Robert Fulford's column about Terry Southern

(The National Post, May 30, 2000)

Terry Southern, a writer of funny books and funnier movies in the 1960s, was ironic before the whole world turned ironic. He was anti-Establishment in a time when the Establishment still existed. He was irreverent in the days when some people were still reverent. Reviewers applied the term "savage" to his satirical novels, like Candy and The Magic Christian, but that was before it became routine for comedy to be savage.

The spirit of the 1960s sang in every line Southern wrote. His anarchic, obscene literary comedy made him so famous that the Beatles included him among the culture heroes (Marlon Brando, James Dean, etc.) depicted on their Sgt. Pepper album jacket. Southern changed American taste, but in doing so he also made himself irrelevant. By the time he died in 1995, at the age of 71, he had been imitated so often that it was hard to remember when he had last seemed fresh.

Earlier this month in Chicago, I went to see the Prop Company, at the Steppenwolf Theatre, try to breathe life back into his once-glowing reputation. Prop mounted Now Dig This ... The Terry Southern Show, a montage of his material that it hopes to develop further in New York and San Francisco. It carries a tripartite byline that feels like an echo of the credit and copyright arguments that were part of Southern's legend -- "written by Charles Pike and Nile Southern, with additional story material by Gail Gerber." But the good writing is all Southern's, held together by a rather thin idea: As he's dying in a New York hospital, his old characters and images, and even Terry as boy, show up around his bed and play out some of his best stories.

Now Dig This ... may well have a future. This young company performed the material with considerable charm, in a way that felt faithful to Southern. He had a voice all his own, a voice you could recognize instantly, which became clearest when he fell out with Stanley Kubrick.

In the early 1960s, Kubrick asked Southern to apply his talent for black humour to a story about the world ending in nuclear holocaust because an insane U.S. Air Force general bombs Russia. The result was Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a 1964 hit. The people at Columbia Pictures, who were backing the film, insisted all along that there was nothing funny about the end of the world, but the public disagreed.

Kubrick, however, was unhappy when Southern's script attracted praise from reviewers. The film came out when Candy was a best-seller, so Southern's reputation briefly eclipsed Kubrick's. From England, Kubrick began announcing pompously that he, Stanley, was the true author of the film, Southern a marginal participant.

But Southern fans knew our guy's material when we heard it, and we heard it running right through that film. A typical Southern creation, Colonel "Bat" Guano (Keenan Wynn), thinks "pervert" is pronounced "prevert" and denounces an English RAF officer: "I think you're some kind of deviated prevert." When the RAF man enters a phone booth to make a call that may save the world, Col. Guano says: "If you try any preversion in there, I'll blow your head off." (For some months, "prevert" became part of the English language as I knew it.)

The film has the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (George C. Scott) arguing for a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia, insisting that American losses won't be all that bad: "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks." When humanity is about to be destroyed, the Scott character sulks: "I don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up."

Southern later wrote The Loved One, from the Evelyn Waugh novel, with an unlikely cast that included Milton Berle, John Gielgud and Liberace. On the set, Southern met the great love of his life, a Vancouver girl named Gail Gerber. She had danced with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal and then worked at the CBC in Toronto and toured with the topical revue Spring Thaw. I can remember hearing her called the most beautiful girl in Toronto.

When she went to Los Angeles to try her luck, she picked up a small part in The Loved One. It was said that Terry saw in her the embodiment of his sweet, innocent heroine, Candy, a modern female version of Voltaire's Candide. They were together till his death, and in Now Dig This ... she's a character who helps tell his story.

Southern wrote Easy Rider, a gigantic hit, but was persuaded to share script credit with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, the stars, who were also producer and director, respectively. The highlight of that film may be the best single piece of Southern's writing, a monologue about the presence among us of aliens from Venus. It's delivered over a campfire by Jack Nicholson as a small-town Southern lawyer, the part that made his reputation. Southern always felt that "vicious greed" kept him from getting the fees and credit due him for Easy Rider; his estate still contends that there's money owing.

In the 1970s, Southern's reputation slowly dissolved in a cloud of recriminations, failures and marijuana smoke. In his last years, he was usually short of cash and bothered by the income tax people; he was the sort of writer who can somehow incur a huge tax bill while running out of funds. For many years he lived in Connecticut and taught film once a week at Columbia University while Gail Gerber taught ballet to young people.

Nile Southern, the writer's son by an earlier marriage, has been trying to manage the estate's debts while sorting out the issues of copyright that his father handled so carelessly, dealing with (as Nile says) "horror-show legal documents now begging for attention." But his main task is rebuilding his father's reputation and making his work available again.

That won't be easy. Before Terry Southern can be a hero once more, it may be necessary to rediscover certain virtues now hidden deep within the whole discredited ethos of the 1960s.

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