Earlier today I was watching one of the funniest – and scariest – movies ever made, Dr. Strangelove, directed by Stanley Kubrick and co-written with Terry Southern. (Though who wrote what is controversial, Southern is supposedly responsible for the classic line: “Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”)
Then I found out that today – May 1 – is Southern’s birthday, and I figured a quick homage was due.
Southern lived in Greenwich Village in the mid-’50s, where he worked at ad agencies and, unsuccessfully for the most part, wrote short stories and hung around with folks like Alexander Trochi, Larry Rivers and Jack Kerouac. His first big splash was the ground-breaking sexploitation romp Candy, followed by The Magic Christian. Both novels got mixed reviews but became cult classics.
He got a gig writing for Esquire, and his first article for them, “Twirling at Ole Miss” is considered as one of the cornerstones of New Journalism. Esquire sent him to England to do a feature on Stanley Kubrick, which was never published (you can read it here), but Kubrick was taken with Southern and the two collaborated on Dr. Strangelove.
Strangelove was a huge hit and Southern found himself in demand as a screenwriter, and he wrote some of the most ’60s of ’60s films, including Barbarella, Casino Royale, Easy Rider, ad-libs for his pal Peter Seller in The Pink Panther, and adaptations for The Magic Christian and Candy. Candy is one bizarre flick, with a star-studded cast including Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Walter Matthau, Ringo Starr, Charles Aznavour, James Coburn, John Huston and the 19-year-old Swedish actress, Miss Teen International 1966, Ewa Aulin as Candy. Ewe’s next role was in an ever weirder movie, Miscoscopic Liquid Subway To Oblivion, followed by a storied career in Italian sex comedies. Candy is required, if somewhat painful, viewing. Miscoscopic Liquid Subway To Oblivion I’m not so sure about – you be the judge!
While in London to work on Casino Royale, he hung out at his friend Robert Fraser’s gallery, and became pals with the Beatles, the Stones, photographer Michael Cooper and others of that set, and ended up on the cover of Sgt. Pepper (designed by Cooper).
In 1968, Southern was sent by Esquire to cover the Democratic Convention in Chicago – you know, the one with all the riots, the Chicago 7, etc. – along with his “hard-hitting little press team – Jean Jack Genet, Willy Bill Burroughs, and yours truly…” They ran into Ginsberg, who was teaching the protesters how to say “Om” to ward off the police. When the police attacked, they escaped to Ginsberg’s hotel room. “Genet was absolutely appalled … Burroughs, of course, was ecstatic.”
Around the same time, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper brought Terry on board to help “write” the screenplay for Easy Rider, though they probably spent most of their time in dark rooms listening to hippie music and doing massive amounts of blow. The “script” is mostly ad-libbed, though Terry did come up with the awesome title. He also brought in his friend Rip Torn to play the part of George Hanson, the southern lawyer, but Torn and Hopper almost came to blows (Hopper later claimed Torn pulled a knife on him, and got sued for libel) and instead the part went to journeyman no-name actor Jack Nicholson, and it made his career.
By the ’70s, years of alcohol, Dexamyl abuse and harassment by the IRS (probably instigated by the FBI, who put him under surveillance starting in 1965) took its toll and Terry’s output diminished considerably. He spent an ignominous year writing for Saturday Night Live during the low point for that show, in 1981; despite fitting in reefer-and-cocaine wise, Southern’s humor was thought to be dated by the show’s producers and little of his material ever made it to the screen. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1989 and shuffled off this mortal coil in 1995.
To learn more about this fascinating character, check out this 1996 interview with Terry.
Happy birthday Mr. Southern, wherever you are.