15 Things You Might Not Know About One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which premiered on this day in 1975, won critical acclaim, box office success, and a shelf full of Oscars. But even if you love the complex exploration of life inside a 1960s psychiatric hospital, there are a few things you may not know about its behind-the-scenes story. 

1. CUSTOMS NEARLY DOOMED THE PROJECT. 

Despite the middling success of the 1963 stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel starring Kirk Douglas, Hollywood legend Douglas was dead set on adapting the story for the screen. Douglas contacted Czech director Miloš Forman about the project, promising to send Forman a copy of the book for his perusal. 

Douglas mailed Forman the novel, but the package was confiscated by Czechoslovakian customs and never reached the director. Unaware of the parcel’s fate, the filmmaker resented Douglas’s broken promise, and Douglas thought Forman rude for never bothering to confirm receipt of the novel. It took a decade to sort the mess out, and things only cleared up when Kirk’s son Michael Douglas took another crack at production and contacted Forman once more. 

2. ONE STUDIO WANTED TO CHANGE THE ENDING.

When producers were shopping the picture to studios, 20th Century Fox was interested, but with a catch. Fox would distribute the film, but only if the filmmakers would agree to rewrite the ending; the studio wanted McMurphy to live. Producers Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas wisely considered this a deal breaker, and United Artists eventually distributed the film.

3. JACK NICHOLSON AND LOUISE FLETCHER WERE NOT THE FIRST CHOICES FOR THEIR CHARACTERS. 


Warner Bros.

When Kirk Douglas spearheaded the first attempt to bring One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to life on the big screen in the 1960s, he had intended to play the Randle Patrick McMurphy role himself, just as he had on stage. When production began in earnest 10 years later, Douglas was too old for the part, leaving director Forman to consider and contact the likes of Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, and (his personal favorite) Burt Reynolds before finally settling on Jack Nicholson.

A number of different actresses were considered for the role of Nurse Ratched, the film’s central antagonist, as well: Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, and Angela Lansbury were all in the running, before Louise Fletcher ultimately got the part. 

4. LOUISE FLETCHER CHANGED FORMAN’S VIEW ON THE CHARACTER. 

Forman’s original view of Nurse Ratched was as “the personification of evil,” a characterization that made Louise Fletcher a bad fit for the part in the filmmaker’s mind. As Fletcher pressed for the role, Forman’s perspective of Ratched evolved: “I slowly started to realize that it would be much more powerful if it’s not this visible evil,” he said. “That she’s only an instrument of evil. She doesn’t know that she’s evil. She, as a matter of fact, believes that she’s helping people.” This new take on the character paved the way for the official casting of Fletcher. 

5. SEVERAL OF THE FILM’S STARS WERE NOT ACTORS. 

Following the production team’s decision to use Oregon State Hospital as its shooting location, the producers hit on the idea of casting facility superintendent Dr. Dean Brooks as Dr. John Spivey, the doctor charged with assessing R. P. McMurphy’s psychological health. Brooks agreed to play what turned out to be a sizable role, though it would be the only acting job he would ever take. He also helped secure employment for many of his hospital’s patients as extras and crew members during production. 

Mel Lambert, another non-actor, was wrangled to play the harbormaster who protested McMurphy’s ad hoc fishing trip. What’s more, Lambert—a respected area businessman who had a strong relationship with the local Native American community—introduced the production team to Will Sampson, the 6-foot-5-inch-tall Muscogee painter who would make his acting debut as the major character Chief Bromden. 

6. THE STARS LIVED ON THE WARD DURING PRODUCTION. 


Warner Bros.

All of the actors who played patients actually lived on the Oregon State Hospital psychiatric ward throughout production. The men personalized their sleeping quarters, spent their days on campus “get[ting] a sense of what it was to be hospitalized” (as actor Vincent Schiavelli put it), and interacting with real psychiatric patients. 

7. MANY SCENES WERE SHOT WITHOUT THE ACTORS’ KNOWLEDGE. 

To complete this realistic immersion, Forman led his performers in unscripted group therapy sessions in which he directed the actors to develop their characters’ psychological maladies organically. He would often capture footage of the actors, both in and out of character, without explicitly mentioning that the cameras were rolling. The film’s final cut includes a shot of a visibly irritated Fletcher reacting to a piece of direction fed to her by Forman. 

8. FORMAN AND NICHOLSON HAD A TREMENDOUS SPAT OVER THE FILM’S PLOT. 

While the intensity of the turmoil varies from rumor to rumor, reports from the set were consistent on one fact: The star refused to speak with Forman for a large chunk of the production process. Nicholson took issue with Forman’s suggestion that the hospital inmates would be an unruly bunch upon the initial arrival of McMurphy. Instead, the actor insisted that such disavowal of the medical staff’s authority should only begin after the introduction of McMurphy into their lives and routines. 

