Odd Man Out
Peter Fonda told him to call back at 4 p.m., January 16. "I'll be here," he promised Nile Southern, who has been waiting for years to hear those words, that hint of promise. "We'll talk then."
It's now 3:58 p.m. that Saturday, and Southern paces around the basement office in his Boulder, Colorado, home at the base of the Rocky Mountains--though paces may not be the right word for it. He damned near vibrates. Even his longish brown hair--normally askew, as if on loan from a young Gene Wilder--seems taut.
"I'm just a bit...trepidatious," explains the 38-year-old Southern, his soft voice floating nervously. He asks his visitor to sit behind the pink see-through curtain that divides the office. This way, Southern will at least feel alone when he makes the call.
Finally, he takes a seat at his desk, where he notices two photographic proof sheets featuring dozens of pictures of Peter Fonda taken on the set of Easy Rider, the film that proved to Hollywood it was indeed possible to get rich and famous making movies about dopers on motorcycles.
Standing next to Fonda in nearly each tiny picture is Nile's father Terry Southern. Back then--in 1967 and '68, during the filming of Easy Rider--the Dallas-raised Southern was the epitome of hip, the coolest mother in any room. He was one of the Academy Award-nominated writers of Dr. Strangelove, director Stanley Kubrick's tenebrous, hysterical Cold War put-on. He had rewritten scripts for such films as The Cincinnati Kid, Barbarella, The Loved Ones. He had co-written the best-selling bit of cerebral porn in the country, Candy, in addition to the novels Flash and Filigree and The Magic Christian. He was a friend to Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, William Burroughs and Miles Davis, Lenny Bruce and Jean Genet.
Hell, in 1967, he was bestowed with the ultimate stamp of hipster prestige, landing his face on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
And who was Peter Fonda back then? Just Henry's little kid and the star of some acid-drenched biker B-movies. In other words, a famous father away from being a nobody.
Terry had written the script for Easy Rider, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. There exists a script, which is in the safekeeping of Terry's second wife, that proves that Terry--and Terry alone--penned the screenplay about Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda) and their last-score dope deal before hitting the road in search of the good life. Southern had created the character of civil rights lawyer George Hanson for his old pal Rip Torn to play (though it would become the role that made Jack Nicholson a star), and it was Terry who insisted on keeping the ending in which two rednecks shotgun-blast the easy riders all to hell. That was an especially Southern touch: Death to the rebels. Astonishing.
Yet Hopper, the film's director, to this day insists Southern had nothing to do with Easy Rider--well, except come up with the title. Hopper gave Southern that much. Otherwise, Hopper was known to rant, "This is my fuckin' movie!" And when it came time to be paid for Easy Rider, this little cult movie that became one of the most popular and profitable films of the 1960s (it made $60 million), Hopper and producer Fonda stuffed their pockets full of easy money.
Terry Southern, who made sure the two young nobodies got co-screenwriting credit with him against the wishes of the Writers Guild of America, got nothing more than the $3,500 he was paid up front to lend his name and his prodigious talent to the project. Though he was nominated for an Academy Award for Easy Rider, his generosity, his desire to help these kids get their movie made with the promise of more to come, would eventually be Southern's undoing.
When he died in 1995 at the age of 71, one of the most esteemed, forceful writers of the 1960s had only $2,400 in the bank. His farm in Canaan, Connecticut, no longer belonged to him; his creditors and the federal government would see to that, even though Terry had left half of the house to his second wife and companion of 31 years, Gail Gerber. Terry owed the IRS more than $30,000, and thousands more were due to hardware stores, screenwriters guilds, and friends.
"I guess I'm the only person he paid some money back to," Rip Torn says now.
You name it, and Terry Southern owed it to somebody, somewhere.
It has been left to Nile Southern to pay, quite literally, for his father's sins of generosity, stubbornness, naivete. As the executor of his father's estate, he has spent thousands of dollars of his own money trying to rescue from oblivion the dozens of screenplays his father wrote that were never made, the unpublished short stories and fragments that now sit in boxes in a New York City warehouse.
Each day, he goes to the copy shop around the corner and feeds his father's papers into the Xerox machines, then puts them into envelopes and shoots them to agents, writers, and friends across the country, hoping someone will want to make a film based on one of his father's books or unpublished scripts. He sorts through the manuscripts, wrangles with film studios over old debts, does the dirty work Terry never cared to do or too often left in untrustworthy hands.
