Terry Southern

The Dexed Tex speaks!

He knew and worked with many of the most significant artists, culture-makers--and jammers--of the 20th Century. He hung with Lenny Bruce in the 1960s as easily as with Keith Richards in the early '90s. At age 64, he partied with CEO Harry Nilsson who was famous for his binges with John Lennon. Here are some of Terry's recollections, observations and first-hand accounts, through the years...

People Ideas Projects
Stanley Kubrick Hollywood Easy Rider
Keith Richards Big American Publishers Dr. Strangelove
Peter Sellers Screenwriting Clockwork Orange
Dennis Hopper & Peter Fonda Sex & cinema Flash & Filigree
Anita Pallenberg Sharing writing credit Blue Movie
Nixon Europe Eyes Wide Shut?
John Calley Improvisation Dr. Strangelove (story)
Larry Flynt (story) Getting screwed on Easy Rider  
  John Birch Society  


On Keith Richards:

"Keith Richards reminded me of Charlie Parker because of the combination of humility and arrogance--Keith had humility and at the same time the kind of arrogance that comes with some inherent awareness of the mastery of your craft--and because of the impression I've gotten over the years of his gigantic, gargantuan tastes. An example was when we stopped by his apartment in New York after the 1978 concert. I was on the tour writing about it. Gail [Terry's longtime companion] mistook Lilly from behind for Anita. Which is indicative of something. He's always been attracted to the same sort of woman. We're sitting in this alcove which is like the breakfast nook. The great thing was that he was already so whacked out and I had brought him some 'ludes as a kind of present. I got them with the notion he would take them at his leisure, you see. So we're drinking Jack Daniel's and I said, 'Look, I got these for you, you know, be cool.' I didn't want people to see this as a dope deal. I handed them to him thinking he's going to stash them, but he just went bop!, taking six 'ludes, see, meanwhile drinking out of the bottle of Jack Daniel's. It was like something out of a movie. We're talking another ninety seconds and he gradually falls right there but meanwhile we're still having a relationship, a conversation, even though he's out of it. I mean he was out. So when it came time for us to leave I was reluctant. I said, 'I can't leave him right away because I may have to walk him around if he starts turning blue."

On Anita Pallenberg

"The relationship between Keith and Anita is very complex. Keith is up front in a very natural way, whereas Anita is more complicated. She has a mischievous deviousness which always reminded me of that scene in The Third Man where Joseph Cotten asks the girl, 'What is it, comedy or drama?' and she says, 'Comedy, I never play drama.' That's exactly what Anita would say. That's her idea of a very attractive way to be. She's hip enough to remember that it's corny to tell you her problems. But Keith is not into that. He's Mister Pure Guy. He's not into deception or complexity. Even his music is very straightforward."-- From Victor Bockris' biography Keith Richards; 1995; Da Capo/ Perseus Books Group

On Clockwork Orange:

"Michael turned me onto A Clockwork Orange and so I took an option on the book and was going to write a screenplay. Then David Hemmings came out with BLOW UP and the agency said "We'll package this thing with David Hemmings because he's hot." Michael just freaked out and said "Mick Jagger has got to play this part" He drew up a letter edged in black which said: "We the undersigned hereby insist that Mick Jagger play the part." It was signed by all the Beatles, Marianne Faithfull and Robert Fraser [and addressed to Southern].

I wrote the script and sent it to Stanley Kubrick, who promptly has some kind of reaction against it and rejected it. So we started putting it together independently of Stanley but what we didn't realize was that we'd have to get the script cleared by the Lord Chamberlain, This was normally a routine matter, but with violence on the streets between Mods and Rockers, we were at a dicey point in English social history and the British Board of Film Censors refused to clear the script on the basis of its violence and bad language.

