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Terry Southern, American Satirist

Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Susan Wood

Terry Southern, American Satirist

Screenwriter and author Terry Southern died 15 years ago on this day. Here are 15 facts you may not know about the man who helped script “Dr. Strangelove” and “Easy Rider.”
 

1. Terry Southern was born May 1, 1924, in Texas and attended Southern Methodist University before joining the Army during World War II. After the war, he earned a degree in philosophy at Northwestern University.

2. He then moved to Paris and lived there for four years, where he met leading intellectuals including Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He also befriended Paris Review publishers Peter Matthiesen, H.L. “Doc” Hums and George Plimpton. His short story “The Accident” was published in its very first issue in 1953.

3. Returning from Paris, he settled down in Greenwich Village, where he was introduced to local scenesters Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso. While there he also interviewed William Faulkner and Nelson Algren.

4. His first novel, Flash and Filigree, was published in 1958. That same year, he took his first stab at screenwriting, scripting a TV adaptation of Eugene O’Neil’s The Emperor Jones for British television.

5. His next novel, Candy, originally published under the pseudonym Maxwell Kenton and co-written by Mason Hoffenberg, was a sexual farce based on Voltaire’s Candide. Playboy Magazine included it in their 2006 list of the “25 Sexiest Novels Ever Written.” The book was made into a feature film in 1968 with a script by Buck Henry (screenwriter of The Graduate), and boasted cameos by Anita Pallenberg and Sugar Ray Robinson.

6. His 1959 comic novel The Magic Christian, provided his big breakthrough in the film world. The book brought him to the attention of director Stanley Kubrick, who had been given a copy by Peter Sellers. Kubrick decided to hire Southern to help draft a script he was working on called “Dr. Strangelove.”

7. “Dr. Strangelove” had first been envisioned as a serious drama. Kubrick had optioned the Cold War thriller Red Alert by Peter George, a novel praised for its understanding of game theory’s potential application to nuclear conflict. But as Kubrick worked on the initial draft, he continually had to “keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny.”

8. After deciding to turn Dr. Strangelove into a black comedy, he hired Southern. Southern spent a frantic, amphetamine-fueled six weeks writing another draft (he would later become addicted to Dexamyl). Over the years, there has been much wrangling for credit over who wrote what – a situation made more complicated by Peter Sellers' penchant for improvising on the set. Southern was paid $2000 for his work.

9. Sellers would also star in the 1969 adaptation of Southern’s The Magic Christian, alongside Ringo Starr, John Cleese, Christopher Lee, Richard Attenborough, Raquel Welch and Roman Polanski. The film was a commercial and critical failure.

10. According to producer Art Miller, Sellers also paid Southern to contribute uncredited bits for his character Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films.

11. Southern's friendship with Ringo Starr would pay off in other ways, as upon Ringo’s recommendation he appeared on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably the most famous album cover of all time.

12. The success of Dr. Strangelove launched Southern into the big time as a screenwriter and script doctor, and he contributed to many films including The Collector (1965), The Cincinnati Kid (1966), Casino Royale (1967), Barbarella (1967) and Easy Rider .

13. As with Dr. Strangelove, there has also been much haggling over who deserved credit for Easy Rider. The original idea (a ‘modern Western’) was proposed by Peter Fonda under the working title “Mardi Gras.” He and Dennis Hopper hired Southern to write the script for $350 a week, guild minimum at the time. Easy Rider – a title contributed by Southern – would take in $19 million in 1969 alone, but he made virtually no profits from the project as Fonda and Hopper denied him gross points.



14. His career suffered in the 1970s and '80s as he battled substance abuse issues, financial problems, a changing cinematic landscape and just plain old bad luck. He was hired as a writer for the 1981-82 season of Saturday Night Live, but contributed little to the show. During his last years, he taught screenwriting at Columbia University and NYU. He collapsed on October 25, 1995, en route to a lecture and died four days later.

15. Michael O’Donoghue, co-founder of National Lampoon magazine and the first head writer of Saturday Night Live, once said, “If there were a Mount Rushmore of American satire, Terry Southern would be the mountain they’d carve it from."