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‘Harold and Maude’ at 50: An Oral History of How a ‘Harrowing’ Flop Became a Beloved Cult Classic

HAROLD AND MAUDE, Bud Cort, Ruth
Courtesy Everett Collection

It was the original cult film. A movie you had to show your girlfriend or boyfriend so they understood you. And it was the comedy Variety called “as much fun as a burning orphanage.”

Making “Harold and Maude” wasn’t easy, and releasing it to the general public was even harder. But 50 years on, the touching, droll and subversive story of a troubled teenager, played by Bud Cort, who falls in love with a nearly 80-year old free spirit, played by Ruth Gordon, still feels fresh and funny.

The idea for the film was hatched by Colin Higgins, a UCLA film student who lucked into a job cleaning the pool of a producer and ended up selling his script to Paramount. Director Hal Ashby fought the establishment at every turn, nearly getting the production shut down. Released with almost no marketing on the same date “The Godfather” was supposed to premiere, “Harold and Maude” flopped spectacularly in its initial release. Yet over time, it slowly caught on as a repertory theater staple, becoming a ‘70s touchstone and finally recouping its budget several years later.

“It really kind of became, I hesitate to say, the first cult film. There had been midnight movies before it, like ‘El Topo,’ as well as stoner movies that played midnight shows, but ‘Harold and Maude’ became this thing where just audiences saw it over and over and over again,” says “Ed Wood” screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, who provides a commentary track along with super-fan Cameron Crowe for Paramount Home Video’s new 50th anniversary Blu-Ray release.

Though Higgins, who died in 1988, was passed over to direct “Harold and Maude,” he went on to direct hits like “9 to 5” and “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Ashby, who also died in 1988, was Oscar-nominated for “Coming Home” and lauded for “Shampoo” and “Being There,” though many feel he never got the recognition he deserved.

Today, “Harold and Maude’ continues to resonate with viewers of all ages who feel a natural kinship with misfits and oddballs, and many claim it has changed their lives forever.

To celebrate the anniversary of the release of “Harold and Maude” on Dec. 20, Variety spoke to those who were there – Paramount executive and former Variety editor Peter Bart, producer Charles Mulvehill, and actress Ellen Geer – along with those it touched, including Karaszewski and “Passing” star Tessa Thompson, who treasures it so much she named her production company Viva Maude.

Colin Higgins workshopped the story for “Harold and Maude” while he was driving the daughter of producers Ed and Mildred Lewis to school. When his directing test didn’t pan out, the studio brought in Hal Ashby, who had recently directed “The Landlord.”

Larry Karaszewski: It’s a terrific screenplay, and as much as you want to give Hal Ashby a lot of credit, this was a hundred percent Colin Higgins’ baby. Colin Higgins needed a place to stay and he saw some notice on a bulletin board that a room was for rent in exchange for light duties. It turned out to be a film producer, and they needed someone to take care of their pool and drive their daughter back and forth to school.

He would just tell the daughter about his student film ideas, and he pitched her “Harold and Maude,” which she loved. He was going to direct it as a short film. And this daughter told her mom about this script and the idea for the movie. (Mildred Lewis) told Colin Higgins, “Don’t write this as a short film. This is a feature, go write this as a real movie.”

Edward Lewis made a couple of phone calls to people like Bob Evans and Peter Bart, and they wound up like buying the script. But I think at no point did Paramount really expect they were going to let Higgins direct the movie.

Peter Bart: In 1970 and ‘71, pictures which today would have been thought of as art films were then part of the agenda. By today’s standards they would have been considered somewhat arty. Bob (Evans) thought it was hilarious, and we optioned it.

At Paramount, I basically could buy anything I wanted — since the subject was so unusual, I made sure my confreres knew what it was about. Similarly with “Paper Moon,” which was shot in black and white — Bob knew all about that, but at the same time, the distribution people, we kept that a secret from them.

I was friendly with Norman Jewison, who urged me to see “The Landlord” because he thought that sensibility might really be terrific, because getting a director who was right on would be a challenge. But Hal didn’t really want to do it.

Hal was suspicious of the studio, he was weirded out that Paramount was actually going to do this. He didn’t trust me, he didn’t trust Evans.

With a brilliant script and up-and-coming director attached, the concept for the film was starting to gel, but there was one key ingredient missing – the right music. Paramount head of production Bob Evans suggested considering James Taylor. But Ashby was clear that Cat Stevens / Yusuf – was the right choice.

Peter Bart: Hal loved the script but couldn’t figure out his perspective on it. He was searching for a point of view. Then one day he called me to say, “I want to bring over a friend.” He appeared with Cat whose album was just becoming hot. The two of them were bearded hippies who looked like they’d just got off a bus from Haight Ashbury.

I considered bringing them in to meet Evans but, in that period, Bob dressed like an impeccably groomed studio chief with dark grey suits and white shirts and black ties — I felt he would not “get” his disreputable visitors. However, Evans later played an important part in casting and budget meetings with Ashby.

