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Ken Kesey: 9.17.1935-11.10.2001

Kirk Douglas remembers the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

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When I first read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I fell in love with the book. Immediately, I bought the rights to it for a movie. And then I went to Oregon and met Ken Kesey. He was a husky, strong-looking individual, and we sized one another up. We had one thing in common—we had both been undefeated wrestlers in college. I don’t know how I would have handled Ken on the mat. It would have been tough.

He was noncommittal as I heaped on praise for his book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His father, a milk distributor, was a simple, pleasant guy, much more demonstrative than his son.

Our first attempts to make a movie of his book met with no success. I decided to transform the book into a play and produce it on Broadway. I hired Dale Wasserman to write the play, and assembled a good cast including William Daniels and Gene Wilder. I played the lead of McMurphy.

We tried it out in Boston, with much success. During a week there, I received a letter from Timothy Leary. He invited me to join his group in a ”mind-expansion program.” It sounded very exciting to me, although I knew nothing about LSD or all the other so-called mind-expanding drugs. I was very interested in being a participant, but my schedule did not permit me to join the group. I always wondered how Dr. Leary came to invite me. Later I learned that Ken Kesey brought it about. He thought I would be a good candidate for the group.

When we were ready to open up on Broadway, I thought it was important that Ken Kesey see his brainchild performed on the stage. I invited him as my guest to come to New York and sit in the front row and watch what we had done to his book. Ken was very pleased with the results, congratulated me, and went off the next day to make plans for the famous trip with the Merry Pranksters.

After 10 years of trying to make the movie, my son Michael asked to take it over. By that time, the director Milos Forman thought I was too old for McMurphy and Jack Nicholson played him. Ken Kesey called to tell me that Jack was wrong for the part and I should play it. Even after the movie was released, he held to that opinion. I must admit I didn’t agree. Jack was perfect.

During that time, Paul Newman made a successful picture of Kesey’s book Sometimes a Great Notion. But I always thought that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was Ken’s favorite baby.

When Ken died, I was very sad. I chastised myself for not having gone to visit him. I made so many plans to see him again in Oregon, but I never went.

(Kesey died after cancer surgery in Eugene, Ore.)