy Rider, Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella. Even The Magic Christian did well at the box-officeits irreverance, sex, drugs and psychedelia further fueling the buzz kids needed. This was pre-Jaws, pre-blockbuster. Whenever Id hear classmates talking about a film they had seen, the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up and Id suppress myself from saying, "If my dad had written that movie, it would have been much better." It was probably true. Good thing I didnt say it, though.
The sad thing is, of course, that Terry was not given more opportunity to write for the commercial cinema. The daring people and projects that he fueled in his heyday became jaded by the very success he helped bring them. They started settling for less because the money was good. Unlike the businessmen and occasional dilettantes who used him on their films and then went on feeding the "machine of mediocrity" or their social scenes, Terry continued to push the envelopeto try out the new.
One project that spelled his downfall was his tireless pursuit of producing Blue Movie. Although this is the perfect film to make today, in the early 70s (when blockbusters and "American realism" were in vogue), an erotic satire about making an A-list Hollywood porn film was professional suicide. Ringo Starrs offer to put up the money and Julie Andrews offer to (appear to) suck-off a team of giant Africans encouraged Terrys mistaken belief in the viability of the project. But the thing was doomed, and Terry spent a good deal of the early to mid-70s trying to get his friends to join what was now, with the independent rise of the porn industry, like a political act challenging Hollywood. In trying to get this movie made, a movie that depicted the Producer as Krassman, Terry alienated those who were just trying to make a living in the film business. Even in his early poverty, Terry never took the safe roaduntil it was too late to save himself.
Down (and Out) on the Farm
Moving to a farmhouse on the East Coast also didnt fortify his reputation as an "available" writer, although there were then (and certainly are today) many examples of screenwriters able to make a living without having to live in Tinsel Town. So, what really happened to his career? Being a stubborn Texan, and an Existentialist to boot, he didnt care much for the "quality lit" and "Gollywood" protocols of maintaining an agent, lawyer, accountant or secretary. Instead, he took whatever job miraculously came down his long driveway in Canaan, Connecticut. He wrote a page at a time in longhand, then drove it (or hopefully them) 20 miles to a typist and repeated the cycle daily. Whenever a fax came for him, hed drive into town to pick it up at the pharmacy because he didnt own a fax machine, and couldnt afford it.
Terry had liked living large, and all the Big Money he made in the '60s got burned upsomewhere between the casinos outside Rome and the Mardi Gras of Easy Rider. By the time Easy Rider came out, Terry was so broke that he had to break his agreement for a deferred three-way split of the profits by taking a $5,000 payment for writing the script.
Financially, these were brutal times for Terry as the IRS was now hot on his trail---most likely, he was targeted by Nixon and the FBI as part of the COINTEL operation against anti-Vietnam activists. Easy Rider's runaway success had the eerie deja vu of his other big hit that made millions of dollars (for other people) just five years earlierCandya book that was the first to have great staying power on the New York Times bestseller list. But because of a gap in copyright law, it did not bestow any rewards on Terry or its co-author, Mason Hoffenberg.
Southern and Son, Productions
Terry spent a lot of time with me making Super-8 films. I am so grateful for that, as we bonded through the outrageous, multi-genre fictions we were laying down. But it also offered him a chance to do what no one else was asking him to do---work on a movie. We built a Super-8 editing bench from instructions in a Mother Earth magazine. I used to fall asleep at night to the sound of the editing reels turning, as the film flickered through the light of the viewer in my bedroom.
And there was much writing work. Besides Blue Movie, there were original screenplays, treatments and speculative rewrites. But more poignantly, I think, there were many collaborations and grand gestures of good faith---some paid, some not---such as a screenplay of Merlin written for Mick Jagger, a film adaptation of Norman Mailer's Why Are We In Vietnam and a screenplay for photographer Peter Beard's End of the Game, an adaptation of jewel thief Albie Bakers autobiography (written with him). Then there were the many "development projects" like a script about the assassination of the Pope for Gore Vidal and James Coburn, any number of pilots, sci-fi scripts and satires with theater director/Yippie Jo LoGuidice and would-be "star-vehicle" projects for Michael Parksthe "Then Came Bronson" amazing talent whom no one else would work with. Terry did not discriminate when it came to collaboration, much to the horror of Hollywood-types. For Terry, everything was improvable and everyone deserved a chance to realize their visioneven if they could not quite express it well themselves.