Nile, testing the patience of his wife, Theodosia, has put his own career as a writer and filmmaker on hold while he tries to find a home for his father's archives, which take up dozens of boxes and are estimated to be worth $200,000--more than enough to pay off the debt. But there are no takers, not yet. And each day, the debt keeps growing, like an amoeba about to sprout legs.
"In the beginning, after Terry passed away, these things had to be dealt with," says Theodosia. "But then, when it started dragging on and on, I questioned what he was doing. I now realize that unless Nile brings the whole project to a satisfactory end, he will never feel free to really focus on his own writing."
In a last-ditch attempt to find someone interested in bailing out the estate, Nile sent out help-me fliers to 20 of Terry Southern's old friends, hoping someone might pitch in enough money to help rid the estate of its bills and donate the archives to some library more capable of dealing with the voluminous collection. Among the mailer's recipients were Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, some old writer buds, and Peter Fonda, the only one of the 20 to respond.
That is why this phone call to Fonda--the man whose youthful arrogance helped push Terry Southern down a well from which he could never crawl out--means everything to Nile. Maybe he might be able to pitch in something, anything, to help get the weight of the archives off Nile's thin shoulders.
It is now 4 p.m., time to make that call.
Nile anxiously dials the phone, hoping he finds a savior on the other end. Instead, it's Fonda's voice mail. He is not home. Nile leaves a message instead, telling Fonda to give him a ring as soon as possible...
"...so we can get things kick-started, to use an apt metaphor," Nile says, forcing a small chuckle at his motorcycle reference.
He hangs up and says something about how this is a "pivotal moment for the estate." He shrugs and exhales as though he has been holding his breath for a lifetime. "Luckily, I'm a patient guy."
The look of disappointment on his face could reduce the Rocky Mountains to gravel.
On October 25, 1995, Terry Southern collapsed as he tried to make his way up the stairs leading into Columbia University's Lewisohn Hall. His heart, already frail, attacked the man one final time. He did not linger on his deathbed too long--just enough for Nile to come to New York from Colorado to visit, to read his father letters from old friends and fans and to bid him farewell.
Terry wondered why he hadn't died already. "What's the delay?" he told his son. He was an old man, heavy and slow. He had already undergone surgery for colon cancer, already suffered a stroke and an earlier heart attack--which seemed linked, at least in time, to IRS vultures swooping down on him...again.
Southern was ready to get out of this world and on to the next: What's the delay? Even at the end, he was writing perfect dialogue, crafting the impeccable scene.
Terry Southern died on October 29 at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City. But in some ways, he was long gone by then, a great writer reduced to teaching students about filmmaking, screening 1962's Dr. Strangelove over and over, as though it were the only thing he had ever done. It must have been like walking through a graveyard time and again, being reminded of what he had been rather than looking forward to what was yet to come.
Far too often these days, when you mention the name Terry Southern to someone, all they can offer is a blank stare and a stupefying who? Southern's last book, 1991's Texas Summer, a collection of sweet, semi-autobiographical tales about his young life in Alvarado and Dallas, went out of print almost as soon as it went on sale, disappearing without much of a trace. Terry Southern, it seems, did not fare much better.
Yet to recount his life's story is to meet the most famous and the most fab figures of the last half of the 20th century. They are the literary icons who counted Southern among their closest friends and influences: Paris Review founder and editor George Plimpton, for whom Southern often wrote in the 1950s; William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet, with whom Southern covered the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; and Hunter S. Thompson, who created an entire career standing on Southern's shoulders. They are the rock stars, directors, and actors for whom Terry was a touchstone of ultimate hip: Peter Sellers, who, it is said, was never so comfortable on screen as when he was reciting Southern's dialogue; Ringo Starr and Keith Richards, who found in him a sympathetic soul; and Stanley Kubrick, who knew Dr. Strangelove needed Southern's whacked-out wit in order to make it fly.
