The Unmaking of SKIDOO:
An Interview with Mr. Doran William Cannon
Look into any "World's Worst Movies" list and you're guaranteed to find Otto Preminger's 1968 counterculture comedy, SKIDOO. That glib honor wholly undeserved belies the fact that SKIDOO is undoubtedly one of the most bizarre and jaw-dropping Hollywood movies ever made. Akin to a psychedelic IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, the big-budget Paramount film featured an amazing roster of old and new stars: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, John Phillip Law, Slim Pickens, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin, Austin Pendleton, Mickey Rooney and Groucho Marx in his last role as "God." The movie's notorious highlight remains Gleason's amazing six minute LSD trip (featuring a floating Groucho head, not to mention Rooney tap-dancing). That's right. Jackie Gleason on acid.
Released at the apex of the peace and love revolution, SKIDOO was met with critical derision and commercial indifference. Andrew Sarris aptly noted that the film was a "spectacular stylistic failure" while TIME magazine declared that "it must be seen to believe it exists." Actually, to see SKIDOO is to disbelieve SKIDOO. Each incredulous scene tops the previous one and the film stands as one of the most incredible media artifacts of an already incredible era. Maybe 1968 did seem like the perfect time for a hippie gangster comedy, but who is responsible for this legendary wide screen psychedelic cult classic? Would you believe Francis Ford Coppola?
Well, almost. The original SKIDOO screenplay came from the unusual mind of writer/director Bill Cannon. Cannon has lived on the edge of the Hollywood establishment for decades and was happy to finally reveal the incredible truth about the genesis of SKIDOO. He played a pivotal role in bringing THE GRADUATE (1967) to the screen, and wrote the screenplays for other cult films such as THE SQUARE ROOT OF ZERO (1964) and BREWSTER MCCLOUD (1970), directed by Robert Altman; and HEX, a strange 1973 horror film that 20th Century Fox decided to shelve.
A spectral figure of the 1960's pop culture maelstrom, Bill Cannon occupies a special and unacknowledged place in film history. Dividing his time between Ohio and Santa Barbara, Cannon, an active raconteur, continues to work on his books, plays and scripts. He was happy to reveal -- for the first time -- the incredible backstory about SKIDOO and his odd cinematic niche.
CD: Where did you get your start in filmmaking?
DWC: Living in New York City, I wrote, produced and directed an absurdist comedy, THE SQUARE ROOT OF ZERO (1964), about two hippies going to Maine. It's now in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art. I'd written both SKIDOO and BREWSTER MCLOUD in New York before I came out to Hollywood as a friend and protégé of Francis Coppola. I also worked with Francis on YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW (1966) and, he'll confirm this, it was I who gave him the idea for the opening scene of THE GODFATHER: "I love America". In 1965, Tony Bill came to the San Francisco Film Festival when THE SQUARE ROOT OF ZERO was in, and after the screening he said he wanted me to come to Los Angeles and meet some people. When I came, there was a party at Coppola's, although they were unknown at the
time. Peter Fonda was there, Jack Nicholson, Roger Corman, and I had no idea until some time later that the party was in my honor! (Laughs)
CD: How did you get involved with THE GRADUATE (1967)?
DWC: I read the book before it came out (1963) and wanted to produce and direct it. I lost my option on it after a year, Lawrence Turman beat me out to buy the rights and he showed it to Mike Nichols. I wanted to make it a very low budget film, and it would have turned out differently, but I liked Nichols' interpretation. Turman hired me as a production assistant. I brought Anne Bancroft to work everyday, and assisted Mike Nichols. It was an education. What I resented was that Buck Henry and Calder Willingham got so much credit, because Charles Webb's novel was uniquely close to the external values of a screenplay, so all they needed to do was extract the script that was built into the novel. They wrote almost no new scenes, and they only threw out one chapter. It was more of an editing job, but they remain celebrated today for the screenplay.
CD: The world needs to know. How did SKIDOO come into existence?
DWC: I saw an article about two prisoners who had escaped in a hot-air balloon. I thought, "Oh, that's so neat." That's how it got started. At the time, there weren't gangster movies except for George Raft-type movies -- who I INNOCENTLY INSULTED once in an elevator and he told Otto Preminger he wanted to punch me in the face. He was all of 80.
CD: Were you involved in the counterculture at the time?
