Friday, January 17, 2014

Terry Southern Talks William S. Burroughs, Easy Rider, Rip Torn, And The New Screenwriter

by Stephen J. Gertz


An extraordinary cache of manuscripts, signed autograph and typed letters, ephemera, and awards from the estate of novelist, essayist, satirist, and screenwriter Terry Southern (1924-1995) - whose dark, absurdist manner of satire influenced three generations of writers, readers, film directors and movie-goers - has come to market. 

Offered in individual lots by Royal Books in Baltimore, the archive highlights Southern's involvement with the Beats and the movies, starring William S. Burroughs, actor Rip Torn, and the film that changed Hollywood forever, Easy Rider, which Southern wrote.

An animated letter to Burroughs from 1969 is a joy. Within, Southern anticipates of a visit from Burroughs and  references his involvement with Scientology:

"Buzz along the rialto has it that a certain grand guy W.S. Burroughs may be jetting Appleward anon. I certainly hope so, and hasten to assure that your quarters are being maintained in a state of round-the-clock readiness--with the E-meter fully serviced, tuned to needle-point precision, and porno flicks dusted and ready to roll! Meanwhile, I trust this finds you in top form and fettle, grooving there in Old Smoke."

The letter goes on to speak extensively of NYC mayor Ed Koch's recent election win, focusing on what would appear to be a dense philosophical obsession Southern has with the politician.


A one-page typescript with corrections, c. 1975, provides a fascinating review of Southern's crafting of the screenplay for Easy Rider, focusing on how he actually wrote the part of George Hanson, played by Jack Nicholson, for wild man actor, Rip Torn, with a detailed explanation of why Torn did not get the role, which distills to Torn and Dennis Hopper (who directed the film) engaging in a bitter argument in a New York restaurant that ended when the volatile Torn pulled a knife on the uneasy Hopper.

"It was ironic, however, that Torn, who had paid such heavy dues for so long a time, should miss this particular custom-built boat, His extraordinary film, Coming Apart [in which Torn played a mentally disturbed psychologist who secretly films his sexual encounters with women], too far ahead of its time (and which certainly opened the door for Last Tango in Paris) never achieved the fruition it should have…"


More Rip Torn in a c. 1971 seven-page manuscript, executed in holograph pencil with numerous corrections. It's an unfinished and unpublished essay by Southern regarding his first encounter with Torn, which is more an encounter with the concept of Rip Torn than Rip Torn himself (though Torn would ultimately become one of Southern's closest friends and confidants). Torn's reputation for danger preceded him and from a producer's perspective casting him was a choice between genius performance or preserving life and limb:

"'Rip Torn would be perfect,…"

"The producer, a man not without certain twists of humor himself, smiled without looking up…

"'You don't hire Rip Torn,' he said. 'You hire a Rip Torn type…here, how about Bob Duvall?'"

The letter references Southern's involvement in the movie, The Cincinnati Kid during director Sam Peckinpah's brief tenure at the helm, Southern describes a meeting with the film's producer, the producer still reeling from Peckinpah's acrimonious departure (Norman Jewison would ultimately take the directorial reigns). The bulk of the essay details how Southern wrote a new scene in the midst of the change, introducing what would become Torn's character, Slade, a "gentleman" card shark.


Southern defines the modern screenwriter in a c. 1975, five-page composite holograph manuscript in typescript and paste-ups, titled The Feelgood Phenom. Complete and unpublished, it's a humorous philosophical essay on the idea of the "new screenwriter" (i.e. Southern), who is expected to be much more than a screenwriter; cultural "doctor" is his gig. It is, perhaps, not so much an ideal as an observation on the role Southern had defined for himself and subsequently filled.


Above, Southern's 1965 Writer's Guild of America Screen Writer's Annual Award  nomination for writing achievement for Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Though he only worked on the screenplay for a month, it was Southern, fueled by amphetamine, who transformed what was originally a serious drama into a wild dark satire. Kubrick brought Southern into the project after reading his zany comic novel, The Magic Christian, which actor Peter Sellers had given him to read. In 1969 Sellers would star in the novel's screen adaptation written by Southern with contributions by John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Peter Sellers, and Joseph McGrath. Southern's 1968 typescript final draft of the screenplay is also being offered.

Terry Southern and William S. Burroughs
Photo credit: Jack Wright III

Terry Southern spent 1948-1952 as an ex-pat in Paris, where he became closely associated with The Paris Review. He spent 1953-1956 in Greenwich Village in New York. He lived in Geneva 1956-1959 but spent much of 1956-57 back in Paris, where, with Mason Hoffenberg, he wrote the classic erotic satire, Candy, for Maurice Girodias. He helped convince Girodias to publish Burroughs' Naked Lunch. He returned to New York in 1959 and became part of George Plimpton's literary salon. Then Hollywood. In short, Southern was everyplace where things were happening in the post-WWII literary world, a rebel whose weapon of choice was satire, and it was his voice that fought against the absurdity of the the postmodern world with deeper absurdity, the only way it could possibly be observed without tears. To Southern, the world was crazy, it required a little crazy to appreciate it, and he was just the man to write about it.
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Books by Terry Southern:

• Flash and Filigree (1958)
• Candy (with Mason Hoffenberg) (1958)
• The Magic Christian (1959)
• Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes (1967)
• Blue Movie (1970)
• Texas Summer (1992)

Screenplays by Terry Southern:

• Dr. Strangelove (with Stanley Kubrick and Peter George) (1964; Academy Award nomination)
• The Loved One (with Christopher Isherwood) (1965)
• The Collector (with John Kohn and Stanley Mann; uncredited, 1965)
• The Cincinnati Kid (with Ring Lardner Jr., 1966)
• Casino Royale (with John Law, Wolf Mankowitz and Michael Sayers;
  uncredited, 1967)
• Barbarella (with Roger Vadim, Claude Brule, Vittorio Bonicelli, Clement Biddle Wood, Brian
  Degas and Tudor Gates, 1968)
• Easy Rider (with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, 1969; Academy Award nomination)
• The End of the Road (with Dennis McGuire and Aram Avakian, 1969)
• The Magic Christian (with Joseph McGrath, et al, 1969)
• The Telephone (with Harry Nilsson, 1988)
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Archive images courtesy of Royal Books, with our thanks.

Southern-Burroughs photo courtesy of Terry Southern dot com, where it accompanies Burroughs' comments on Southern's Blue Movie.
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Alec Baldwin tells a wildly funny story about Rip Torn in his his episode of Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
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