To recount his life's story is to visit the dusty prairie town of Alvarado, which lies 45 miles southwest of Dallas. There, Terry was born in 1924, to a druggist and a dutiful Irish housewife. Later moving to Dallas, he attended Sunset High School, where a 13-year-old Terry wrote his first short story based on Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. When the piece scared all hell out of his classmates, he realized even then that Texas was too small a place for him. He visited the Central Track whorehouses in Deep Ellum, where he claimed to have lost his virginity, smoked his first weed, heard his first jazz. He enrolled at SMU for a short while, then joined the Army in 1943 and traveled to Europe. In 1945, he returned to Chicago, then attended the Sorbonne in Paris in the late '40s, where he began writing for such publications as New Story, Merlin, Zero, and the brand-new Paris Review. Later came moves to Geneva, New York, Hollywood, then finally to Connecticut...and every point in between.
And to recount his life's story is to realize what an important writer he was--as a journalist, novelist, screenwriter, even letter-writer. He revolutionized the English language, made up words that became part of the casual lexicon. Rip Torn insists that Southern was the first man to refer to the Beatles as "the Fab Four" and, Torn says with a huge guffaw, "He was the first person I ever heard say fanfuckingtastic!"
In his book The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe credits Southern as the man who proved it was possible to blend reportage with autobiography until the writer became as important as the subject. Southern's 1955 story for Esquire, "Twirling at Ole Miss" (which appears in Wolfe's book), was less about baton girls on campus than it was about an expatriated Texan's return to the South--a place he adored and abhorred with equal passion. In the story, Southern walks through the streets of Oxford, Mississippi, disgusted and amused by what he sees, wondering whether "reverting to the Texas twang and callousness of my youth [would] suffice tosee me through."
From the late 1950s through 1972--when his novel Blue Movie was published--Southern reigned as the literary world's most savage yet sincere satirist. The "squares" called his stuff "unnecessarily unpleasant...grotesque...offensive." At least, that's what Mademoiselle's fiction editor, Rita Smith, wrote to Southern in 1952, when rejecting one of his earliest short stories. They balked at his unflinching desire to "astonish," as he told Life magazine in 1964. Merely shocking the reader was too pedestrian, too easy for him.
Southern's novels, beginning with Candy in 1958 (co-written with Mason Hoffenberg) and Flash and Filigree the same year, were published in Europe before they ever reached the U.S. Indeed, Candy--about a woman whose sexual exploits land her in the embrace of a lunatic humpback ("'Your hump! Your hump!' she kept crying, scratching and clawing at it now")--sold an estimated 12 million bootlegged copies in the States before it was officially released in 1964. "Sick sex," bemoaned the critics at Publishers Weekly--after which Candy spent more than 20 weeks on the best-seller list. Southern, however, could never recoup the illicit proceeds made from the sales of pirated copies. (The only money Southern made off Candy was when he sold the book to the movies--and then Terry claimed Hoffenberg got most of it.)
His 1959 novel The Magic Christian told of a billionaire named Guy Grand who got his kicks from pulling off the daftest pranks that would make the public "hot." Guy hires an actress to appear on a soap opera and deliver dialogue condemning the at-home audience for watching such "slobbering pomp and drivel," or has sky-writing airplanes scrawl racial and religious epithets in order to incite mass rioting. The book was such an absurd, corrosive marvel that Peter Sellers bought 100 copies for his friends--including Stanley Kubrick. Nelson Algren wrote in The Nation that Southern ranked "among our very best novelists."
Southern wrote some of the grisliest, darkest, funniest short stories imaginable: about men luring women into sexual con games for twisted kicks, about men convincing their hated co-workers to defecate on the snow-white carpets of royalty, about strange sex he had known. Among his most infamous pieces is "The Blood of a Wig," in which Southern and The Realist editor Paul Krassner, in the midst of a heated, drug-addled write-off, try to one-up each other. Southern wins, crafting a scene on Air Force One in which Jackie Kennedy walks in on Lyndon Johnson standing over the corpse of J.F.K., "his coarse animal member thrusting into the casket and indeed into the neck wound itself." Jackie is, of course, appalled: "Great God, how heinous! It must be a case of...of...NECK-ROPHILIA!"
Like Burroughs, Southern believed the only way to make a point was to exaggerate it, to make it absurd, to take the madness toward its "informal conclusion." Such writing--over-the-top, delirious, fueled by drink and drug and the freedom found in such a "monstro" combo (to use one of Southern's favorite words)--made him a cultural hero. He was the link between the Beat 1950s and the Beatles 1960s, a man who found beauty in the grotesque and sanity inside deep madness. Southern was the writer as rock star, especially after he and Stanley Kubrick collaborated on Dr. Strangelove in 1962.