DWC: I had earned an M.B.A. in Finance at Columbia University, but I had a passion to make films in a way that could affect society itself, and I wanted to change the way Hollywood thought. I have never tried to please the market. It's a mistake. So I wrote SKIDOO. When I worked on THE GRADUATE, I knew a secretary who worked for Preminger. I wasn't crazy about Preminger's work, but I needed a job, so I asked "Hey Joyce, why not try to get me a writing job with him?" She sent him SKIDOO as a sample of my writing, and luckily, he needed the next writer in a long line for a bestseller, John Hersey's TOO FAR TO WALK. Preminger flew me out to New York and I was put up in the Plaza. I told him that after so many drafts, TOO FAR TO WALK would never work. He shocked me when, on the spot, he said..."Okay, we will make your SKIDOO instead." He called my agent, and made a deal. Whammo. During the three months of re-writing, Otto met Larry Turman at a party and he came to me the next day and said, "You did no writing on THE GRADUATE! And I said, "I never said I did." I later figured out that my agent, without my knowledge or permission, must have sold me to Otto with a whispered codicil that I had secretly done some writing on THE GRADUATE. (Laughs)
CD: Your original script for SKIDOO is far more low-key and whimsical than the completed film.
DWC: I never expected it to be a good movie in the hands of Otto Preminger. He was not respected in Hollywood at that time, and he had never done a comedy. As a comedy about hippies, Paramount did not want to do SKIDOO. They had a seven-picture deal with him, so they had to make the movie. A Paramount vice-president wrote Otto a letter begging him not to make it. In Preminger's hands, I doubted it would be the movie to base my career on. I went to my friend, Francis Coppola, for advice and asked whether it would be a bad career move to sell my script to such as Otto Preminger, who would make a bad movie of it. Francis said, "Sell it. You'll get another film set-up easier." I sold the script for 75,000 dollars. That would be like a million dollars now.
CD: The film's cast is outrageous. How did Groucho Marx end up playing his final movie role as "God" in SKIDOO?
DWC: I wanted Otto to play the part, but he said no. Austin Pendleton was a friend of mine and I also suggested him for the role of the draft dodger. Here's how Groucho got cast: I was in my hometown, Toledo, Ohio, and a friend of my brother's said, "How about Groucho Marx for that part?" I said, "I'm going to call Otto right now." And I did. By that time I knew Otto's ego. Everything had to be HIS idea or it was no good: "Oh no, he is too old." Five days later, when I got back to Hollywood, Groucho Marx had been hired.
CD: Did you get to meet Groucho?
DWC: He hadn't been in a movie in years, and he was peeing out of a sac at his waistline...He practically forced me to make a date with his daughter. It was the most awkward date I'd ever been on. I hung out with Groucho several times and once went to see a Nelson Lyon film titled THE PHONE BOOTH - lots of gratuitous sex. Groucho told me "This will kill sex."
CD: How did Preminger and Groucho get along?
DWC: Preminger would scream at Groucho. You don't yell at somebody like Groucho Marx! So one day Otto yelled at him, and with perfect timing, Groucho turned to him and said, "Are you drunk?" Even then, everyone on the set was afraid to laugh, but it was reported in Variety.
CD: Otto Preminger had a legendary reputation as a hard-ass director.
DWC: He was feared, he could turn from a pussycat to a tyrant in no time. I drew the line on Otto and he never crossed it again. He was trying to dictate how he wanted something rewritten. I looked at him, my eyes telling him I'm going to walk. Otto read my mind, and stepped back like a typical bully. Another time, for Christmas, I had designed my own greeting card, and he comes into my office and says, (imitates Preminger's distinct German accent) "What are you doing? You are not writing?" You are drawing?" And he ripped it up. I said, "Otto, you're lucky I'm not coming into your office with a knife to rip up your Picasso."
CD: Jackie Gleason is very intense in SKIDOO. He seems to be in his own separate movie. An angry island unto himself.
DWC: Yes. He was Otto's fifth choice, and his career was in a slump. I don't think he really wanted to do it. Otto and Jackie barely spoke. It wasn't that they didn't get along, it was simply too huge egos...neither of which was going to bow to the other. Actually, I have a cameo in the film. I'm the man ahead of Gleason when they're on the dock about to go to Alcatraz. Gleason was right behind me, saying "Hurry up, kid. Hurry!" I was trying to milk my tiny moment and he wouldn't let me.
