May 5, 2009

Sometimes a Great Party—the Lincoln County Filming of a Ken Kesey Novel

By Matt Love
Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range...come look...
Thus opens Ken Kesey's sprawling, drenched, riffing, old growth dense, beautifully flawed, LSD flavored, masterpiece of a novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, set on the Oregon Coast, about a gyppo logging family, published in 1964, and undeniably the greatest Oregon work of fiction of all time. If you live on the Northwest Coast and haven’t read it, you have no business living on the Northwest Coast.

Not long after the Great Day-Glo man died in 2001, I found myself drinking beer in the Bayhaven, an ancient tavern on Newport’s Bayfront. There I noticed hanging on a wall a framed poster of promotional stills from Sometimes a Great Notion the movie. It was filmed in and around Lincoln County in 1970 and includes scenes shot in the Bayhaven, which stood in for The Snag saloon from the novel.

On sheer journalistic whim, I asked the Bayhaven’s bartender if she had seen the movie. I asked a few other patrons the same question. They all had. In fact, several had also read the novel, which bulges over 600 pages in the most recent paperback edition. We talked about that book, about Kesey’s first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and the movie adaptations of each, one a classic, the other not.

At the age of 46 Paul Newman, then arguably Hollywood’s biggest star, produced, directed and starred as the logger Hank Stamper in Sometimes a Great Notion, one of the first high profile, independent American films. In addition to Newman in the lead role, the film featured Henry Fonda, Lee Remick, Michael Sarrazin, and Richard Jaeckel, respectively as Hank’s domineering father, unhappy wife, estranged brother and cousin.

Despite Newman’s huge world-wide celebrity, the picture tanked upon its December 1971 release. Later it was retitled Never Give an Inch for television where in my youth in Oregon City I discovered it on the late show. Nineteen eighty-six marked the movie’s video cassette release, but it has inexplicably never been released officially on DVD (although I own bootlegged DVDS and give them away at my literary events).

The Oregon press offered uniformly positive reviews when Sometimes a Great Notion came out, but to me, it is a mediocre movie, unimaginatively adapted. Newman and screenwriter John Gay obviously read the novel and tried to conjure a coherent theme from a biblical work of fiction punctuated with manic stretches of stream-of-consciousness and multiple narrators (including a dog). But they failed. The movie is also marred by a terribly dubbed audio track and murky cinematography. If any scene remains memorable, it’s the harrowing sequence where Jaeckel’s character is pinned under a log as a rising estuarine tide drowns him while Newman tries to cut him free.

The film’s most glaring fault however, is that despite being filmed where the novel is set, it utterly fails to evoke the sense of special unhinged Oregon place that characterizes the genius of Kesey’s novel. He nailed what rain does to us here on the Northwest Coast better than any writer before or since, including Lewis and Clark at Ft. Clatsop.
You must go through a winter to understand, Kesey wrote.

Amen to that.

Today the movie is worth watching mainly to see how the Central Oregon Coast looked in 1970 and how the Oregon Department of Forestry regulated logging in the pre-Oregon Forest Practices Act era (and probably fantasizes about doing so today). There was no regulation. In one shocking scene, loggers drop 300-year old conifers right into a pristine estuary.

As I drank in the Bayhaven, asking patrons their opinions on Sometimes a Great Notion, the novel and movie, a thickly bearded man wearing a baseball cap emerged from an alcove sheltering the video poker machines and moved toward me holding a Hamm’s can. He sat next to me at the bar and said he had a story about the movie. A story about Paul Newman. Would I like to hear it? Yes, I would. I ordered him another Hamm’s. He appeared anywhere from 40-70 years old, or what I call OTA, Oregon tavern age.

One night in 1970, the man was drinking in a tavern in Toledo, eight miles east of Newport. In walked an unaccompanied Paul Newman carrying a chainsaw. “He was wearing a fake chest,” said the man. The man explained that Newman wore some kind of padding under his shirt, evidently to appear bulkier. That Newman still wore the padding and carried the chainsaw meant he must have come right off location in the woods near Toledo where some of the timber falling scenes were shot.

Newman didn’t say anything. The patrons recognized him but didn’t say anything. He fired up the chainsaw, sawed the legs off a pool table and sent the slate crashing to the floor. Newman left without saying a word. Perhaps later he sent a check to cover the damage. Perhaps not. The whole incident unfolded in less than three minutes.
C’mon, you're bullshitting me? I said. I then reminded him of a scene from the movie where Newman’s character enters an office with a chainsaw and cuts up the place.
I know that scene, he said. That was acting in Newport. I was in a bar in Toledo. Newman was there. He was drunk out of his mind. I have no reason to lie. I don’t even know you.
A few minutes later, the man disappeared and I never got his name.

Three days after hearing this fantastic story, I set out to corroborate its veracity. First I made a day trip to the Toledo area, hit every bar and tavern and asked around about Sometimes a Great Notion, the movie, and the alleged Newman madness. No one had heard of it, but they all thought it could be true.

Next, I attempted to contact Newman directly via emails to several of his high profile business ventures. I never received a reply. I then perused three Newman biographies and learned that he once drank to binge and blackout excess. The biographies also reported that the independent production of Sometimes a Great Notion experienced major problems.