Although the version of the story that we see in the film today is more closely associated with Nicholson’s alleged reading, suggesting that Forman ultimately took his advice, Nicholson refused to interact with his director from that point forward. When the star and Forman needed to communicate with one another, they used cinematographer Bill Butler as a middleman. 

9. DANNY DEVITO CREATED AN IMAGINARY FRIEND DURING PRODUCTION. 


Warner Bros.

Emotionally strained by a demanding shooting schedule that kept him 3000 miles from his future wife, Rhea Perlman, DeVito developed the coping mechanism of an imaginary friend with whom he would have nightly chats. Concerned that his own sanity might be slipping away, DeVito sought the advice of Dr. Brooks, who assured him that there was no reason to worry as long as DeVito could still identify the character as fictional. 

10. THE CREW WAS WORRIED ABOUT THE SANITY OF ONE CAST MEMBER.

While Dr. Brooks had no concerns about DeVito, he echoed the rest of the cast and crew’s apprehensions about the psychological state of Sydney Lassick, who played Charlie Cheswick. Lassick exhibited increasingly unpredictable and emotionally erratic behavior during his time in character, a pattern that culminated in a tearful outburst during his observation of the final scene between Nicholson and Sampson. Lassick became so overwhelmed during the scene that he had to be removed from set. 

11. FLETCHER TOOK OFF HER CLOTHES IN ORDER TO GET FRIENDLIER WITH HER CO-STARS.

Envious of the camaraderie her male costars had forged, and hoping to dispel any associations with her tyrannical character, Fletcher surprised the cast one evening by ripping off her dress on the crowded ward. Years later, the actress laughed about the display, saying, “‘I’ll show them I’m a real woman under here, you know.’ I think that must have been what I was thinking.” 

12. THE FISHING TRIP SCENE BARELY MADE IT INTO THE FILM. 

Initially, Forman was vocally opposed to including a scene that took place beyond the grounds of the hospital out of concerns that a temporary liberation would undercut the dramatic force of the film’s ending. In the end, Zaentz convinced Forman to shoot the fishing trip sequence. It was the final scene filmed and the only piece shot out of chronological order. 

One thing to look for in the fishing scene: A very subtle Anjelica Huston cameo. Huston, who was dating Nicholson during production, has a nonspeaking role as one of the spectators on the dock as McMurphy and his fellow patients steer the stolen boat back to shore. 


Warner Bros.

13. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST WAS THE FIRST FILM TO WIN ALL “BIG FIVE” ACADEMY AWARDS IN 41 YEARS.

Not since 1934's It Happened One Night swept the Oscars had a film walked away with awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest took home the lot, with Nicholson and Fletcher winning the top acting awards. The feat would not be matched again for another 16 years, with Silence of the Lambs becoming the next (and last to date) movie to earn the distinction. 

14. THE FILM ENJOYED ONE OF THE LONGEST THEATRICAL RUNS IN MOVIE HISTORY. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was revered worldwide, but Swedish viewers developed an especially soft spot for the film. Cuckoo’s Nest remained a regular option for Swedish moviegoers through 1987—11 years after its initial release. 

15. KESEY REFUSED TO SEE THE FILM (BUT MAY HAVE BY ACCIDENT). 

The poster child for the “the book was better” movement, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Kesey disapproved of a big screen adaptation of his novel as soon as he found out that the filmmakers had abandoned the use of Chief Bromden as the story’s narrator. Kesey never intended to see the movie, but one story says he inadvertently caught a few moments during a bout of channel surfing one evening. Once Kesey realized what he was watching, he promptly changed stations.

According to fellow novelist Chuck Palahniuk (who has famously praised director David Fincher’s adaptation of his novel Fight Club, plot changes and all), Kesey once stated privately that he did not care for the material.

The 21 Best Movies of the 1970s

Robert De Niro stars in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976).
Robert De Niro stars in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

By the end of the 1960s, the battle between "Old Hollywood" (Technicolor musicals, historical epics, and old-fashioned acting) and "New Hollywood" (youth-oriented stories full of sex and violence, political volatility, and realistic performances) was over, and New Hollywood had won. Game-changing films like Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, and Easy Rider—all released between 1967 and 1969—had shifted the Hollywood tide while the French New Wave had inspired the kids in film school (itself a new concept in the '60s), and the 1970s proved a remarkably fertile time for the new batch of filmmakers that followed. Miraculously, studios gave these young directors a lot of creative freedom. The result? One of the best decades in all of movie history.

1. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A scene from 'A Clockwork Orange' (1971)
Warner Home Video

Stanley Kubrick was technically part of the older generation of moviemakers, but his groundbreaking films in the '60s (including Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey) had established him as part of the avant-garde. And yet A Clockwork Orange, his adaptation of Anthony Burgess's dystopian novel, still surprised and shocked people with its violence, sex, and social commentary. The image of a juvenile delinquent having his eyes propped open to force him to watch films meant to recondition him remains indelible.