So, to say Terry Southern somehow "burned out" is ridiculous. He was burned out on amateurs and nowhere deals, which is different than burning out on yourself. And it is so easy to say "he lost his touch"especially easy for journalists who cannot conceive of having anywhere near the success in any literary field that Terry had in all of them. For Terry, writing dialogue was effortless, and it was his key gift. He did it in his sleephe did it dailyhe did it in the 70s, the 80suntil the day he diednot with Hollywood productions in full-swing but often with speculative scripts he agreed to work on just to see him through.
"Oh, I Can See It Now, for Another Five-Thou"
Terry used to say to me, "Never take a job just for the money." I was ten years old at the time, and he continued saying it as my friends were doing their summer jobs, which I eventually did as well. "Only take a job that somehow relates to film work, or that informs or facilitates your creativity..."
"A night watchman" was his favorite suggestionwhich, for a kid, of course, was not possible. But the irony is that Terry himself ended up taking so many jobs "just for the money"and yet they never paid well. It worked like this: someone would find out how to contact him (often by looking him up in the phone book), call him up, bottom-line it by saying they could pay him $5,000 ($2,500 now and $2,500 when he finished), he would say "yes" and it would be another (failed) project under way. If he was lucky, there would be some sort of contract where the Guild minimum was promised. But that would only kick in when a studio picked it up, which they never did. Although Terry didnt have any money in the bank, he always seemed to have a little cash in his pocketwhich was important to himfor he liked to treat his friends.
But was it only the fact that he was stubborn, a recluse, that no agent trusted him anymore (because he had been with so many), that he was "out of the Hollywood loop," that he was an Existentialist (instead of a writer out for the all-mighty dollar), that he worked on non-union films in Europe, that satire was dead and that he worked with "fringe people" such as Larry Rivers, Harry Nilsson, William Burroughs, William Claxton, ex-Warhol Factory member, Nelson Lyon, and Peter Beard. Was it these thingsthese qualitiesthat kept his earnings frozen and the serious movie makers away? Or was it something else, too?
The Executors Analysis
I have a couple of theories about this, which Ive developed from working with Terrys papers, contracts and scripts and from knowing him so intimatelyknowing his character. Contrary to much recent conjecture (in the Washington Post, Village Voice and elsewhere), Terry never lost his touch, his edge, nor his ability to deliver. Nor did he lose his discipline for writing. Rather, he lost the incredible pull he had as a force in the cosmology of urgent creativity, which was the 60s. But he also lost something elsehis salary base.
When he was working, Terry was one of the highest paid screenwriters of his day. By the mid-'60s, he was earning more money per week writing for the studios and feature films than he had earned in a previous lifetime of writing literature and journalism (from 1948 to 1963). By 1969, he was being paid $100,000 per screenplay. They say in Hollywood that youre only as viable as the size of your last paycheck---and that your "street cred" is tied to its girth. $5,000 was the last fee Terry was paid, and that was for Easy Rider. This would haunt him the rest of his life---it was the sum everyone seemed to get away with paying him throughout the years when he needed money most. What a terrible curse---to bear the whorish mark of cheapness on the hit you helped create. The $5,000 Factor is one aspect of how Easy Rider helped destroy Terrys credibility in Hollywood. Another is what I call the ushering-in of Independent Cinema with a capital "I."
Independent with a Capital "I"
"I know youyoure the guy who showed me how to do itwho showed me how you can make a half-million dollar picturewithout a studioand make a lot of money! I know you!"
--Sylvester Stallone, upon meeting Terry Southern for the first time, at Harry Nilssons house, 1980
In 1967, Terry was about as hot as he could be, coming off The Cincinnati Kid and then onto Barbarella. It was also the year Jane Fonda appeared with Terry on the cover of his anthology, Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastesthe two obviously intoxicated by each other. Peter Fonda approached Terry with an idea for a movie, a movie that would be filmed entirely "on the road" without studio support about "a couple of stock car drivers barnstorming across America." Terry did not shy away from the offbeat idea and said, "Im your man." Not only that, he started actively producing the picture with Fondahaving script development meetings at his 55th Street office and attracting the first star to the film, Rip Torn. To create more of an actual story, Terry also invented a role for Ripthe Southern lawyer (which became the Jack Nicholson character).
