Bud Cort

A quirky black comedy called "Harold and Maude" made him the poster boy of midnight movies. Thirty years later he said,"I've had moments where I wished I'd never done it."

Published September 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Many a first date has been given an adrenaline boost as soon as each member of the dubious couple discovers that "Harold and Maude" is the other's favorite film. More meaningful than merely cultpopular, "Harold and Maude" was a spiritual experience to many an earnest college kid who thrilled to its anti-establishment, devil-may-care spirit and its macabre sensibility, set to the tune of Cat Stevens' glorious soundtrack.

Gloomy, ashen and nearly necrophiliac, the 20-year-old Harold Chasen, played with comic catatonia by Bud Cort, is addicted to committing suicide. Then he meets a feisty, vital septuagenarian named Maude. Under Maude's sexualized tutelage, Harold learns to embrace life. Following her groove, Harold learns to heed Stevens' do-your-own-thing musical creed: "If you want to sing out sing out/And if you want to be free be free/'Cause there's a million ways to be/You know that there are."

When the film was released in 1971, critics panned it and it promptly flopped. Eventually it found a home at college art houses and achieved a certain cult status among motley, artsy misanthropes. Ruth Gordon, who played Maude, died in 1985. Three years later the film's director, Hal Ashby, and screenwriter, Colin Higgins, also died, the latter from AIDS. But Bud Cort, still very much alive, was one of those young stars who aged awkwardly and never really found his niche or reclaimed his fame. And a devastating car crash followed by years of physical therapy and plastic surgery further hampered the development of his career.

Now, with the 30th anniversary of "Harold and Maude" coming up, Cort is trying to convince Paramount to release a commemorative laser-disc version to go with a book he's writing about it. Yet, with a slew of new films in the works, he is also determined to leave Harold behind.

In 1996, the Los Angeles Times called him "a generational icon a quarter-century ago, a kind of midnight movie poster boy." While flattered to hear of his impact on young actors and fans, Cort said that "my dream is to get that reaction for new projects, for new characters." He called his cult status both "a blessing and a curse." He told the Times, "I was typecast to the point where I didn't make a film for five years after "Harold and Maude." He was offered a role in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which he rejected, explaining, "I just didn't want to play crazy. I fought certain opportunities off because I wasn't ready to be a brand name. In retrospect, I should have done everything." And he says of his most famous film, "I've had my moments where I just cursed that movie and wished I'd never done it."

Born Walter Edward Cox in Rye, N.Y., in 1950, Cort began his motion picture career in 1967 as an extra in "Up the Down Staircase," which starred Sandy Dennis. He went on to study acting and do TV commercials, as well as playing a steady part in the soap opera "The Doctors." He began performing original stand-up comedy at clubs like the Village Gate and the Bitter End in New York. He was 17 and Lily Tomlin would often drive him home late at night. He dated Elaine May's daughter, hung out with Timothy Leary and studied with the legendary Stella Adler.

While doing stand-up at Upstairs at the Downstairs, he was discovered by Robert Altman and cast as Pvt. Boone in the 1970 smash "M*A*S*H." Next, Altman cast Cort in the title role of the black comedy/fantasy "Brewster McCloud," about an owlish egghead who dreams of flying through the Houston Astrodome. Having proven that he could do quirky and black, Cort was then cast as an angelic ghoul, a troubled rich kid, in "Harold and Maude."

The movie started out as a half-hour master's thesis when then-31-year old Colin Higgins was attending UCLA. But it would develop into a substantive film of surprising philosophical and political scope. Wiser than merely an eccentric dark comedy that kindles rebellious, daisy-tossing joie de vivre, the movie is also an impeccably subtle (actually unspoken) exploration of the legacy of the Holocaust. In one succinct shot, the camera focuses on Maude's tattoo keepsake from World War II -- a fleeting and unequivocal clue to her grab-life-by-the-balls personality.

Unfortunately, the critics never got it. Nor were they amused, and the film flopped at the box office and closed quickly. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby grumped, "You might well want to miss Hal Ashby's 'Harold and Maude.'" Variety called it a "tasteless offbeat comedy [that] has all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage." Meanwhile, Film Quarterly wrote that the film is "one of the best movies to come out of Hollywood in years. It is a love story, a sentimental black comedy, a ludicrous tear-jerker, a grisly social satire."

