‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’: Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas Couldn’t Get Studio Interest in the Oscar-Winning Movie

Actor Kirk Douglas and his son, Michael, teamed up to make One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. However, it was a long journey that was quite difficult to get financing for. Douglas played the lead role of Randle McMurphy in the stage play, although the film adaptation role ultimately went to Jack Nicholson. Douglas explained why no studio initially wanted anything to do with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Kirk Douglas had his share of disputes with movie studios

'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas. Kirk has his arm around Michael with them both wearing suits.
L-R: Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas | Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

James Bawden and Ron Miller’s Conversations with Classic Film Stars recalled an interview where Douglas talked about some of his disputes that he had with movie studios. He managed to avoid many arguments with big personality directors, but the same can’t be said for big studio executives. Nevertheless, Douglas had his reasons long before One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

“Let me give you an example of that: Lonely Are the Brave,” Douglas said. “You need the proper selling of a picture like that. I thought Universal just threw it away. They didn’t give it a chance. They took it out of circulation. Then there were all those great reviews and people said, ‘Where’s the picture?’ Their ego prevented them from making a different campaign for the picture. The longer I’m in this business, the more amazed I am that a movie can be made, good or bad.”

Kirk Douglas and his son, Michael, couldn’t initially sell ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ to a studio

Miller mentioned that Douglas losing out on the lead role of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest must be one of his greatest frustrations. The actor acquired the rights to the book, but went through a difficult time when it came to actually getting the picture made. Douglas teamed up with Michael and successfully got funding for it outside of Hollywood.

“It was way ahead of its time,” Douglas said. “When I took it to Broadway, the critics didn’t know what to make of it. The audience loved it, but it didn’t do very well. I tried for nearly 12 years to make it as a movie. I took it to every studio. But they wouldn’t do it, even with a limited budget.”

Douglas continued: “Finally, I went into partnership with my son, Michael, and we were able to find somebody outside of the industry to put up the money and we made a little picture that I never predicted would be a hit. So it did over $200 million! Nobody knows what will really be successful.”

‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was a big hit at the box office and the Oscars

Douglas wasn’t kidding when he talked about the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The budget clocked in at an estimated $3-$4.4 million, but it brought in over $200 million at the worldwide box office. That alone is a huge success, but the story doesn’t end there.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the second movie to win all five major Academy Awards categories – Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay. The first was 1934’s It Happened One Night. However, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest also secured four additional nominations – Best Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Film Editing, and Original Score.

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