2. The Last Picture Show (1971)

A still from 'The Last Picture Show' (1971)
The Criterion Collection

It was fitting that as Old Hollywood faded away, an up-and-coming filmmaker like Peter Bogdanovich would make something set in the past, shot in nostalgic black-and-white, that depicted a town where the old ways were dying. Roger Ebert observed that The Last Picture Show "is above all an evocation of mood," full of lovely melancholy as its young, restless characters in a moribund Texas town struggle with where to go and what to do next.

3. The French Connection (1971)

Gene Hackman, Eddie Egan, Sonny Grosso, and Bill Hickman in The French Connection (1971)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Gene Hackman, one of the most admired actors in Hollywood, was at the peak of his career in the 1970s: In addition to this cop thriller (for which he won an Oscar) and its sequel, he had I Never Sang for My Father, The Poseidon Adventure, The Conversation (which could also be on this list), Night Moves, Superman (he remains the quintessential Lex Luthor), and a hilarious turn as a blind man in Young Frankenstein. The French Connection cast him as a New York police detective chasing down drug smugglers, and director William Friedkin guided the film to a win for Best Picture of 1971.

4. and 5. The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Marlon Brando and Salvatore Corsitto in 'The Godfather' (1972)
Paramount Pictures

You knew these would be on the list. It has become cliché to cite Francis Ford Coppola's monumentally popular and lavishly praised mafia epics as the best the '70s had to offer, but only the most stubborn of contrarians would deny the truth of it. With blockbuster performances by an impressive array of stars present and future—including Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and James Caan—and an epic story spanning several decades, Coppola created a saga that has inspired countless filmmakers (and gangsters).

6. Serpico (1973)

Al Pacino in Serpico (1973)
Warner Home Video

Al Pacino is another actor whose heyday was the '70s; besides the Godfathers, we could mention The Panic in Needle Park, Scarecrow, and Dog Day Afternoon. He was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Frank Serpico, a real-life New York cop who exposed corruption within the police force, while director Sidney Lumet—who was always interested in social issues, as seen in movies like 12 Angry Men, Network, and The Verdict—brought the full force of his righteous indignation to the edge-of-your-seat story.

7. The Exorcist (1973)


Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

After he scored with The French Connection, William Friedkin cemented his place in movie history with this colossally popular and monumentally frightening horror film about a girl with a demon inside her. It inspired fainting and vomiting; it made people think they were possessed; it became the first horror film nominated for Best Picture; it made Ellen Burstyn a star. And it's still one of the most terrifying possession stories ever told.

8. Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson stars in 'Chinatown' (1974)
Paramount Home Entertainment

If you can separate the art from the artist (in this case, director Roman Polanski), Chinatown is just about the closest thing we have to a flawless movie, with a screenplay by Robert Towne that's taught in screenwriting classes. Reviving the dormant detective noir genre, Polanski gave Jack Nicholson a chance to shine as a nosy Los Angeles P.I. snooping around a land deal with sinister implications. Faye Dunaway is unforgettable in her shocking role, and the last line—"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown"—is an all-time classic.

9. Blazing Saddles (1974)

Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles (1974)
Warner Home Video

Mel Brooks released two classic comedies in 1974, but this writer's subjective opinion is that Blazing Saddles is funnier than Young Frankenstein. Co-written with Richard Pryor (who would have starred in it, too, except that Warner Bros. found him too unreliable), this Western spoof is often like a Looney Tunes short come to life—with the added bonus of mocking racists with gleeful abandon. Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, and Madeline Kahn give hilarious performances.

10. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

A still from 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' (1974).
New Line Cinema

This low-budget horror flick, basically the godfather of the "teens go somewhere remote and get murdered" genre, isn't nearly as bloody as its reputation suggests. That's partly a testament to director Tobe Hooper's ability to suggest ghastliness without actually showing it, and partly due to the fact that most of the film's many imitators are drenched in gore. More than 45 years later, the film's raw, nightmarish final 30 minutes are still horrifically effective.

11. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
© 1975. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Like Mel Brooks, the Monty Python gang employed many types of comedy in telling their medieval story: slapstick, wordplay, satire, meta-references, and a killer rabbit. Perfectly capturing the anarchic, freewheeling, peripatetic spirit of the group's sketch comedy TV series, Monty Python and the Holy Grail often feels like a series of skits—but who cares when the skits are all so brilliant?

12. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

A still from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' (1975)
Warner Bros.

The 1970s were a fantastic decade for Jack Nicholson, who appeared in 15 movies including Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, the aforementioned Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—and those are just the ones that earned him Oscar nominations. He won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in which he plays a non-insane man in an insane asylum who questions authority and tries to break people out of complacency, themes that still resonate today.