I dropped the option, and, unbeknown to me, Si Litvanoff picked it up. Then I got a call from Stanley asking me what had happened to the script. It transpired that he had been putting up the money for Litvanoff to continue the option--$500 for a six-month option against a purchase price of $5,000. I asked my agent to find out who owned the rights but stressed that on no account must she mention that Litvanoff and Kubrick were interested in it. However, she couldn't really resist the temptation to blab and so when the owners found out who was interested they raised the purchase price from $5,000 to $150,000. It was a terrible mistake to tell her and it probably destroyed my relationship with Stanley.--From 'Blinds and Shutters'; a limited edition book on Michael Cooper (photographer and designer of the Sgt. Pepper's album). Interview by Perry Richardson; c. 1990.Southern, 1965


On big American publishers:

I think my book [Flash & Filigree] was first published in England rather than America because I think most American publishers' tastes are on the level of the comic-strip. They've become just ordinary businessmen. They don't have time to read; they're too busy hustling. Consequently they never develop any personal tastes. The way they work, they examine a manuscript for a while and then they may say "Oh yes, this is like Look Homeward Angel, and they they look up the sales record of Look Homeward Angel, and if that's all right they'll take it. But if the manuscript happens to be just a bit original, you can save yourself the postage...unless it's five or six hundred pages, of course, then they're rather apt to take it, anything; they got that idea from big cars--you know, "What's good for General Motors...By Cracky!"

They're the first real automatons trained quite simply to spot imitations of previous imitations. But then you take a situation like in England where there's a kind of nobless oblige to be reasonably intelligent--well, then you may get a few people who, however outlandish otherwise, do have highly developed individual tastes, and so there's a chance then that a manuscript will appeal directly to them, and moreover, a chance they'll have enough security and self-respect to respond properly when it does. Would I say American publishing is behind the times? Behind the eight-ball is what I'd say. Yes, in books and cars, we're terribly behind; we're still on a 'big and hollow' kick."

On living in Europe:

"I believe I live abroad because I'm looking for isolation...The kind I mean that comes with an immunity to overhearing cliches, because a language you didn't hear as a child never necessarily intrudes the way it would at home, in the subway, or the drugstore. A phrase that you catch over here by chance, just because you haven't heard it for the ten millionth time, is apt to seem fresh and interesting.--From Elaine Dundy's Interview in Harper's Bazaar, 1958


On Strangelove:

Paul Krassner: "Nelson Algren says that The Magic Christian, Candy and Dr. Strangelove are each aspects of the same novel. How would you say they're related?

TS: "They might well be part of the same, but they are not all mine, because the basic conception of treating the bomb as "absurd" was Kubrick's. I think what you'll find they all have in common is that they blast smugness--and where you find smugness, there is sure to be something worth blasting. "Smugness" probably sounds like an oversimplification of "Strangelove", but I think that's what it finally comes down to...smugness over a foolproof system which may not be."

On sex & cinema:

Paul Krassner: "You're against censorship, right--well, would you be for public screenings of outright pornographic films?"

TS: "Of course. That would be the only way to improve their quality. After the novelty wore off, people wouldn't support them unless they were really good--and then you wouldn't call them pornographic. It's the clandestine nature of the thing that causes those films to be so lousy and yet so expensive. It's analogous to prostitution.

"In London, for example, you can get laid for thirty shillings--what's that, about four bucks? Well, I mean you wonder how is it possible to see a strange, interesting-looking chick, know you can make it with her for thirty shillings and then just walk by? Christ, you'd think a guy with money would simply lay one chick after another right straight through the day. Right? Well, not a bit of it, old chap! The reason is they're used to it by now. And I'm sure that soon happens with anything that isn't forced underground...dirty movies, dope, anything. You'll notice, by the way, it takes more than a scattering of "fuck, piss, shits" these days to make a best-selling novel. That's old hat now, and almost no one will lay out for old hat.

