He was a depressed 20-year-old whose hobby was faking suicide in vain bids for his mother's attention. But then he met the world's oldest Manic Pixie Dream Girl and learned to enjoy life and risk heartbreak. Their unlikely romance, 'Harold and Maude,' flopped at the box office when it was released 40 years ago today (on December 20, 1971), yet the movie became one of the most beloved cult hits of all time. Today, there are fans who've seen it dozens of times, yet even they may not know all the bizarre stories behind the film -- from its beginnings as a Hollywood pool cleaner's pipe dream, to how the film's influence extended even to car-design engineers, to star Bud Cort's real-life May-December relationship with an aged Hollywood legend.
1. Bud Cort was born Walter Edward Cox in 1948, but when he became an actor, he changed his name because there was already a well-known TV star named Wally Cox (best known today as the voice of Underdog). In the late 1960s, he was performing in New York as part of a stand-up comedy duo with Judy Engles (who went on to play one of Harold's blind dates) when Robert Altman discovered him.
2. Altman cast Cort in both of his 1970 films, first in a minor role in 'M*A*S*H' and then in the title role of 'Brewster McCloud.' Before taking the role of Harold Chasen, the 22-year-old asked Altman's advice. The director warned him that if he played the morbid, eccentric young man, he'd be forever typecast.
3. Altman's warning to Cort turned out to be true. He was offered the Harold-like role of Billy Bibbit in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' but turned it down, hoping to land the lead role that eventually went to Jack Nicholson. A debilitating 1979 car crash sidelined him for several years. He found work often on Broadway and in character roles in such movies as 'Pollock' (2000) and 'The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou' (2004). The 63-year-old's most recent feature film role was in 2011's barely-released Mickey Rourke-Megan Fox thriller 'Passion Play.' Forty years later, Harold remains his signature role, but Cort seems not to mind and continues to speak warmly of his experience making the film.
4. Colin Higgins was a 30-year-old failed actor supporting himself as a pool cleaner and tennis-court sweeper in Hollywood when he managed to get his boss, film producer Ed Lewis, to read a screenplay Higgins had adapted from his own master's thesis for the UCLA screenwriting program. Lewis showed the script to Paramount honcho Robert Evans, who agreed to make 'Harold and Maude.'
5. Higgins, who in 1971 also published a novelization of the screenplay, including some scenes that didn't make it into the movie, wanted to direct the film himself and shot some test scenes for Paramount. The studio was unimpressed with his directing skills and hired Hal Ashby.
6. At the time, Ashby had directed only one film, the 1970 satire 'The Landlord,' but he was already an Oscar-winner, as an editor, for his work on the 1967 classic 'In the Heat of the Night.'
7. By the time Ruth Gordon was cast as Maude, she'd been acting on Broadway and in movies and television for 55 years, since the silent era. She and husband Garson Kanin had won Oscar nominations for the two screenplays they wrote for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, 1949's 'Adam's Rib' and 1952's 'Pat and Mike.' In 1968, at age 72, she finally won an Oscar for her acting, for the role of the sweet but sinister neighbor in 'Rosemary's Baby.'
8. Vivian Pickles, cast as Harold's disapproving mother, was an English stage actress who'd recently appeared in the film 'Sunday Bloody Sunday.' Her most celebrated role had been the title part in Ken Russell's made-for-TV biopic 'Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World' (1966). That was the performance that caught Ashby's attention and landed her the role of Mrs. Chasen.
9. The location used as the Chasen mansion was the Rose Court mansion in Hillsborough, California, near San Francisco. Its actual butler, Henry Dieckoff, played the Chasen family butler in the movie.
10. The motorcycle cop, played by an actor billed as "M. Borman" is actually future 'Alien' and 'Top Gun' star Tom Skerritt, who had appeared with Cort in 'M*A*S*H.'
11. During the scene where Maude steals the cop's motorcycle, Cort accidentally hit himself on the head with a shovel. Cort has said he was in serious pain but didn't want to stop and ruin the shot.