CD: Did you envision Gleason when you wrote the script?
DWC: No. But I thought he was a good choice. His serious work in THE HUSTLER (1962) (for which he received an Academy Award nomination) showed he could do drama as well as comedy, but there was just no rapport with Preminger...he was just not about to take Otto's direction, and it shows.
CD: How did Preminger approach the infamous LSD scene?
DWC: Otto took acid under the personal guidance of Timothy Leary, who I knew, and he told me: (imitates Preminger) "I saw things, but I did not see myself." (Laughs) I told Otto if he directed SKIDOO the way he directed a serious drama like his IN HARM'S WAY, (1964) that it would turn out to be very funny. He couldn't get that. Comedy is subtle; comedy is timing. Otto's Germanic persona just couldn't do it.
CD: I picture Preminger on the set wearing love-beads...
DWC: He was! He thought he was a hippie. Started wearing Nehru jackets too.
CD: How did you feel when Preminger brought in Elliot Baker (A FINE MADNESS) to rewrite the script during production?
DWC: Violence didn't suit SKIDOO, but he wanted it. I refused. That's where it broke down. He also wanted to balloon the role for Carol Channing, a mistake, but I tried to do it...and the re-writes were just heading for the junk pile. They paid Baker 10,000 dollars a week, no doubt the highest paid rewrite of that time. Elliot showed me a scene he'd written and I insulted his integrity by saying that he was writing it just the way Otto wanted. We never talked again. Otto also interviewed Mel Brooks. I was hoping he would hire him...but after Mel Brooks left the office,
he told me "I will not hire this man! Between him and you, it will drive me crazy!" To me, that was a great compliment.
CD: Not many screenwriters get their names sung by Harry Nilsson in the credits, but you did.
DWC: He sang all the names in the credits. That was fun. I didn't like Harry at first. He approached me on the set to write a musical about the Wright Brothers with him, but using the Groucho Marx syndrome, I figured if he was hired by Otto then he couldn't be any good. I was wrong about Harry, and we ultimately became friends. He was a sweet man.
CD: Did you go to the premiere in Miami Beach?
DWC: No. But it was a great wrap party. I sat with Peter Lawford and three babes...Great party at The Factory....
CD: Did you ever run into Preminger again?
DWC: Kind of a sad story. I met with Otto 12 years later when I was running my newspaper, L.A. HIGHLIFE. I was asked to interview him for his last film, ROSEBUD (1978). It was a good bet the L.A. Times wasn't interested, and I thought I would surprise him. He had Alzheimer's and didn't recognize me at all. Very sad. I knew that he had sold a Picasso or two to get the movie made...and it all went down the drain.
CD: Did SKIDOO hurt or help your career?
DWC: Neither. BREWSTER MCLOUD was the script that put me on the map in Hollywood. My agent at the time told me that it was the best-known screenplay in Hollywood that hadn't been done, but it was finally made. I wanted Austin Pendleton to play Brewster. He would have been great. I also got in touch with Albert Grossman, because I thought Bob Dylan could have been interesting. Turned out he was a terrible actor. Grossman showed the script to The Beatles and I got invited to London for a party with Dylan and the Beatles.
CD: Did you go?
DWC: Oh yeah! Same day of the party I visited Albert Grossman in his hotel room, and there was Don Pennebaker crouched in a corner filming us. Every time I see that film, DON'T LOOK BACK (1965), I think about how I'm on the cutting room floor. Dylan was high, talking about how he hadn't yet reached his peak. Lennon sat at his feet, marvelling. Ringo looked bored. Saw McCartney, but he was in another room. Albert Grossman was in an intense talk with George Harrison. This was after a Dylan concert at Albert Hall. It was not wild, but it was in a sense, hushed, everyone there knew they were in a moment of history...everyone pretending to be cool. Me too. I had been in Dylan's presence a couple times before but I never spoke to him. Afraid of what to say. That was when I lived in NYC, before I went Hollywood and it took another three or four years to get the script turned into a movie.
CD: Did you ever hang out with Timothy Leary?
DWC: I knew Leary well enough and crossed paths many times. In the early 80's, when I was the first male President of the PTA at Wonderland Ave School in Laurel Canyon, I called on Tim (who was then married to a woman named Barbara who had kids at the school) to run the Popcorn booth at the Christmas Carnival. He loved it, and so did all the parents. No complaints about the pied piper of LSD leading our kids astray.
