Merry Prankster and author, Ken Kesey, experienced immediate success when his iconic novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published in 1962. While the film rights to Cuckoo’s Nest were purchased before the novel was even published, it would take over a decade for Hollywood to finally adapt the postmodern classic into a film. With a kooky cast, a Czech director, and a real-life mental health hospital, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest went on to make history and bring to life Kesey’s adored novel.
1. Ken Kesey Hated the Movie
Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was very unhappy about how his classic novel was being translated into film. He said the producers were “butchering” his work, and vowed to never view the completed movie because the film did not tell the story from the perspective of Chief Bromden. Many years after the fact, Kesey said he was channel surfing and came across the movie, not knowing what he was watching. After a few minutes, he figured out what the movie was and turned it off.
2. Cuckoo’s Nest was Filmed at Oregon State Hospital
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, the film was shot on location at the Oregon State Hospital Historic District in Salem, Oregon. When the hospital was originally built in 1883, it was called the Oregon State Insane Asylum. To add an extra element of authenticity to the film, director Milos Forman used extras that were actual mental patients. In fact, when filming a scene on the second floor of the hospital, a patient fell through a window and injured himself.
3. Louise Fletcher Can’t Watch the Film
After repeatedly auditioning for the director over a six month period, Louise Fletcher was signed to play the role of Nurse Ratched a week before filming began. Fletcher won an Academy Award for her work in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ but said of her performance in a 2012 interview, “I find it too painful. It comes with age. I can’t watch movies that are inhumane.” She exuded a quiet evil in the role that was far more sinister and effective than if she overtly overplayed it.
4. Brando Almost Stole Nicholson’s Role
Jack Nicholson played R.P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher took on the role of Nurse Ratched, and both won Oscars for their remarkable performances. However, other actors were considered for both roles. Gene Hackman, Steve McQueen, James Caan, and Marlon Brando turned down the role of McMurphy. Anne Bancroft, Audrey Hepburn, Geraldine Page, Colleen Dewhurst, Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway, and Angela Lansbury were offered the role of Nurse Ratched but each actress turned it down.
5. Forman and Nicholson Didn’t Speak During Filming
During pre-production, the director and the star had a falling out over McMurphy’s motivation. The argument caused a rift between Milos Forman and Jack Nicholson, and the two refused to speak to each other while filming the movie. Instead, the men used the film’s cinematographer as their messenger when they needed to communicate anything to one another. Later, Nicholson’s angst over the situation had not diminished, and he refused to participate in any of the DVD commentary.
6. Hospital Sweet Hospital
Not only was the film shot at the Oregon State Hospital, Milos Forman lived on location for four weeks before production began. Additionally, the cast stayed at the hospital while filming Cuckoo’s Nest and each actor went so far as to individualize their sleeping quarters, and to regularly interact with the extras, who were actual hospital patients. Furthermore, the hospital’s superintendent, Dr. Dean Brooks, played the role of psychiatrist Dr. John Spivey in the movie.
7. Discovering Will Sampson
When casting the role of Chief Bromden, the lack of enormous Native American men in Hollywood made it challenging for prospects to fill the part. Luckily, Will Sampson was discovered when he was employed as a forest fire ranger in Yakima, Washington. Michael Douglas, Saul Zaentz, Milos Forman, and Jack Nicholson were taking a trip to Salem, Oregon to see if Dr. Dean Brooks could play the role of Dr. John Spivey and while in the Portland airport, they saw Sampson exiting a flight in cowboy boots and hat. Nicholson immediately wanted to cast him.
8. Oscar Sweep
In 1934, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night won the Academy Award in the five major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay (adapted). It took 41 years for the feat to be repeated, when Cuckoo’s Nest took home all five Oscars in 1975: Producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz for Best Movie, Milos Forman for Best Director, Jack Nicholson for Best Actor, Louise Fletcher for Best Actress, and Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman for Best Adapted Screenplay. The only film to accomplish the same thing since Cuckoo’s Nest was The Silence of the Lambs in 1991.
9. Rough Seas Ahead
The famous fishing scene was shot on Depoe Bay, Oregon, the smallest harbor in the world. Actually, it took a full week to shoot the fishing scene. To exacerbate the situation, all the actors except for Jack Nicholson got horribly seasick. To this day, Danny Devito still gets nauseous when he thinks about his days at sea. As a matter of fact, the director didn’t want to include the fishing scene in the movie because he wanted the entire film to take place in the hospital ward.
10. Some Scenes Were Shot Without the Actors’ Knowledge
The director wanted the film to seem as realistic and candid as possible, so he would sometimes lead the cast through group therapy sessions without a script. The actors thought this was just an exercise to help them develop their characters’ psychological conditions and motivations, but they were actually being filmed. Some of this improvised footage made it into the final cut.
11. A Douglas Family Tradition
Prior to the novel being published, Kirk Douglas bought the film rights to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He fell in love with the book when he read it as a galley in 1961. Douglas went on to star in the Broadway production of the book in 1963. Every major studio turned Douglas down when he was shopping Cuckoo’s Nest around. Later, Kirk gave the film rights to his son, Michael Douglas, but opted to retain a portion of the profits if the movie were to ever come to fruition.
12. One Studio Wanted McMurphy to Live
When the producers were shopping the film to various studios, 20th Century Fox expressed interest in distributing it. However, they had one stipulation. They wanted to change the ending so that Jack Nicholson’s character, Randle Patrick McMurphy, wouldn’t die in the end. The producers steadfastly refused to compromise the integrity of the story, and ultimately United Artists got the distribution deal.
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