Born out of these organic events was Independent CinemaIndependent with a capital "I." Terry essentially ushered in low-budget filmmaking on his back and reputation, bridging the gap between the Beats and the Systemmuch to his own detriment. For at the time, Independent Cinema was a threat to the studio systemit questioned the status quo and creatively democratized a rigidly totalitarian capitalist regime. Add to this a little post-release bad-mouthing by Hopper and Fonda about Terry "walking off the picture" and belittling his writing role, and you have a double stab in the back. The piece de resistance was when these previously indiscernible blips on the Hollywood radar screen (Hopper was known as a photographer and Fonda as the "son of"...) suddenly received Academy Awards for their writing abilities. With thinly veiled resentment, Terry often described how he waived the Writers Guilds right to deny Fonda and Hopper screen credit because "they need thisthey need it so they can finance their next movie." This mantra of "just enough for the next one" became the battle cry of Independent Cinema for the next decade and was put into effect and shouted at full-volume by the likes of Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese and Woody Allen.
The End of the Road
If Hollywood did not quickly forgive Terry's Easy Rider trespasshis betrayal of the System's faith in himit never forgave him for End of the Road. The ingredients of this film, a beautifully shot, at times psychologically brutal meditation on the end of the 60s, reads like a recipe for personal disasterif you were trying to make good with a Hollywood already mad at you:
- Anti-Vietnam War sentiment: the opening montage has images of the war, the American Flag blood-red and pulsating, the student take-over of Columbia University and a montage of all the assassinations of the time---from Martin Luther King through the Kennedysall to the soulful wails of Billy Holidays "Dont Worry Bout Me."
- Rated "X" (for no declared reason by the MPAAmuch in the same way Midnight Cowboy received an "X" around the same time).
- Shot in the Berkshire Mountain region of Connecticuteven more "outside the Hollywood beltway" than Easy Rider was.
- Actors Studio productionthe "radical" theater put its New York stamp on the production by offering James Earl Jones and Stacy Keach in their first starring roles.
- Non-union production (this was the first feature film shot by Gordon Willis, the (now) legendary cameraman who lensed Annie Hall, All the President's Men, Klute, etc.).
- Abortion theme: the film ends with the disturbing death of one of the main charactersat the hands of the "backstreet abortionist" (James Earl Jones). Although harrowing, the scene is completely non-graphicdone entirely in wide shot.
- First-time director: Aram Avakian, a hipster jazz enthusiast and Terrys roommate in Paris and Greenwich Village of the mid- and late 50s.
- Financed by a New York City garment industry tycoon, Max Raab.
- Based on novel by John Barthintellectual, artistic and "experimental."
Not wanting to repeat the same blunder that he made with Easy Rider, Terry made sure to get co-producing credit on End of the Road. When the film opened, Judith Crist, the most powerful film reviewer in New York at the time, summarily killed it by saying: 'Go see Patton insteadit just opened also, and is the kind of patriotic film this country needs right now in this time of national crisis.' End of the Road closed almost immediately, and the "X" rating made sure it stayed closed for good. Only Cinema Village, an art house in New York, played the film religiously throughout the 70s and early 80sbefore the deteriorating 16mm print faded into oblivion.
Terry never worked on a major film again. The new industry he helped nurture, Independent Cinema, went on to become the production method for making interesting movies.
I've been working to get End of the Road restored and back into movie theatres so a new generation can experience the cinematic wonders of this filmand also so we can better examine the object perhaps most responsible for Terrys ultimate demise in Hollywood. My efforts to revive and restore Terrys work are not so much out of reverence for the man, my father, but out of respect for his visiona vision of art as a cathartic and culturally relevant endeavor. "Beauty in every form!" he used to say. I believe the power of his work will withstand and perseverenay, will shatter and transcend any limitations that were imposed on him during his lifetimefor his work, his novels, his short stories, unadapted for the screen, have not yet seen the light of day.
(c) Nile Southern. All photos courtesy of The Estate of Terry Southern.