13. Jaws (1975)

Susan Backlinie in 'Jaws' (1975)
MCA/Universal Home Video

Jaws invented the "summer blockbuster" as we know it (that season was previously considered a dead zone), rocketed Steven Spielberg to the A-list of young directors, and made millions of ordinary people sharkphobic. Jaws also happens to be an expertly made dramatic thriller, with superb editing by Verna Fields (whom Spielberg credited with saving the picture) and an instantly iconic musical score by John Williams.

14. Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver' (1976)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

New York City was a violent cesspool in the '70s, and nobody captured it better than Martin Scorsese did in this jarring drama—it's almost a horror film—about an unstable cabbie (Robert De Niro) who longs to clean up the sleazy streets. Long before "toxic masculinity" was a common phrase, Travis Bickle was taking women to porno movies on first dates and personifying the violent ends to which some men will go to get what they want.

15. Rocky (1976)

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky (1976)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Watching the many, many sequels, it's easy to forget that the original Rocky was more character drama than boxing movie, focused on a working-class schlub who just wants to go the distance, win or lose. Sylvester Stallone's down-to-earth screenplay and natural performance were enhanced by the journeyman sensibilities of director John G. Avildsen, who later brought the same rousing spirit to The Karate Kid.

16. All the President's Men (1976)

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in 'All the President's Men' (1976)
Warner Home Video

After the national trauma of Watergate and the disgrace of Richard Nixon's resignation, Americans needed a film to sort it all out for them. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, both already big stars, played household-name Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in a steady, methodical film directed by To Kill a Mockingbird producer Alan J. Pakula. With moral clarity and a thrilling story, All the President's Men stands as the best and most important political film of the decade.

17. Network (1976)

Peter Finch stars in 'Network' (1976)
Warner Home Video

Just as trenchant in this bicentennial year as All the President's Men, Network (directed by Serpico's Sidney Lumet) satirized that most American of inventions: the television industry. Nearly every outrageous thing that happens in this depiction of a fictional broadcast network run by ruthless executives has since happened in real life, making the film even more potent now than it was then. And the performances by Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Peter Finch are terrific fun.

18. Star Wars (1977)

Mark Hamill stars in 'Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope' (1977)
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

George Lucas's space fantasy, a sort of interstellar Western, elevated old good guys vs. bad guys tropes to the level of high (and highly successful) art. The effects of the Star Wars franchise on Hollywood and the world need not be recited here. What's notable is that even if there had never been a sequel, spinoff, or toy tie-in, the original Star Wars would still stand as, well, an original.

19. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (1979)
Paramount Home Entertainment

In the annals of movies whose behind-the-scenes stories were as troubled and disastrous as the stories they depicted, few rank higher than Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. But the result of a year of filming plagued by weather, sickness, and Marlon Brando's unpreparedness was a movie that has only risen in people's estimation since then, vividly depicting the insanity of the Vietnam War through the eyes of a rattled Martin Sheen as he searches for a rogue Army Special Forces officer.

20. Alien (1979)

Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, and Yaphet Kotto in Alien (1979)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Alien could be on any list of important movies for its famous advertising tagline alone: "In space no one can hear you scream." Directed by Ridley Scott from a long-in-development screenplay by Dan O'Bannon, this sci-fi thriller about a killer E.T. in a spaceship is a masterpiece of tension and horror and chest-bursting. Look how many other films on this list influenced it: O'Bannon pitched it as "Jaws in space"; Scott called it "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre of science fiction"; and 20th Century Fox only gave it a greenlight because Star Wars had suddenly made outer space cool again. Whatever it took to get it going, the result was worth it.

21. Being There (1979)

Shirley MacLaine and Peter Sellers in Being There (1979)
Warner Home Video

A TV-obsessed simpleton stumbling his way into the higher echelons of political power sounds totally implausible ... but that's the premise of this genteel but sharp comedy directed by Hal Ashby, whose other films from this decade—Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, and Coming Home—could all be on this list. Peter Sellers's lead performance, just like the movie, perfectly walks the line between the absurd and the sublime.

Disney+ Users Are Already Facing Technical Problems

Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian (2019).
Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian (2019).
© 2019 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved

It seems that the highly anticipated Disney+ release did not go as smoothly as the company had hoped. Variety reports that the streaming service launched this morning, only to find its IT department being flooded with phone calls, tweets, and emails from angry users complaining of malfunctions.

Many customers took to social media to vent their frustration that they either couldn’t login into their account or couldn’t watch certain content.

The service did offer an explanation for all the technical issues via Twitter, posting, “The consumer demand for Disney+ has exceeded our high expectations. We are working to quickly resolve the current user issue. We appreciate your patience.”

Too bad a little Disney magic couldn’t help them with these tech glitches.

[h/t Variety]

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