The McCann Time Capsule: ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

The McCann Time Capsule: ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Milos Forman, the film director who died last week, was famous for a number of movies, including the 1975 five-time Oscar winner “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” that starred Jack Nicholson as the rebellious lead character R.P. McMurphy. The movie was based on the 1962 Ken Kesey novel of the same name. The path from book to movie 13 years later was one that involved many turns along the way, including with a McCann creative director somewhere in the middle.

The book was an immediate bestseller, and there was interest in adapting it into a stage play right at the start. The actor Kirk Douglas acquired the rights with plans to use it as a Broadway vehicle for himself. When he saw that a playwright, Dale Wasserman, had also been interested, he hired him to write the play, although the Hollywood star retained the screen rights. The play opened on Broadway in 1963 with Douglas in the lead. While it ran for five months before closing, the reviews were negative. (Wasserman himself would go on to greater success two years later, writing the book for the musical “Man of La Mancha.”)

But dying on Broadway was not the death of the script. In 1970, the play was successfully reworked and revived in the Bay Area with McCann VP-Associate Creative Director Rudi Golyn as a producer.  As a McCann company newsletter at the time said:

“When Rudi Golyn leaves the portals of the San Francisco office, he turns into the co-producer of a hit play, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’

Rudi, in collaboration with the director, Lee Sankowich, has developed a vibrant and sensitive production of Ken Kesey’s bestselling novel. Kesey himself came down from Oregon to see the play in early June and was very enthusiastic about the production.

Rudi hopes for a long run, and from the list of notices, it looks as though it will be in San Francisco for quite a while.” 

The Golyn-Sankowich production then also returned to New York in 1971, but this time off-Broadway starring William Devane (and showcasing Danny Devito). In this incarnation, it became a hit, running for over 2,000 performances, and it has been subsequently brought back a number of times, including successfully on Broadway in 2001 with Gary Sinise as the lead.

Golyn stayed with McCann San Francisco until 1974 and then worked as a creative director at a number of other agencies in San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Boston. He and Sankowich had another hit in San Francisco in reviving Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” (1,025 performances) but also suffered with a flop in New York off-Broadway in 1975 with “Finn Mackool, the Grand Distraction’ (closed after one performance).

But as the producer and director recounted in a 1995 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, they also missed out on the big money associated with “Cuckoo’s Nest” which, as a movie, grossed $109 million domestically on a $3 million production budget.

Prior to the off-Broadway re-opening in the early 1970s, “the two had a momentous meeting with [Kirk] Douglas, who owned the movie rights,” the newspaper reported.

“As Sankowich and Golyn recall that meeting, Douglas offered to sell them the rights.

"’We ate at Ernie's. Douglas strutted around Ernie's like a peacock. He was a nice enough guy, but a lot of ego,’ Sankowich says. They say they were told by Douglas' agent that they could have the rights for $100,000.

"’We hadn't opened in New York,’ Sankowich says, explaining why they turned down the offer. ‘We were two young guys in San Francisco. We would have had to raise the money. We had no film track record. We had been proven nowhere but San Francisco.’

“The movie eventually was made by Michael Douglas, Kirk's son, and went on to make a fortune. Sankowich and Golyn have been kicking themselves ever since.”

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