"I do think, however, there is an interesting consideration as to how erotic a film can be. I'm actually working on a novel now, called Blue Movie, about a very strong film-maker--a Bergman-Fellini-Kubrick type --who sets out to solve this problem, namely: "At what point does the aesthetically-erotic, extended indefinitely, become offensive?" Offensive, not to the audience, you understand, but to this filmmaker himself. Interesting stuff."

On the John Birch Society (precursor to Newt's gang)

Paul Krassner: Recently I went to a meeting of the John Birch Society...And this guy...said... "Yeah, I don't know who wrote [Dr. Strangelove] but I think he's one of us." Now, what are your feelings about a reaction like that?

TS: ...I don't think their opinions are relevant. I suspect that you see dynamic forces where, in my opinion, there are none. I see no dynamic forces in our society. The strongest force is psychiatry, and that has undone the others. I heard, incidentally, and on fairly good authority, that the Birchers were all syphed-up--they're all elderly, you know, that's when the syph hits the brain. So it's like a club. Under the guise of political action, it's a brain-syph club.

Paul Krassner: Were there any repercussions to your interview with the C.I.A. trainee a while back in Esquire?

TS: No, Esquire is stronger than the C.I.A. The C.I.A. only hits underdogs. They're a joke--a terrible sick joke.-- From Paul Krassner's 'Impolite Interview with Terry Southern, The Realist, May 1964


On the 'origins' of Eyes Wide Shut:

"Somebody came by [the Dr. Strangelove set] one day with some porn footage. So we looked at it, and Stanley said, 'Wouldn't it be interesting if one day someone who was an artist would do that--using really beautiful actors and good equipment.' That was the genesis of Blue Movie."


On John 'Black Jack' Calley:

"There actually was a tremendous amount of interest in doing Blue Movie. Ringo Starr had the option for a couple of years. And John Calley, who was a very hip producer at MGM--he produced The Loved One, and he became the president of Warner Bros. for a brief time [and now heads up Sony Pictures!--Eds. note]--was in this very heavy decision-making position, and said, "Well, now it's time to do Blue Movie.

"He was convinced that the first studio to come our with a quality, full-length film showing erection and penetration, using stars, would go over the top. 'It'll be like Gone With the Wind.' he kept saying, super-enthusiastic about it. So he got Mike Nichols to direct. And since John was practically living with Julie Andrews at the time, he was able to get her, or all people, as the girl. John's diabolical genius envisioned Mary Poppins getting banged for the world.

And so Mike Nichols was ready to go, and I couldn't believe it. So John called Nichols, put me on the other phone and said, "Terry Southern's here now, and he's worried you're not going to do erection and penetration." So he said 'Yes.' and reassured me. So I went to see Ringo and I said, 'Look, there's this chance to do this, ' and he said, 'Right, right, right...just make sure you've got a proper deal. I think they may try to use Buck Henry on the script.' But the deal fell through, in a grotesque hang-up between Nichols's and Ringo's lawyers. But if it had been made, they could hardly have dismissed it as shabby porn."--From REFLEX magazine, #27


On Nixon:

"Every once in a while I get a jolt of very painful realization that Nixon and whatever he represents in terms of the power structure--you know, people who would go down with him--that they know the only support they have is the army, and those elements of industry and the scientific and academic world connected with it--a relatively small group, certainly not enough to carry any kind of vote--so their only chance of remaining in power is to create a situation so disruptive...in other words, to encourage people like Abbie Hoffman to freak-out, or the Panthers, so that they have a little martial law until things cool down. I mean about election time, you known, because having elections would be "dangerous to national security." They'd say: maybe in two weeks, if things cool down, then, of course, that two weeks can be extended indefinitely. I can't imagine them being so naive as to think that this power can be retained in any other way. They're very unpopular--perhaps the most unpopular regime in the history of the country."-- From Marcus Cunliffe's Interview, Escapade, 1971


On screenwriting:

"If a writer is sensitive about his work being treated like Moe, Zack and Larry working over the Sistine Chapel with a crowbar, then he would do well to avoid screenwriting altogether...The wise thing, of course, is to become a filmmaker"

