Alvarado, Texas, 1 May 1924.
1945–48—Northwestern University, English major;
1942–44—WWII service, U.S. Army (Europe).
1950s—wrote for expatriate publications:
New Story; Zero; Merlin; The Paris Review;
1964 onwards—screenwriter. Television work:
Saturday Night Live
— 1981—82 season.
30 October 1995.
Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick) (co-sc)
The Cincinnati Kid (Jewison) (co-sc); The Loved One (T. Richardson) (co-sc)
Eye of the Devil (Lee Thompson) (co-sc, uncredited); Casino Royale (J. Huston, V. Guest, Parrish, McGrath, K. Hughes, Talmadge) (co-sc, uncredited)
Barbarella (Vadim) (co-sc); Candy (C. Marquand) (original novel only)
Easy Rider (D. Hopper) (co-sc); The Magic Christian (McGrath) (co-sc, from orig novel)
End of the Road (Avakian) (co-sc)
The Telephone (Torn) (co-sc)
"Now dig this," an interview with Mike Golden, in Creative Screenwriting (Washington, D.C.), Winter 1996.
Flash and Filigree , 1958.
The Magic Christian , 1959.
As "Maxwell Kenton," with Mason Hoffenberg, Candy , 1964.
Red Dirt Marijuana , 1968, re-issued, 1990.
Blue Movie , 1970.
Texas Summer , 1992.
Dassanowsky-Harris, R., "The Southern Journey: Candy and The Magic Christian as Cinematic Picaresques," in Studies In Popular Culture , no. 1, 1992.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 6 November 1995.
Obituary in Time , 13 November 1995.
Obituary in EPD Film (Frankfurt), December 1995.
Grand Street , Spring 1996.
Obituary in Paris Review , Spring 1996.
Obituary in Sewanee Review , Summer 1996.
New Yorker , 22 June 1998.
* * *
Terry Southern's place in the sixties counterculture pantheon rests on decidedly slim ground when it comes to the movies, despite working on two of the decade's most influential films. His cowriting credit on the hit apocalyptic black comedy Dr. Strangelove appeared to herald a long and lucrative sojourn in the cinema, yet of his seven subsequent films only Easy Rider enjoyed anything approaching the same impact. When the sixties ceased to swing, so did Southern's career, his belated one-off comeback proving a barely-seen disaster. A specialist in off-the-wall black humour, Southern could undoubtedly score points off satire's favourite targets (politics, militarism, racism, corporate and individual greed, sexual hypocrisy, dehumanising science) but appears to have spent any genuine ire on Strangelove , obliging later work to settle for jaded leftovers.
A cult success since the late 1950s, Southern found himself heading into the mainstream in 1963 when Magic Christian fans Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers invited him on board for Dr. Strangelove. Though working from a "straight" original, Peter George's novel Red Alert , Kubrick found himself drawn to the terrible absurdity of immanent nuclear annihilation, an approach ideally suited for Southern. While most cold-war dramas now appear wearily dated, the nightmare comedy of Strangelove remains compelling, if overly mannered, the idea that the world could be ended by a middle-aged general driven insane by his impotence (which he blames on the Russians) both amusing and awful. As with most multiauthored scripts, Southern's exact contribution to the film is difficult to determine. The childishly obscene/absurd character names (Strangelove, Merkin Muffley, Buck Turgidson, Bat Guano) have a Southern ring, as does George C. Scott's oft quoted "I don't say we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million people killed." Coupled with the mainstream publication of Candy , Southern's then scandalous reworking of Candide , Strangelove turned him into a hot film property. The MGM-affiliated outfit Filmways was first in line, though two of the projects on offer called for rewrites rather than original inspiration. For The Cincinnati Kid , Southern did an efficient, if straightforward job of shaping up the story of poker-hustlers assembling for the game of the decade (the best Southern touch is the throwaway moment where sluttish femme fatale Ann-Margaret cuts up a piece of jigsaw puzzle to make it fit where she wants it to fit). Injecting some Strangelovian touches into Christopher Isherwood's screenplay for The Loved One , Southern fumbled the satirical ball, contributing to an ungainly, uneven charade of "daring" bad taste as various whacked-out characters do their thing in a world of funeral parlours and thwarted lust. Filmways let Southern in on Eye of the Devil more or less at the start, but the weird period tale of ritual pagan sacrifice in a noble French family proved alien territory for a talent happier with more contemporary oddities.
Recruited for the "adult" comic strip movie Barbarella , Roger Vadim's dubious attempt to transform then-wife Jane Fonda into the thinking man's fantasy sex doll, Southern had the chance to develop a Candy -like narrative of decadent corruption defeated by honest sexual passion, yet the perils of scriptwriting by committee took their toll. Cobbled together by Southern, Vadim, original creator Jean Claude Forest and at least five others, Barbarella amounts to little more than a loosely structured series of demurely kinky sexual encounters spiced with a little campy sadism (such as the infamous snapping dolls). Southern had some say in the casting, selecting fashionable friend Anita Pallenberg for the role of the Black Queen (voice courtesy of Fenella Fielding), and contributed at least one decent line ("A lot of dramatic situations begin with screaming") only to find his efforts passed over in the general critical derision. Ironically, Candy itself made it to the big screen in the same year, as a coy, smug cop-out sex romp assembled with no input from either Southern or coauthor Mason Hoffenberg (it flopped).
Following a fruitless stint working on Kubrick's screen version of A Clockwork Orange , Southern finally got a much needed break with the ultimate "sleeper" project Easy Rider , a vaguely antiestablishment mix of sex, drugs, bikes, and rock and roll devised by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Hired mainly to add some structure and narrative drive to the existing outline (also to lend big-name distinction to a generally sneered on project), Southern developed the borderline-normal character of small-town lawyer George Hanson (a career-making role for Jack Nicholson) and came up with the title, slang for a whore's old man. Effective satire requires a recognisable target, however (cliched gun-toting rednecks hardly count), and Easy Rider fails to deliver. Southern dropped out early on, later complaining that Hopper and Fonda denied him proper credit for his work.
Having failed to get back with Kubrick, Southern agreed to a reteaming with Peter Sellers on an adaptation of his own The Magic Christian. Heavily reworked from the original, mostly by uncredited Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman, the film lacks the book's drive and aggression, with only the various star turn attractions (notably drag artist Yul Brynner) holding much curiosity value. The infamous finale, with besuited businessmen symbolically diving for cash in a vat of excrement, repulsed both the film's backers (obliging Sellers and friends to raise their own completion money) and audiences. The cult hit that launched Southern's movie career became his first credited flop. The appropriately titled End of the Road , directed and cowritten by fellow Paris veteran Aram Avakian, offered more substance (and better acting) but the conventionally absurd madnessis-the-only-true-sanity theme now seemed both old hat and smug. After nearly two decades in the unproduced screenplay wilderness, Southern's collaboration with Rip Torn (director) and Harry Nilsson (cowriter) on The Telephone proved a disastrous "comeback," its story of an out-of-work actress experiencing mental problems provoked no audience interest at all (star Whoopi Goldberg attempted to sue the producers to stop the film's release.) It is fair to say (as Southern readily confessed) that the looming shadow of Dr. Strangelove was just too big to escape.