12. Director Ashby appears in an uncredited cameo, as a bearded man watching the model train at the amusement park.
13. Maude may be an accomplished car thief, but all the scenes of her driving were actually accomplished using an unseen tow truck to pull the car, as Gordon had lived 75 years without ever having learned to drive.
14. The soundtrack is made up of songs written and sung by Cat Stevens; two of them, 'Don't Be Shy' and 'If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,' were composed specifically for the movie. Those two songs were unavailable on record until appearing on a 1984 compilation. An official soundtrack album wasn't released until 2007.
15. The luxury railroad car Maude lives in was leased from the Western Railway Museum at Rio Vista Junction, in Solano County, east of San Francisco. After filming, it was returned to the museum (minus the fireplace added for the movie), and it remains part of the museum's collection today.
16. The film cost $1.2 million to make. It was not a box office hit, at least not in its first run. But 'Harold and Maude' went on to become a massive cult success. For decades, repertory theaters around the country frequently paired it as a double feature with 'King of Hearts,' another anti-establishment romance, set in an insane asylum. 'Harold and Maude' finally turned a profit in 1983.
17. The film played for two years at the Westgate Theater in Edina, Minnesota. Gordon appeared at the theater on the film's one-year anniversary there in 1973, and she brought Cort with her for the second anniversary in 1974. In all, the film screened nearly 2,000 times at the Westgate, prompting local residents to picket for new film fare.
18. The film was later adapted into a Broadway play. A French version was made for television in 1978, and a French play (co-scripted by Higgins), which ran in Paris for seven years. A 2000 staging in Los Angeles starred Ellen Geer (who'd played one of Harold's blind dates in the movie) as Maude.
19. Higgins' next big success was the script for the 1976 comedy hit 'Silver Streak,' which marked the first pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. That success finally landed him a directing gig, shooting his own screenplay for 'Foul Play.' That 1978 Chevy Chase-Goldie Hawn comedy was also a huge hit. Higgins followed that up by writing and directing landmark 1980 comedy '9 to 5,' which launched Dolly Parton's film career. His last feature film writing/directing job was the 1982 adaptation of the Broadway musical 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.' He died of AIDS in 1988 at age 47.
20. Gordon continued to enjoy success on Broadway, on TV (where she won an Emmy for a guest spot on a 1978 episode of 'Taxi') and in such films as 'Every Which Way But Loose' (as scene-stealing Ma Boggs) and 'My Bodyguard.' She also wrote three best-selling memoirs. She died of a stroke in 1985, at age 88.
21. Shortly after the release of 'Harold and Maude,' Cort enjoyed a real-life May-December friendship with Groucho Marx, then in his 80s. The two stars met via the psychiatrist they shared. Cort wound up living in Groucho's guest house for several years, and one of his most prized possessions is one of Marx's own teeth. (Cort retold the hilarious, incredible story behind that gift in a 2000 interview with Roseanne Barr on her talk show, which you should watch, below.)
22. After 'Harold,' Pickles continued to enjoy a celebrated career in British stage and film productions, including 'O Lucky Man!' To date, however, she has not acted in another American movie.
23. 'Harold and Maude' began an amazing run for Ashby, who became one of the signature directors of the 1970s. His follow-ups to 'Harold and Maude' included such classics as 'The Last Detail' (1973), 'Shampoo' (1975), 'Bound for Glory' (1976), 'Coming Home' (1978), and 'Being There' (1979). Throughout the '80s, however, his career was marked by such flops as 'The Slugger's Wife,' '8 Million Ways to Die,' and 'Lookin' to Get Out.' (That film is best remembered today as the movie debut of seven-year-old Angelina Jolie. Her father, Jon Voight, who had won an Oscar for his role as a paraplegic Vietnam veteran in Ashby's 'Coming Home,' co-wrote and starred in the 1982 dud.) Ashby died of pancreatic cancer in 1988. He was 59.
24. In 1997, the designers of BMW's squat little M coupe said their inspiration for the car was the sequence where a blowtorch-wielding Harold transforms his new Jaguar into a tiny hearse.
25. On the American Film Institute's list of the top 10 romantic comedies of all time, 'Harold and Maude' is No. 9, two spots below the Gordon-scripted 'Adam's Rib.'
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