On the Studio System:

"The studios has rather employ a screen writer with eight disasters to his credit that a William Faulkner with none. In fact, when Faulkner--who had the greatest ear for regional dialogue of his time--was finally used in Hollywood, his work was invariably rewritten by hacks, simply because producers and directors were suspicious of anyone who had not written for films before--as if there was something special about it, or about the crap they were turning out...In the majority of pictures with budgets of five hundred thou or more, studio participation is involved, and wherever there is studio money, there is the dinosaur mentality and the apelike interference which are unfailingly part of the package."

On sharing credit:

FB: "It seems that you're sometimes involved in arguments over who contributed what to the films you've worked on--how does that come about?"

TS: "That comes about in three distinct ways: first, through a really monstro and misguided sense of generosity, it seems I invariably tend to offer sharing the screenplay-credit with almost anyone who happens to be around...It is practically impossible for a director, or a producer, to get screenplay-credit because if a script goes to arbitration, the Writers Guild requires proof that they contributed over 50 percent of the total of the script. Now, whenever a director or producer wants a share of the screenplay credit, it automatically goes to arbitration, unless the writer--that is, the real writer--specifies otherwise--which is what I would always do. In other words I would GIVE them credit, which they could not possibly have gotten by any other means. So that's the first way it comes about--these arguments over who did what--by allowing their names to appear on screen."

"The second way it happens is that the memory becomes rather selective when one is trying to recall who wrote what in a script. This is even true of writers, so you can imagine how it is with non-writers--who tend to become pretty excited when they get into any writing heavier than a laundry list. And the experiences you refer to--these arguments over who contributed what--have always occurred with non-writers that is to say "directors" and "actors" suddenly turned "writer." Fortunately--at least in some cases, including mine--a writer can have a style which is unmistakably his own, so that anyone fairly knowledgeable in these matters doesn't have much difficulty recognizing whose work it really is, regardless of non-writer claims to the contrary."

"The third way these disputes arise is through what is sometimes called "one-shot syndrome," of certain parties involved. These are people of so little confidence--most frequently not without good reason--in their own abilities that they're inclined to regard any successful endeavor with which they're connected as a fluke-- a one-shot, something unlikely ever to happen again--consequently, they're pretty anxious to make the most of it, and very loath indeed to share...it seems to be a kind of terrible hunger which brings out their worst, or at least most desperate qualities."

On improvisation:

FB: "What would you say is the role of "improvisation" in filmmaking--or, more exactly, in screenwriting?"

TS: "Nil. Improvisation is a last resort to save an obviously sinking ship...That is not to say that actors like Brando, Olivier, Rod Steiger, Peter Sellers, Michael Parks, Rip Torn, Stacey Keach...cannot improvise on a poor or mediocre script, and thereby vastly improve it, OR, in fact, that they cannot make something out of nothing--something good, from scratch, just of the top of their heads--but so what? This is simply a facet of their genius--useful in emergencies, amusing in the living room--but can never produce anything comparable to the best written dialogue...It goes without saying that the most engaging, most relevant, most communicative content is achieved through a very strong combination of creativeness and craftsmanship and not simply by somebody blowing off the top of his perhaps second-rate head."-- From Fred Baker's MOVIE PEOPLE, 1973


On Peter Sellers:

DAZED & CONFUSED: "Did you know Peter Sellers before Dr. Strangelove? His part, the role of Mandrake, I mean, seems to have been written especially for him."

TS: "Yes, I did know him, although we were not really friends at that point. What happened was that Peter went wild over The Magic Christian. Before I met him, my publishers called me one day and said 'Peter Sellers has just bought 100 copies of your book'. He actually went to publishers, instead of the bookstore. And it turned out he had bought them to give to all his friends for birthdays or Christmas, whatever. And it turned out later that the person who had turned him onto it was Dr. Jonathan Miller who was both Peter's and my doctor at the time. He prescribed us both uppers."