Nobody better personified the anything-and-everything-goes 1960s than Terry Southern. Which is perhaps why his legend remains there, stuck in the past like some time-warp prisoner.
"You think of the '60s as a really fertile time," Nile explains. "And Terry is like a gardener of that time...He was able to enter all these different scenes without an objective. I think he just wanted to produce work that was culturally significant."
I guess I first realized I was a foot-man--or 'piedo' as the French have it--on the occasion of my 13th birthday in Big D. Dal. Tex, at a beach picnic (family-style) on the torrid sands of White Rock Lake. For over a year I had entertained a torturously bitter-sweet infatuation for my beautiful drum-majorette cousin, a college sophomore 5 years (quelle eon!) older than myself...She was lying on her stomach and I on mine, and she was silently reading poetry (poetry!) for an English assignment. When I flopped down, she looked up from her book for an instant and smiled (be still, my heart!) then lowered her eyes to her book once more--and I mine to contemplate her body inch by inch, so to feed my prolific fantasies...until...I saw that something was missing--her perfect perfect feet! She had buried them--perhaps absently, perhaps in delightful caprice--and now I was lying on them--the point of contact, or near contact (I could have counted the grains between us!) being you may imagine where!
--Terry Southern, unpublished, date unknown
The Chelsea Mini-Storage on the West Side of Manhattan is hardly the sort of place one would expect to find the collected works of one of the greatest contemporary writers. It's a barren sort of facility, its white walls and steel doors exuding a certain sterile chill despite the climate-controlled environs.
Yet it's here that Terry Southern's archives sit--30 enormous boxes in all, containing Southern's scripts for The Loved One and Dr. Strangelove, dozens of unpublished screenplays (including one based on William Burroughs' novel Junky), typed manuscripts covered in pencil corrections, half-finished fragments, letters to and from the famous including Kubrick, Robert Redford, Larry McMurtry, and Gore Vidal.
It's the collected refuse of a life spent writing nearly every single day. Indeed, Nile says, his father often sat at the table with guests and kept a pen and legal notepad at arm's distance, just in case he was moved to jot down a line of dialogue. Visitors were sometimes offended by such behavior, but Southern was too far into his craft to notice or care.
If nothing else, the archives disprove the myth that Southern became inactive after the publication of his 1972 novel Blue Movie, the story of a director trying to make the first big-budget Hollywood porno featuring big-name stars engaging in full-penetration sex. (Stanley Kubrick, who gave Southern the idea, said Southern had written "the perfect blowjob!") There exist only scant traces of Southern's work after that: the cut-and-paste novel Texas Summer, a brief 1981 stint writing for Saturday Night Live, the breathless bio for the Black Crowes, his contribution to a book about the history of Virgin Records, the screenplay for 1988's Whoopi Goldberg fiasco The Telephone, the random porn pieces in spread-beaver mags. Anything to pay the bills. In a 1992 interview with the Dallas Observer, Southern called such writing "deadly, tedious, enervating work."
Some of what exists in the archives will never get past a researcher's sight. Other pieces will perhaps surface some day in one of myriad collections of Terry's work Nile hopes to get published. A few of these might be taken from the autobiography Terry never finished--or, to be more exact, never really started. The White Rock Lake piece--excerpted from three manuscript pages that Terry titled "The Footman," and that bear the note to "change to the 3rd pers."--likely comes from the "auto-bio," as Nile and Terry referred to it.
Nile--along with Carol Southern, Terry's first wife (and Nile's mother), and his second wife, Gail Gerber--would like to get these boxes into the hands of an academic institution that would cherish the never-seen writings of this man of letters. But Nile has had no such luck.
In 1996, Willis Van Devanter, a Maryland-based appraiser of rare books and manuscripts, estimated that Southern's archives were worth $200,000--not an unreasonable figure for such a collection. (Jack Kerouac's estate, still the subject of litigation, is valued at $10 million.) In his assessment of the collection, Van Devanter wrote that the material "represents a comprehensive history of American literature of its period" and concluded that "literary historians now, more than ever, recognize the importance of Southern as an influential and groundbreaking author and screenwriter [and] in my opinion, his stock will continue to rise." Van Devanter insisted that the acquisition of the estate "would be a major coup for any institution."
