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Back to the Nest

As One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, returns to Broadway, playwright Dale Wasserman details the "fiasco" of the original production and his disappointment with the film version.

By New York City
Amy Morton, Gary Sinise, and (background)Ron O.J. Parson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest(Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Amy Morton, Gary Sinise, and (background)
Ron O.J. Parson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
(Photo: Tristram Kenton)
More than a decade before One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest swept the top five Oscar categories, including a statuette for producer Michael Douglas, it was a Broadway play by Dale Wasserman starring Kirk Douglas--a "fiasco" of a production, to use Wasserman's word, "perhaps the worst experience of my professional life." Luckily, that 1963 staging was forgotten by the time William Devane played Randle P. McMurphy in 1971 in an Off-Broadway revival that ran for four years. By then, Wasserman was better known as the Tony Award-winning book writer of Man of La Mancha, and the two shows have given him a comfortable life. Yet he can't help feeling a bit miffed that the movie's glory overshadowed the fact that it was a play, based on the novel by Ken Kesey, long before Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher filled the roles of McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. That imbalance may change, however, now that Gary Sinise is in previews at Broadway's Royale Theater in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's acclaimed production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, directed by Terry Kinney.

The reclusive Wasserman recently made himself available for interviews from his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona. He has lived a colorful 80-plus years (he declines to reveal his age, but wrote an article for American Heritage magazine about his years as a train-hopping hobo in the 1930s, beginning when he was orphaned at age 14). With no formal education, Wasserman managed to become a successful lighting designer and director of theater and dance, then moved into writing just as television drama became prominent in the 1950s. Today, he continues to write for the theater and doesn't mince words about his career--to a point. After vigorously expressing to this writer his low opinion of La Mancha composer Mitch Leigh, Wasserman called the next morning to ask that his comments be stricken from the interview, citing Leigh's wealth and army of lawyers. Suffice it to say that the two former colleagues should not be seated next to each other at a dinner party.

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Dale Wasserman
Dale Wasserman
THEATERMANIA: Are you pleased with this production of Cuckoo's Nest?

DALE WASSERMAN: I'm very happy with it. I saw it in Chicago and conferred with Gary and Terry, and we were nicely harmonized on things. What I love about Gary is that his work is perfectly in proportion, maybe because of the nature of Steppenwolf as an actors' ensemble. He doesn't do a big act like Jack Nicholson. His performance is modulated, and that's the way I love to see it.

TM: Did you feel that Jack Nicholson altered the focus of the story when he played McMurphy?

DW: Totally. Jack Nicholson is great at doing his Jack Nicholson act, but he's not remotely the character. There is a fundamental difference between the play and the movie. The play explores seeing the world in symbols through the mind of a schizophrenic, the Indian character. To me, that was the heart of the piece; that's why I wanted to do it when I read the novel. I wanted to incorporate that frightening view of the world as seen through a supposedly insane mind. The play is faithful to the novel, and this production uses a lot of stagecraft to explore that world. None of that was in the movie. The movie was just a good nuthouse story.

TM: The origins of the play in the early 1960s seem to have been forgotten.

DW: Kirk Douglas and I applied for the rights at the same time. He phoned me and said, "I can outbid you on this, so why don't we get together and you write it?" Then he got deeply concerned about appearing before a living, breathing audience. So he warped and changed the script and brought in some of his Hollywood writers until it wasn't my play anymore. I had the terrible experience of getting reviews that slammed the bejesus of out me personally as well as professionally, and I couldn't open my mouth because, if you complain, they accuse you of being a sore loser. So I went away from New York to heal my wounds and began writing another play that became Man of La Mancha.

TM: How did Cuckoo's Nest become a popular success?

DW: After the Broadway fiasco, I restored the script so that it was my play, and in 1967 and 1968 the youth revolt began around the country. Then, the play was perfectly timed. It opened in San Francisco and ran five years, reopened in New York and ran four years, and then opened all over the world. Kirk tried to get it on as a movie starring himself and nobody would have it, so he turned it over to Michael, who is just as nice a guy as Kirk is not. Michael was the right generation for it--he understood it in the context of the times. Kirk saw it as a star vehicle.

