This story originally ran in the Feb. 23, 2001, Special Collector’s Oscars Guide issue of Entertainment Weekly.
On Oscar night 25 years ago, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest pulled off a feat no film had accomplished since Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night in 1935: It swept the top five categories at the Academy Awards.
Accepting the statuette for Best Picture was an unlikely pair of fledgling producers: Saul Zaentz, a Berkeley, Calif., jazz-record producer, and Michael Douglas, a struggling second-generation actor best known for the TV cop show The Streets of San Francisco. Meanwhile, Milos Forman, a down-on-his-luck Czech émigré whose American debut had flopped five years earlier, took home Best Director. Two screenwriters who had never so much as met each other — Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman — shared the stage as co-winners of best screenplay. And then there were the film’s stars: Louise Fletcher, the sixth choice for the movie’s villainous leading lady, won Best Actress; and four-time nominee — and four-time loser — Jack Nicholson was finally anointed Best Actor.
But despite all of Cuckoo’s Nest‘s gold-plated glory at the Academy Awards, one person was curiously absent from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on March 29, 1976 — Kirk Douglas. Watching the ceremony from his home in Palm Springs, Calif., the actor, then 59, savored the sweet taste of vindication from afar. After all, Douglas had struggled for a decade to adapt Ken Kesey’s allegorical novel — about the patients in a mental hospital and their rebellion against the system — into a movie. A struggle that he jokes almost drove him insane. So, on the silver anniversary of Cuckoo’s Nest‘s golden night at the Oscars, here is the behind-the-scenes story of how one Best Picture winner was almost never a picture at all …
‘You’re no crazier than the average a—hole out walking around on the streets!’
By the beginning of the 1960s, Kirk Douglas had already appeared in such classics as Champion, Lust for Life, and Spartacus. One of the first Hollywood stars to cross over into the position of producer, Douglas saw himself in the role of Cuckoo’s Nest‘s charismatic, crazy-like-a-fox inmate R.P. McMurphy the moment he read Kesey’s 1962 novel.
Purchasing the rights from the mercurial merry prankster Kesey, Douglas hired writer Dale Wasserman to adapt the book for Broadway while he scrambled full-time to get Hollywood studios interested. After all, how could they not jump with Kirk Douglas attached? Looking back at his decade-long string of rejections, Douglas says, ”What can I say? They didn’t jump.
”The studios are not necessarily brilliant, and this was something new,” says Douglas. ”It dealt with something that might make some people uncomfortable. So I thought, I’ll do it first as a play.” The critics were less than kind to the production. It closed after six months. ”My agent was furious at me because I was passing up all the offers for movies,” the actor recalls. So Douglas returned to Hollywood hurt and confused: ”I said to my wife, ‘I gave them a classic and they don’t even know it.’ ”
By the end of the ’60s, Douglas had virtually given up on turning Cuckoo‘s Nest into a film, despite the fac