Yet there have been no takers. Bill Morgan, acting as broker for the Southern estate, has contacted 18 libraries about buying the archives, and each has passed. Among those institutions that have rejected the archives are the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Texas at Austin, the Smithsonian, even Southern's old alma mater, Northwestern University. (SMU has not been approached.)
In 1996, the Library of Congress did express some interest. James Hutson, chief of the manuscript division, wrote a letter to the estate insisting that Southern's papers would fit in nicely alongside the early works of Truman Capote, William Styron, and Philip Roth. Hutson also thought the film scripts would make "rich research sources" for film students. "With the film Dr. Strangelove on the National Film Registry," Huston wrote, "it is most appropriate that the script drafts and correspondence also be available here."
There was only one stipulation: The Library of Congress wanted the estate to donate Terry's works--to make it a "gift," as Hutson called it.
Nile, of course, balked at the idea. He needs money.
"I have visited several of the libraries personally to talk to the librarians about the archive," Morgan wrote in a letter to Nile on March 24, 1998. "And each time, I have had the feeling that they did not consider Terry Southern a 'serious' enough writer to warrant such a large expenditure." Morgan said so many rejections were starting to look bad.
And they've left Nile feeling a little bitter. It is like being told, Your father wasn't important enough.
"They won't even go beyond the popular-culture aspect of Terry," says Nile. "He was a writer. He set out to be a writer when he was 13 in Texas. He knew that's how he could really get a rise out of people, and he never stopped doing it. But when these institutions look at him...maybe he's just too threatening for them."
So Nile has taken it upon himself to reclaim his father's rightful place in literary history: In 1996, he worked a deal with the Grove Press to reissue Flash and Filigree, Candy, The Magic Christian, and Blue Movie.
In the next few weeks, Nile hopes to sign a deal with Grove-Atlantic for a Terry Southern reader, likely to be called The Quality Lit of Terry Southern--so named for his father's sneering term for "serious writing." Assisting him in sorting through and paring down his father's letters, screenplays, and short stories is Josh Alan Friedman, whose father, novelist Bruce Jay Friedman, was friends with Southern during the 1960s, when both men lived in Long Island, New York. The younger Friedman, now a Dallas-based writer, published some of Southern's work during his editing tenure at High Times magazine in the late 1970s. They remained close friends until Southern's death.
"I love his work--I love him," Friedman says of Terry. "I wish that sensibility and what he stands for were known by more millions of people, because I think it would be a better world."
Friedman arranged for Terry to make his final trip to Dallas in February 1993, when Southern appeared as part of the Dallas Museum of Art's "Arts and Letters" program, at which he read excerpts from Texas Summer. Before then, Southern hadn't been home since the late 1970s, during a brief swing through Texas with Keith Richards for a Stones tour. Southern often wrote about his home state--one script in the archives, based on Noman Mailer's book Why Are We in Vietnam?, tells the story of a Dallas boy obsessed with hunting. But Terry never felt the need to come back to Texas, for reasons he never explained to anyone, not even his son.
It is somehow appropriate that one of the future projects Nile feels most optimistic about is a cinematic version of Terry's final book, 1991's Texas Summer, the coming-of-age tale about 12-year-old Harold Stevens and 23-year-old C.K., the black farm hand on his daddy's ranch. The book--which features chapters lifted wholesale from Southern's 1967 Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tales, a sadly out-of-print anthology illuminating some of his journalism and fiction--wasn't really a "new" novel when it was published. Rather, it was culled from pieces in the archives.
Those who did review it wondered what had become of the insurgent, the heretic, the fab Southern who seemed to have disappeared when the 1960s turned into the 1970s. The New York Times treated Texas Summer as a minor release, accusing Southern of trying to "pad" his old stories without expanding them.
But Nile talks with great enthusiasm about a Texas Summer screenplay written by a young Pittsburgh-born film student named Robert Kimmel--a script Nile liked so much he read it to Terry as he lay on his deathbed. Nile didn't even know whether his father heard him--by then, Terry was nearly gone, but reading it gave Nile a connection to his father. In recent weeks, Nile has entered into negotiations with the Hollywood-based agency Industry, headed by Nick Wexler--who, Nile says, has long kept a copy of Red-Dirt Marijuana on the bookshelf in his office.