For starters, Newman fired director Richard Colla early on over “creative differences” and assumed the responsibility himself. If that unforeseen duty didn’t complicate matters enough, Newman broke his ankle in a motorcycle crash during filming and the accident shut down production for several months.

Perhaps an additional demand exasperated Paul Newman: local and state politicians who insisted on having their photograph taken with him. On August 28, 1970, Oregon Governor Tom McCall, then facing a tough reelection bid, paid a call on Newman when McCall’s risky state-sponsored rock festival for peace called Vortex 1 was unfolding in a state park near Estacada. I have seen the Associated Press photograph of a giddy McCall looking through a camera while a tense Newman looks on. What a free publicity coup for McCall! What a pain in the ass for Newman!

And finally, perhaps filming (and financing) such a complex novel in an alien landscape without major studio support was too much for Newman and he lost it in a Toledo tavern.

I left the story alone for a couple of years and then it resurfaced in 2006 in the unlikeliest of ways. I was teaching English at Taft High School in Lincoln City and casually dropped to some of the staff and students that I’d poked around the Newman tale and was interested in writing about the filming of the movie.

Within days, I received about a dozen leads connecting me to friends, parents, and relatives who had some role in the film’s production or servicing the Hollywood people. And frankly, the stories were incredible—better yet, totally unreported.

Then in the spring of 2007, I found myself in the tiny Toledo Historical Museum on a teaching errand completely unrelated to the Sometimes a Great Notion story. On a lark, I asked the museum’s director if the archives held any material about the movie shoot. Yes, the archives did. Would I like to see them? Yes, I would. A few minutes later I held an approximately 100-page file containing newspaper and magazine clippings of local, state and national stories about the film’s production. There were even articles from the Los Angeles Times and a trade publication called Chain Saw Age, which featured Newman on the cover wielding a McCulloch beast with what looked like a 60-inch bar! The museum director told me that someone had compiled this file back in 1970-71 and turned it over to the museum years ago. To her knowledge, no one had ever looked at it. I paid her $50 on the spot to copy the entire file for me. I read it all later that night.

Some highlights:
  • In his spare time, Henry Fonda sketched watercolors and collected agates. He bought himself a tumbler to polish his rocks. He also worried about the “sensibilities” of old trees cut down for the film.
  • Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward stayed at the Salishan Lodge and brought seven kids and ten pets with them. He was reading Iris Murdock’s novel An Honorable Defeat during his Oregon stay and regularly had a special caramel corn made in Depoe Bay delivered to the set.
  • The Toledo office of the state unemployment division interviewed loggers to work as extras.
  • The entire production was plagued by lack of rain. It was too sunny that summer.
  • Taft High School hosted an open casting call and it was jammed with locals dreaming for roles.
  • One Taft High School junior girl met Michael Sarrazin in the elevator at the Inn at Spanish Head where she worked. The next day she had a part in the movie.
  • Ken Kesey showed up unannounced on the set a couple of times.
By that time I had become acquainted with Ken Babbs, Ken Kesey’s second in command and fellow Merry Prankster. I told Babbs I’d read an article that reported Kesey visited the set driving a psychedelic car. Babbs wrote me:

The sports car was George Walker's day-glo painted Lotus. We were up on a landing where they were filming logging shots. When done, Newman challenged George to a race down the mountain. He tricked George by asking him a question about something and when George looked around to find the answer to the question, Newman sprinted to his Corvette and took off. George was behind him and never could find a place to pass on the winding mountain road. Kesey also went to the set when they were filming the scene of Joe Ben caught under the log as the tide was raising the river level. They filmed in a big tank and Kesey said during the whole night it took, they went through a case of scotch and no one was even slightly drunk.

All of this and I haven’t yet even started my real research: tracking down every Lincoln County name mentioned in all the articles, determining if Jaeckel and Sarrazin still live, and hosting events in Newport and Toledo where I’ll screen the film and invite people to share their “brush with Hollywood stories.” (Or better yet, “who I got drunk with and/or slept with stories.”)

I have, of course, read the file, heard the Newman drinking tale, read up on Newman, and interviewed a couple dozen people so far. Thus, I feel confident claiming that: in 1970 Lincoln County met up with a hard drinking cast and crew led by Newman, who was trying to film the greatest Oregon novel of all time, and they all breathed in the wild Oregon spirit of Ken Kesey—and everyone lost their minds.

And I am also here to claim that I will write the book that captures all the madness. It will be called Sometimes a Great Party and hope to find enough of the home movie footage I know the locals shot to make a documentary to include as a DVD with the book.

One final note. I recently learned that circa 1970, Toledo had a tavern on Main Street named the Hardhat. To enter you had to pull on an ax stuck randomly in the front door. I’ll bet everything I own that Paul Newman once stepped foot in there.

I’ve got a lead on the Hardhat’s last owner.

If you have a story connected to the filming of Sometimes a Great Notion, please contact Matt Love at All photographs accompanying this article are courtesy of photographer Gerry Lewin. Lewin was a staff photographer for the Salem Statesman in 1970 and covered the event for the paper. During the movie shoot, he picked up a bewildered Henry Fonda in costume walking down a road. Lewin gave him a ride to the set.