CD: What was Hollywood like in the psychedelic 60's?
DWC: The very first night I came to L.A. in 1967, I was invited to a hard-to-get-into party. Tim was there, high on love and maybe LSD, with his great beautiful wife of that era...and also running around the party was this grubby group nobody had ever heard of called The Grateful Dead. It was the first party I went to in LA, and I think the best one ever. Interestingly, I had already written SKIDOO, but it didn't occur to me to mention it to Dr. Leary or anyone else at that wild party. The way he died was so sad...he had a bunch of newcomer sycophants around him, but no one who had really known him in his salad days. God, he loved being famous. I do have one of his books signed by him when I interviewed him for my newspaper.
CD: What was your involvement with BREWSTER MCLOUD like?
DWC: I was all set to direct. My partner, Phil Feldman and I, became partners with Lou Adler and John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas). When it became clear that I couldn't be bankrolled as director, they got Robert Altman, right after MASH (1970). He could do whatever he wanted. I was invited to come to the set, but he really didn't want the original author to be around. I had written my Brewster flying off the American Airlines building, free as a bird should be...til he crashed; but Altman made the aesthetically critical mistake of having him fly in a cage called the Houston Astrodome. My Brewster did not want to fly in a cage. Antithetical to the whole idea. The one moment everybody remembers in the film was the flying scene when the boy crashes. Altman's ego, like Preminger's, didn't know how to encompass his own vision with the original vision. It was an embarrassment. Altman made it a circus. For me, it was a soul-withering and bitter experience.
CD: You were also involved with HEX, an unusual barely-released biker-horror movie from the 1970's.
DWC: I wrote that in the 60's too. Originally called GRASSLAND. It was eventually made by 20th Century Fox in 1973. Oh man, it's got a lot of neat people: Keith Carradine, Scott Glenn, Gary Busey, Robert Walker, Jr., John Carradine...directed by Leo Garen. It was about a gang of motorcyclists traveling through Kansas and they find two girls who live in a farm house. So the gang think they can take over the house and have their way with the girls. Well, the two girls practice witchcraft and they do them in one by one. A very neat concept during the era of motorcycle movies. Leo Garen bought it from me, went through many drafts, set it in 1915, but made it too arty. Fox hated it. They wouldn't release it. Garen fought for years over that. It was terribly flawed, but ultimately it meets my supreme test for a movie: memorability. It has a lot of haunting imagery. You're the first person I've met who even knows about HEX.
CD: You're responsible for a lot of cult films.
DWC: I was branded a maverick. Fiercely independent. But I wasn't like Speilberg. I knew him when he was 19 and his mind would take over a room. I wasn't interested only in movies. It may be hard to imagine, but although I worked from time to time as a ghost doctor, I was never interested in being a hired hand, would not pitch projects, just went and wrote 'em. I only speculated on film projects, alternating with trying to get out of Hollywood. My favorite joke: "I haven't worked in six years, how the hell do I get out of this business?" I did lots of other things, founded and ran a newspaper, worked as a staff writer on KNOT'S LANDING, etc.
CD: What are you working on now?
DWC: Juggling projects as always. I still love business projects, so I'm building a commercial website like everyone else. This one is called INFODOCS.COM. Eight years ago, I wrote a bittersweet comedy, LOOKING FOR THE MAN, about a middle aged man trying to reconcile with his Alzheimers father... a very personal story, but it resonates, and everyone who reads it is in tears at the end. We're working on getting that packaged and cast, and I know it will be made one of these days because it deserves to be. I'm also very excited about my screenplay, WAR IS HECK, a wild 1950's retro comedy in the vein of IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD....You've read it, and I think you agree with me that it could be a big, all-star comedy for today's market. I'm also writing serious plays. My play THE TROJAN HERO is a Greek Tragedy about OJ and Nicole. Oh, and ahem, I also mentor writers on story structure at firstname.lastname@example.org .
CD: You spent a long time on the Hollywood roaster coaster. How do you look back on those halycon years and the cinematic treatment of your screenplays?
DWC: Simply enough, I do not suffer from depression. After a defeat, my batteries are low, but get recharged quickly. As Otto once said, "You must never give up..." on projects you believe in. That's Hollywood. It fascinates me that somebody like you and others look back to see SKIDOO and these other films have importance...