Revisiting A Classic: Facts About One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

An adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was released in 1975 and follows the character Randle McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson. He’s a new patient at a mental institution, where he rebels against an abusive nurse while simultaneously inspiring the other patients to stand up for themselves. Considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time, it has earned countless accolades over the years and is one of the few movies to win the “Big Five” at the Academy Awards. Let’s take a step inside Oregon State Hospital to learn some lesser-known facts about the film and how it has withstood the test of time.

The Ending Was Almost Changed hen

Jack Nicholson on someone's shoulders
United Artists
United Artists

When the producers were looking for a studio to help make the movie, 20th Century Fox was interested, however, they had a few conditions of their own. They agreed that they would make the film, on the condition that the ending would be changed so that McMurphy would live.

Producers Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas were strongly opposed to this idea. But luckily for them, United Artists eventually picked up the film and gave us the ending we have today.

Louise Fletcher Had Her Own Take On Nurse Ratched

Photo of Nurse Ratchet
United Artists
United Artists

When filming One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, director Milos Forman had the belief that Nurse Ratched was “the personification of evil,” which didn’t make Louise Fletcher the perfect actor for the role. Yet, as Fletcher continued to show interest in the character, Forman’s perspective changed.

He claims, “I slowly started to realize that it would be much more powerful if it’s not visible evil. That she’s only an instrument of evil. She doesn’t know that she’s evil. In fact, she believes that she’s helping people.” This change of heart helped Fletcher land the part.

Many Scenes Were Shot Without The Actors’ Knowledge

Nicholson and other masters
United Artists
United Artists

To make the film feel as realistic as possible, Forman instructed for unscripted therapy sessions to be held in which the actors would develop their character’s psychological issues on their own.

He would then record the sessions with the actors both in and out of character, usually not informing them when the cameras were rolling. For example, in the final cut of the film, there is a shot of a clearly annoyed Fletcher who is naturally reacting to an instruction that she was given to by Forman.

The Shoot Was Difficult For Danny DeVito

Danny DeVito
United Artists
United Artists

The shooting schedule for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was intense, and it kept Danny DeVito three thousand miles away from his future wife, Rhea Perlman. To deal with the separation anxiety that he was feeling, he manifested an imaginary friend that he would have nightly conversations with.

At one point, DeVito feared that he might actually be losing his mind and consulted Dr. Brooks, who assured him that there was no need to worry as long as he was aware that his friend wasn’t actually real.

The Film Took A Toll On Some Of The Actors

Picture of Sydney Lassick
United Artists
United Artists

Although Danny DeVito may have had an imaginary friend to keep him company, it wasn’t anything that actually concerned Dr. Brooks on set. However, one actor that Dr. Brooks did have some concern over was Sydney Lassick, who played Charlie Cheswick.

Over the course of the shoot, Lassick became more unpredictable and erratic when portraying his character. During the filming of the final scene between Nicholson and Sampson, Lassick broke down in tears and had to be removed from the set.

The Fishing Scene Almost Didn’t Happen

Jack Nicolson on a boat
United Artists
United Artists

At first, Forman was against the idea of including a scene that took place outside of the hospital ground. He thought that it would take away from the impact of the ending. Producer Saul Zaentz eventually convinced Forman to shoot the fishing scene, which was the only piece of the film shot out of chronological order.

In the scene, there’s also a small cameo from Anjelica Huston, who was dating Nicholson at the time. She can be seen as a spectator on the dock as McMurphy and the fellow patients bring the stolen boat back to shore.

Author Ken Kesey Refused To Watch The Film

Ken Kesey in a hat
Graham Barclay/BWP Media/Getty Images
Graham Barclay/BWP Media/Getty Images

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest is an adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name. However, Kesey was extremely disappointed when the filmmakers announced they weren’t going to use Chief Bromden as the story’s narrator.

Kesey went so far as to vow to never see the movie but accidentally saw a few minutes of it when he was channel surfing one night. Once he realized what he was watching, he promptly changed the station.

Director Milos Forman And Star Jack Nicholson Butted Heads Over The Plot

Jack Nicholson in movie
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Although many rumors have spread about the less-than-friendly relationship between Forman and Nicholson, at one point, the actor refused to speak to the director for a large portion of the production.

Forman suggested that the hospital inmates were already unruly prior to McMurphy’s arrival, whereas Nicholson was firm that McMurphy should be the driving force that turns the inmates to become more and more disobedient. Although it appears that Forman took Nicholson’s advice, the two would still communicate using cinematographer Bill Butler as a middleman.

Many Of The Film’s Stars Weren’t Actual Actors

Sampson and Chief
United Artists
United Artists

After deciding that they were going to use Oregon State Hospital as a shooting location, the filmmakers also decided to cast real people working at the hospital. For example, Dr. Dean Brooks plays Dr. John Spivey, the doctor charged with assessing McMurphy’s mental health.

Another local and non-actor, Mel Lambert, was asked to play the harbormaster during the fishing trip scene. Lambert also had a strong relationship with the local Native Americans and introduced Will Sampson to the filmmakers. Sampson made his acting debut as the character Chief Bromden.