Susan Schulman, the New York-based agent Nile has charged with finding new outlets for Terry's archived works, will not say whether any of these projects are a go. "Nothing," she says, "is ever definite in the film business."
Schulman explains that there is much work to be done, but she remains optimistic."It's a dream to be able to represent Terry Southern's work," Schulman says. "It's so important. His was one of the strongest literary voices of my formative years. My passion is to protect it. I knew that the estate needed direction...and I lobbied for the estate. I went after it, invited all the problems in. And so we have begun."
There's no mystery as to how it happened--how Terry Southern died penniless, owing so much to so many. There are perhaps no fewer than a dozen reasons behind such a tragedy as this one. Blame it on Hollywood--producers, directors, actors. Blame it on the accountants and lawyers and agents. Blame it on the booze Southern drank until his death. Blame it on Southern's legendary generosity, his fondness for picking up the check even when his wallet was full of lint. Blame it on his failure to turn in books when promised. Blame it on greed, jealousy, lies. Blame it on the 1960s.
It's quite a long, dirty list full of guilty parties. Den Hopper (as Terry used to call him, even in the days after their falling-out) sits somewhere in the middle of it, no more or less culpable than perhaps even Southern himself.
Still, Nile figures his father's financial problems began around the time of Easy Rider. By 1967, Southern had already worked on a handful of successful films and was living the high life. His were the extravagances of success--the fast cars, the good booze, the primo drugs. He and Rip Torn, also a native Texan, even shared a boat off the coast of Long Island: The Bay O' Peeg, a 30-foot sloop. The two men--who met in 1964, when Southern was called in to rewrite The Cincinnati Kid--had stationery made up featuring the Jolly Roger and the Texas flag.
So when Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda came to Southern asking that their names be put on the screenwriting credit for Easy Rider--this, despite the fact that Terry believed "they can't even write a fucking letter," as he would say later--he was happy to help them out. The spirit of the '60s and all that bullshit. He would forever regret it: What was supposed to be a three-way split on the proceeds quickly became a 50-50 deal, with Hopper and Fonda dividing the loot with the production company run by their friends Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who were already rolling in dough, having "invented" The Monkees.
A defensive Hopper, just a few months ago, when speaking at an exhibit at New York's Guggenheim Museum, was still taking credit for the film, "I flew to New York, and 10 days later, I came out with a screenplay. And that was it. Why am I the whipping boy in all this?"
Perhaps because there exists the evidence--that script of Easy Rider, referred to as "the 55th Street draft," named after Southern's Manhattan office--that it was Southern alone who penned the film. Oh, Hopper and Fonda contributed to the story--it was their idea, though they imagined a modern-day Western about two race-car drivers zooming through America--but it was Southern who gave it shape, meaning, importance. Indeed, Hopper originally objected to Southern's insistence that Wyatt and Billy die at the end of the movie. Not long before his death, Southern told an English interviewer that "Hopper didn't have a clue as to what the film was about." He also said he was still waiting to get paid for his share of the movie.
In 1997, a Los Angeles jury ruled that Dennis Hopper was a liar. Three years earlier, Hopper had gone on The Tonight Show and told Jay Leno that there had indeed been another actor up for the role of A.C.L.U. lawyer George Hanson, played in the film by Jack Nicholson. Hopper said it had been Rip Torn, but that Torn had been fired from the film because "at dinner [Torn] pulled a knife on me."
Torn, in the midst of much critical acclaim over his role as Artie on HBO's The Larry Sanders Show, was furious. After all, he had once before been blackballed from the industry, he says now, because of his extensive involvement in the civil rights movement. A once-promising film career stalled out in a quagmire of B-movie roles. Hopper wasn't gonna screw that up again.
The way Torn tells it, it was Hopper who pulled a knife on him. Hopper had made some remark about how "all Texans are assholes," and Torn told him, "You can't judge all Texans by me." This outraged Hopper, who grabbed a knife off the dinner table and lunged at Torn--a former military policeman--who then turned the weapon on his attacker, forcing Hopper to drop it.