TM: Why didn't you write the movie script, which won an Oscar for Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben?

DW: It was part of my contract to write the movie, but I declined because it was obvious that the screenplay was not going to incorporate what I considered the most powerful part of the novel and the play.

The poster for the film version ofOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The poster for the film version of
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
TM: Does it bother you that many people don't realize that the play preceded the film?

DW: Yeah, frankly it does, because the screenwriters didn't follow the novel; they followed the structure of my play, but they left out all that wonderful detail about the surrealist world. It does bother me, but what can one do about it? This present production may do something to counteract that.

TM: Will you be at the opening night performance?

DW: I have never attended an opening of my own plays. They're too nerve-wracking. I'm afraid I'm an eccentric.

TM: Will you come to the Tonys if Cuckoo's Nest is nominated for Best Revival?

DW: I doubt it. I didn't come for my last Tony. I'm looking at it right now. I've never attended an awards ceremony with the exception of my honorary doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. That amused me, because I'm a mug with no education.

TM: How many times have you seen Man of La Mancha?

DW: More times than I've wished. Sometimes I get roped into it, but I really don't want to see it. There could be an exception, as there is with this Cuckoo's Nest. There could be a production so tasteful and so thoughtful that it would do exactly what I had in mind, but I've not seen that since the original, so I prefer not to go.

TM: Was Richard Kiley's performance definitive for you?

DW: I have seen better individual performances than Kiley's. I saw a production in Germany with a man who was certainly a better actor than Kiley. But the original ensemble was so balanced and every part was so strong.

TM: Did you see the 1992 Broadway revival with Raul Julia and Sheena Easton, produced by Mitch Leigh?

DW: Oh, I hated that!

TM: And yet it must feel wonderful that these two pieces remain so popular.

DW: I'm probably one of the few playwrights who lives on royalties alone. Frankly, mine are very, very handsome. Man of La Mancha alone does nearly 400 productions a year, and Cuckoo's Nest averages close to 150 a year. My income is such that the IRS has a special love for me.

TM: Your success gives you the freedom to follow your interests?

DW: Absolutely. Isn't that wonderful? It's also a little frightening. If you were suddenly gifted with that situation and told, "You may do anything you wish; you're financially secure," wouldn't that scare you a little? I've done all my traveling. I stay put and watch the quail and the rabbits run around on my lawn, and spend a good part of each day at the typewriter or the computer.

Gary Sinise as Randle P. McMurphyin One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Gary Sinise as Randle P. McMurphy
in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
TM: What are you working on now?

DW: I'm writing four new shows. The problem is not writing them; my problem comes with the marketing and production. I am not terribly effective at that because my heart isn't in it. I have an attorney in New York who guards my interests, but I don't have an agent, so the placing and wet-nursing of plays is something I just don't do well.

TM: What about An Enchanted Land, the play that was produced in London in 1997?

DW: That's a marvelous play, but it's very difficult for America because it's about Haiti. Black people in America are concerned with showing their wounds and voicing their hurt over civil rights, and this is about another black culture that is totally French. No matter how low and desperate the people of Haiti may be, they defeated the French armies and won their independence, and they look down on American blacks as inferior. I wrote the play out of experience because I spent a lot of time in Haiti when I was the director of the Katherine Dunham dance company, which was headquartered there. The play was under option to Woodie King and Lloyd Richards, but they couldn't raise the financing.

TM: Do you keep up with the work of younger playwrights?

DW: I do, but there are very few in which I have a special interest. It's all I can do to look into myself honestly and try to express something in good form. You know, it's a major problem if you're totally self-taught. It brings great uncertainty as to how good or bad your work is, and where to get an honest judgment of it. I have that problem because I literally have no formal education. As I wrote in my article for American Heritage, I had this technique [when I was a teen hobo riding freight trains] of stealing two books at a time from small-town libraries, returning them somewhere down the line, and swiping two more. I crippled the whole Dewey Decimal system!


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