Kirk Douglas’s ‘Biggest Disappointment in Life’ Was Missing Out on Jack Nicholson’s Role in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Kirk Douglas is a Hollywood legend. Not only did he have an impressive career spanning the stage and screen, but his son Michael Douglas is just as talented. Still, everyone has their regrets, even someone as prolific as Kirk.

His biggest regret involves missing out on the role of a lifetime: R.P. McMurphy in the Academy Award-winning film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Here’s how it happened.

Kirk Douglas acted in the stage version of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ 

Actor Kirk Douglas (R) attends a ceremony honoring his son actor Michael Douglas (L) with a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2018
Michae Douglas speaks to his father Kirk Douglas in 2018 | VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

Even though Kirk didn’t act in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he is the reason the movie was made, according to History By Day. In the ’60s, Kirk fell in love with Ken Kesey’s novel, the source material for the movie. He repeatedly tried to get it made into a film but had no luck. Kirk was able to get the novel made into a Broadway play. 

Kirk starred in the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as McMurphy. Although Michael wasn’t yet an actor, he did inherit his father’s love of Kesey’s novel. The younger Douglas asked permission to run with the material.

Michael was finally able to turn it into a film. By that time, however, Kirk was too old to play the lead role. 

The film adaptation of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was a masterpiece

The film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest quickly became a timeless masterpiece. Michael told The Guardian that the movie was basically cobbled together by a ragtag group of Hollywood newbies and misfits. Yet it went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Jack Nicholson, and Best Actress for Louise Fletcher. 

But One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was more than just a critical success. It was a financial one as well. The movie was 1975’s third highest-grossing film — the top earner for 1976. All told, it made more than $163 million worldwide.

Nicholson took a cut of the profits in exchange for a minimal salary, which ended up being a great decision. Not only did he win his Oscar, but he walked away with 10% of the $163 million profit, probably somewhere around $16 million. Remember: This was $16 million in 1970s economic terms. It would be much more today.

Kirk Douglas’s biggest regret was missing out on Jack Nicholson’s role in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ 


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Kirk also took a huge cut of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest pie. In fact, he wrote in his autobiography that he made more money from owning the rights to this film than he did from any movie he acted in throughout his entire career. But Kirk claims he would give back all the cash for the chance to play the lead role. 

The elder Douglas described not being able to play McMurphy in the film version as the “biggest disappointment” in his life. Although he does believe Nicholson did a great job with the part. “If Jack was lousy in it, I would have said, ‘What a mistake they made!’ But he got an Oscar, so maybe I would have been wrong in the part,” he stated, according to History By Day.

For his part, Nicholson credits Kirk with the entire project. After all, the X star saw the potential in the source material and never stopped pushing for it to become a movie. Kirk died on February 5, 2020 at the age of 103 years old.