In August 1994, not long after The Tonight Show aired, Torn sued Hopper for defamation and asked Southern, a witness to the knife incident, to give a deposition documenting what really went on behind the scenes of Easy Rider. In his deposition, Southern swore he was the sole writer of the film, which Hopper would claim at trial wasn't true. Hopper testified he wrote the film by himself and told Torn's attorney that he didn't have the script, because no script actually existed. At this point, the lawyer presented Hopper with the 55th Street script. Case closed.
The jury found that Hopper had lied and forced him to pay $475,000 in damages. Early last year, the California Court of Appeals upheld the verdict.
"The reason they had to destroy me--or Hopper figured he did--was because I was the witness to a great crime--the way Terry was robbed of his just deserts," says Torn, who delivered a eulogy at Southern's memorial service in New York. "But Terry was too much a gentleman. I never knew why he wouldn't fight for his own work, particularly Easy Rider. The story [Hopper] put out was that Terry never finished anything. They put him out of writing, said he was undependable, that he never finished anything and he walked off [projects]. The sad thing is, when Terry died, People magazine, instead of letting me help place him in his proper position, went to Hopper instead. I thought that was obscene for him to say he never finished anything. He finished so much."
In June 1998, The New Yorker ran a lengthy story about the battle over Easy Rider, and it contained a letter Southern sent to Hopper in 1970.
"Dear Den: I'm very sorry to bug you, Den, but I'm in a terrible bind--completely strapped, an inch, maybe less, from disasterville. If I were alone, I would never hit on you (Not my style, Den) like this, but I have Nile and Carol to take care of--in the face of recent monstro financial reverses, and no relief in sight. In view of such circumstances, and of our (yours and mine) solid ancient friendship, and of great success of ER, could you please put a single point of its action my way?...Please consider it, Den--I'm in very bad trouble."
Terry, it seemed, had one bad habit that would be the ruin of him: He didn't much care for paying taxes. By 1970, the IRS came after him, claiming Southern owed more than $100,000 in back taxes. By then, with all his money blown, Terry couldn't even afford to hire an accountant to assist him with the government. If only he had some of that Easy Rider scratch. That might well have saved him.
But the I.R.S. began docking money from his paychecks and royalties, even seizing money from the penny-ante gigs he would take just to stay afloat. Terry's second wife, Gail, began teaching ballet lessons at five bucks a pop to help put food on the table and pay the bills--despite Terry's habit of picking up expensive checks whenever he went out. Josh Friedman recalls that one night in New York, Southern insisted on paying a $200 bill and getting all their cab rides. He wouldn't let his friend's son fork over a cent.
Each day, it seems, Nile is still discovering some studio in L.A. handing over a fraction of Terry's royalty checks to the government. (Terry gets $250 for each televised screening of Strangelove, considerably less every time Easy Rider runs on TV.) It will take years before Nile can account for every cent due his father--and every cent his father owes someone else.
All Nile can do now is wait it out and hope someone will buy the estate and donate it to a library. All he can do is keep spending his own money to fly to L.A. for a meeting with an agent to discuss filming Texas Summer or remaking The Magic Christian or, maybe, Blue Movie, which itself is a tangled mess of legal issues, since Stanley Kubrick might own up to 40 percent of its rights (it was, after all, his idea!). All Nile can do is keep getting temp jobs--working construction, stretching barbed wire on area ranches, anything--and hope his wife and 2-year-old daughter understand how important this is to him.
"I knew that I wanted to be involved with Terry's work, because I feel it's an important body of work," Nile says. "They're wonderful stories. There's this kind of nagging feeling of something wonderful that's neglected--like, say, a beautiful woman who's unmarried. It just doesn't feel right. That's a situation that ought to be corrected."
It is now a few hours after Nile first called Peter Fonda. He decides to try again, and this time gets him on the phone. Fonda is in bed, ready to talk, reminisce...even, Nile says later, sort of apologize. They talk about the old days, Easy Rider, how much Fonda wishes he had known earlier of Terry's financial state. He says he wants to help.
Nile is direct, wanting to know how much Fonda can contribute. Maybe the whole 200 thou?
Fonda says it's late, and he will call again tomorrow. They will talk specifics then. Nile is relieved.
But Fonda doesn't call on Sunday.
Still, Nile waits.
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