Eventually, "Harold and Maude" would play for two years in Paris, where Cort won a Crystal Star (the French equivalent of the Academy Award.) In college towns and art houses, the film found a devoted audience among disaffected youth. While the wild ones would watch "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" ad infinitum, the sensitive ones watched "Harold and Maude" again and again. One zealot claims to have seen it 201 times. "Harolding" became part of the teen lexicon: A term morose mopes coined to describe their penchant for cemetery-dwelling. Eventually, after 12 years, the film turned a profit. Meanwhile, Cort braved his cult status, with fervent fans leaving tombstones and pictures of dead babies' graves at his door.

Wary of being typecast, he turned his attention toward the theater, making his Broadway debut in Simon Grey's "Wise Child." He also did Chekhov, Ionesco and Beckett. Most recently he garnered accolades as a disillusioned circus clown in "He Who Gets Slapped," an adaptation of Russian playwright Leonid Andreyev's tragicomedy.

In 1979, Cort was involved in a terrible car accident on the Hollywood Freeway on his way back from a Frank Sinatra concert. He broke an arm and a leg and sustained a concussion and a fractured skull. His face was severely lacerated, his lower lip cut and hanging by a thread. In 1984, he told People magazine, "When I got up the nerve to look at myself in a mirror for the first time, I screamed. I looked like a monster, with my forehead, face and lip all sewn up. I wanted to die." Cort underwent three operations for plastic surgery and remains unsatisfied with the result. "I try not to look in mirrors," he said.

At the time, Cort had a part lined up in a Robby Benson movie, "Die Laughing." He expected to be fired but instead, producer Jon Peters said, "Well, you're playing the villain anyway. Think about how good it will be for the character." Later, Leonard Maltin wrote, "Cort is disgustingly oily as a fascist villain."

Cort spent all of his savings on medical bills and went on to lose a $10 million suit he had brought against the driver of the other car. He found himself broke and without work. While he receives annual residual checks from Paramount for "Harold and Maude," (the last one was for $28.77 ), he doesn't get any profit from video distribution. "I get no participation from video sales -- I'd be a millionaire if I did," Cort has said. "I made next to nothing from that movie."

In the past 20 years, Cort has made 30 forgettable films, including playing the role of Norman Bates' creepy proxy in the TV flick "The Bates Motel." After the accident, he'd stopped being choosy and uninterested in weirdo roles. His disfigurement motivated him to go into radio, where he did a bit of voice work, including a successfully syndicated reading of "The Catcher in the Rye."

In 1991, he made his debut as a director with "Ted & Venus" a low-budget romance about a crazed poet on Venice Beach that he also wrote and starred in. While the film's producer called the movie the "spiritual sequel" of "Harold and Maude," the critics were not moved. The L.A. Times wrote, "Bud Cort was as appealing in the milestone comedy ('Harold and Maude') as he is repellent in this film." Variety's Todd McCarthy called it "a highly unpleasant yarn about a lovelorn sickie who endlessly torments a beautiful young woman." The film -- with cameos by Woody Harrelson, Gena Rowlands, Andrea Martin, Timothy Leary, Carol Kane and Martin Mull, went straight to video.

In the coming year, Cort will appear in four or five films, some of which already have pretty good street cred. He has a role in the highly controversial, much anticipated "Dogma," Kevin Smith's religious satire starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, with Alanis Morissette as God. And he will portray the strait-laced dad of Natasha Lyonne's high school cheerleader in "But I'm a Cheerleader." In the film, the girl is sent by her parents to rehab camp when it's suspected that she's a lesbian. He will also appear in Dwight Yoakam's western "South of Heaven, West of Hell," starring Vince Vaughn, Billy Bob Thornton and Paul Rubens. Further, Cort will be seen in Ed Harris' bio-pic about Jackson Pollack and the Bono-scripted "Million Dollar Hotel," about a murder at a skid-row hotel.

Cort may ultimately crack his typecast. Indeed, a new generation of kids is growing up that has never heard of "Harold and Maude." But for many a poetic soul, "Harold and Maude" is bound to stay around forever. As Colin Higgins once explained, "We're all Harold, and we all want to be Maude. We're all repressed and trying to be free, to be ourselves, to be vitally interested in living, to be everything we want."

By Erika Milvy

Erika Milvy is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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