DAZED & CONFUSED: "What, THE Jonathan Miller? The one who directs operas and does TV programmes about evolution? He was giving you uppers?"

TS: "Yeah, because of my workload. He was prescribing me Dexedrine, and some other stuff. Methedrine? Yeah, that was it."

DAZED & CONFUSED: "So he was a pretty good doctor, he understood the kind of treatment that writers need."

TS: "Oh yeah, excellent. Anyway, he had read The Magic Christian and liked it, so he passed it on to Peter, who liked it to that extent. So we had that background before we met. To answer your question, yes, the parts of both Strangelove and Mandrake were written specifically for him. In fact, the financing of the movie was entirely dependent upon him playing multiple roles, because of the success of Lolita I guess. In fact, he was also meant to play the pilot who sits on the bomb, but after shooting for two days he sprained his ankle getting out of a taxi to go into an Indian restaurant. so we had to get someone else, and you can't replace Peter Sellers with another actor, so we had to get a real redneck. We tried John Wayne, but he realized we'd be sending him up and declined. Then Stanley had a flash and remembered that during the filming of One Eyed Jacks--before Marlon Brando got him sacked--he'd met this real cowboy actor called Slim Pickens. And that's how we ended up with Slim as the redneck pilot. And he was perfect. The only travelling he'd ever done was on the rodeo circuit, he'd never been out of America."


On Easy Rider:

DAZED & CONFUSED: What were the formative experiences that led you to write Easy Rider? There's an anger and bleakness that comes through in that film that made it quite unlike anything else being made at that time.

TS: Well, I'm glad that anger and bleakness came through. Because Dennis Hopper didn't have a clue as to what the film was about. The thrust of the film, from my point of view, the philosophical position is that it's supposed to be an indictment of the blue-collar thing, the truck-driver people of America, for their intolerance and their support of the Vietnam war. It's supposed to be an indictment of the worst part of mainstream Middle America, as personified by those two assholes in the pick-up truck. Bigotry incarnate. And the final sequence is, I guess, the ultimate statement about that mentality, where these two assholes don't like their looks, So that's the ending. And when Dennis Hopper read it he said 'Are you kidding? Are you going to kill of both of them? Yeah, that's what he said, 'kill off', (laughs). So I said, 'Well, that's the only way it can be, because otherwise we're not saying anything, it's just a little odyssey by a couple of irresponsible hippies. So they got to serve some purpose, make some point'. Anyway, that show where he was at.

DAZED & CONFUSED: But you were no kid, you were in your late 30s when you wrote that script. And you were a Texan, not some East Coast liberal. I wonder how you could relate to that viewpoint.

TS: Well, I was no stranger to that kind of experience, I was wearing a peace symbol and had long hair, and did drugs and was subject to that kind of thing, that kind of intolerance and bigotry. But even if I hadn't been subject to it, I still would have seen it and recognized it for what it is. The story was a distillation of many experiences that I had witnessed and heard of and read about. But it wouldn't have occurred to me to write it if it hadn't reflected my personal experience.

On who wrote what (on Easy Rider):

DAZED & CONFUSED: How much involvement did [Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda] have in the script? Because they're both credited along with you as scriptwriters.

TS: Well, right at the beginning Dennis (Hopper) and Peter (Fonda) had just this one idea, right? Listen, this is their contribution to the whole thing. These two guys, Peter and Dennis, at first they were going to be in cars, so they could do stunts in cars. It was going to be called Barnstormers or something. This is what they came to me with. So we changed it to motorbikes, but the idea then was that they would score some drugs and--this is when people are just beginning to realize you can make big money in drugs--so they buy some Coke in Mexico, sell it, ride their bikes to Florida, buy a boat and leave the American rat-race. Sail off into the sunset. The entertainment aspect of the film, presumably, was to be their pilgrimage from Mexico to Key West. That was it.