Kesey Sued The Film

Ken Kesey Next to His Van
Harry Herd/Redferns
Harry Herd/Redferns

Author Ken Kesey was so disappointed by the films that he sued Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz for supposedly breaking a verbal agreement that they would not make “wholesale” changes from the novel.

According to Kesey, “They took out the morality. They took out the Combine, the conspiracy that is America.” He sued for 5% of the film’s gross as well as $800,000 for damages. In the end, he eventually settled for 2.5% of the gross.

It Won All “Big Five” Academy Awards

Inmates playing cards
United Artists
United Artists

In 1943, the film It Comes at Night walked away with the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. It Comes at Night held that record for 41 years until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest achieved the same accomplishment, with Nicholson and Fletcher both winning the top acting awards.

It would be the only film to bag all five of these awards until The Silence of the Lambs 16 years later, which has held the title since.

Fletcher Did Something Shocking To Get Comfortable With The Male Cast

Louise Fletcher as Ratched
United Artists
United Artists

With the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest being primarily male, it’s no surprise that Louise Fletcher felt a little left out from the rest of the boys. On top of that, she played the antagonist of the film, which created an even further divide between her and the rest of the cast.

So, one evening, Fletcher randomly stripped out of her nurse’s robe, much to the surprise of her fellow castmates. She wanted to prove that she wasn’t “a cold-hearted monster” like Ratched.

Marlon Brando Almost Played McMurphy

Jack Nicholson spraying water
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Although it’s difficult to picture anyone but Jack Nicholson as the rebellious R.P. McMurphy, the role almost went to Marlon Brando. As well as Brando, other actors were considered for the role including, Gene Hackman, James Caan, and Steve McQueen.

Furthermore, in the case of Nurse Ratched, other actresses that were offered the role were Anne Bancroft, Angela Lansbury, Faye Dunaway, and Ellen Burstyn. Luckily for us, they all turned the role down.

The Set Is Where The Cast Lived

Actors In Moviw
United Artists
United Artists

The film was not just shot in the real Oregon State Hospital but was also where director Milos Forman lived for four months prior to the start of filming.

The cast as well made the hospital their home, with each actor having their individual sleeping quarters where they regularly interacted with the extras, who were actual hospital patients. Not only did this help the actors get into character, but showed them what it was really like to live in a mental ward.

There Was An Injury On Set

Nicholson in the film
United Artists
United Artists

While filming, a crew member was tasked with running cables around the hospital building. Unfortunately, the worker accidentally left one of the second-story windows open, resulting in a patient at the Oregon State Mental Hospital to climb through the bars and fall to the ground.

The following day, The Statesman Journal in Salem, Massachusetts, reported on the incident using the ironic headline “One Flew OUT Of The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Luckily, the patient made a full recovery.

The Story Runs In The Douglas Family

Kirk and Michael Douglas
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Before One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was even published, Hollywood star Kirk Douglas bought the film rights. Douglas fell in love with the book in 1961 and ended up starring in the Broadway production of the book in 1963. However, when he was looking to adapt the book into a movie, almost every major studio turned Douglas down.

Eventually, Kirk would gift the rights to the book to his son, Michael Douglas, on the condition that he would still receive some of the profits if the movie was ever made and was successful.

The Fishing Scene Took A Lot To Film

Men on a boat
United Artists
United Artists

The fishing scene in the movie was filmed in Depoe Bay, Oregon, the smallest navigable harbor in the world. Incredibly, it took an entire week to film, and to make things worse, Jack Nicholson became terribly seasick.

Furthermore, all of these years later, Danny DeVito also admits that he starts feeling a little sick every time that he has stepped onto a boat from that long week of filming on Depoe Bay. Plus, they almost didn’t film the scene in the first place!

There’s A Connection To Batman

Actors in the film
United Artists
United Artists

On top of both acting in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, both Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito played the major villains in Tim Burton’s Batman films. Nicholson played the infamous Joker in Batman and Danny DeVito in Batman Returns.

Furthermore, Brad Dourif, who was also in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, was set to star as The Scarecrow in Burton’s third Batman film, Batman Continues. However, the film was canceled, and Jim Carrey replaced him as an entirely new villain in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever.

Ratched’s Name

Picture of Ratched
Artists United
Artists United

In the novel, Nurse Ratched’s first name is never actually mentioned, which helps to make her an even more mysterious and threatening character. However, in the film, that’s not the case.

In the film, when the hospital committee meets with her to discuss her behavior, Dr. Spivey refers to her as “Mildred.” Her name is mentioned once again in the movie after McMurphy returns from electroconvulsive therapy. He sits down in a session and refers to her as “Mildred.”

Many Of The Reactions In The Film Were Genuine

Man ripping out a sink
United Artists
United Artists

While director Milos Forman did a lot of filming for the movie that wasn’t in the script, there were also several characters’ reactions that were completely genuine. For example, in one scene, Nicholson was instructed to leap on a guard and kiss him upon his character’s arrival at the hospital.

While Nicholson did what he was told, he purposefully did it to another guard that wasn’t expecting it. This caught the man completely by surprise and in some versions, the guard can even be seen jokingly punching Nicholson.