Larry Karaszewski: Ashby came from being an editor and he had a lot of sequences when the editing team was putting together dailies that were MOS (without sound) stuff. It’s basically like car driving shots and things that don’t have real sound, but he thought, that’s really boring just to watch.

He started listening to this album, “Tea for the Tillerman” and said, whenever there’s silent footage, let’s put put one of these songs against it, so we’re just not sitting there listening to nothing. They needed a song for Maude to sing at one point. Cat Stevens said, “I have these two rough versions of songs — ‘Don’t Be Shy’ and ‘If You Want to Sing Out’ and if you like them, I’ll go in and finish them and turn them into real songs. Ashby just ended up using the rough versions, which made Cat Stevens not that happy. That’s the thing — sometimes the rough drafts of songs are kind of cooler and better.

Cat Stevens for many, many years would not let a soundtrack album come out. But Cameron (Crowe) eventually managed to get them to do a small release of the soundtrack album.

Charles Mulvehill: We rented a house up on Appian Way and turned that into our production offices, and we cast out of there and edited as well. We were this little entity up in the Hollywood Hills, trying to not be on the studio lot.

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From left, Charles Tyner, director Hal Ashby, Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon on set at San Francisco’s Sutro Baths. Everett Collection / Everett Col

Richard Dreyfuss and Bob Balaban were among those considered for the part of Harold, and originally the filmmakers had prolific “Parenthood” actor John Rubenstein in mind. But one unusual choice would have both starred and provided the soundtrack. Elton John later said it was the only starring role he had ever been offered.

Peter Bart: Hal liked Elton John. Fortunately he was too busy even to talk about it.

Charles Mulvehill: John Rubinstein was who we had originally thought of as being Harold when he wrote the script. In the living room of this house, we had this production office — that’s where we did the test on tape and tested four or five actors, including Bud Cort and John Rubinstein. Pretty much from the get-go with Bud Cort, he really felt right.

For Maude, Hal went to London and did some casting there. Dame Edith Evans was a lady that was in serious contention, but that would have been a whole other movie.

Meanwhile, Bud Cort suggested Greta Garbo would be good for Maude. “I hear she doesn’t want to work,” Ashby is said to have told him.

Charles Mulvehill: It was actually Ruth’s energy that Hal fell in love with.

Peter Bart: Ruth Gordon was a personal friend of my mother’s, and when she heard I was involved, my mother said “You’re not going to have Ruth do anything untoward, are you?” I quickly replied “no” — this was not the moment to tell her that Ruth would have an affair with an 18-year old.

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Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles and Ellen Geer in “Harold and Maude” Courtesy Everett Collection

The smaller roles are also perfectly cast, from Harold’s mother, British stage actress Vivian Pickles, to his prospective dates, played by Ellen Geer, daughter of “The Waltons” star Will Geer; Shari Summers and Judy Engles.

Ellen Geer: My character, Sunshine Doré, was a drama student, and I suppose they probably called me because of my knowledge of Shakespeare. They told me about this reading at somebody’s home up in the hills. So I said to my dad, “Pop, will you go up with me and if I don’t come out within 20 minutes, come and get me.” It was a different time, but it was the same time in some ways.

I was so attracted by the way Mr. Ashby handled actors. He let us have total freedom. For the harakiri scene, Bud Cort wanted to have a mat to perform the scene on, but there was no mat. We waited until someone went into town for that. That’s the kind of respect Ashby had for an actor.

Charles Mulvehill: One of my best memories of the production was meeting my wife. In the script, she was described as “a female Don Knotts.” Shari (Summers)’s manager had taken her to William Morris to meet some agents, and that’s when (legendary casting director) Lynn Stalmaster saw her. I remember him calling me saying he found her, and he was really excited because that was a hard role to cast. So we met, and here we are 50 years later!

The production took place in and around the town of San Mateo, south of San Francisco, and it included some iconic locations like San Francisco’s abandoned Sutro Baths, and Maude’s bohemian railroad car, which was conceived by production designer Michael Haller.

Charles Mulvehill: The film was written for L.A., but none of us felt that the ambience was right. So we found an estate in Hillsborough instead. Hal wanted to be away from the studio, and he didn’t want people showing up at the set all the time.

Ellen Geer: It’s very fancy out there, with this wonderful old mansion that was empty but was taken care of by a very sweet couple. It was a wonderful location.

Charles Mulvehill: I ended up dealing with Paramount a lot because once we started filming, Hal stopped taking phone calls from the studio. At one point, Peter (Bart) came up to Hillsborough and he told me later that he came up to fire me. I think they were frustrated with the lack of communication, but he stayed on the set for a day and saw that it was being run just like any other movie set.

We ended up going over budget. Ultimately, we shot over 300,000 feet of film and it took a lot to cull through it all and find the movie, so to speak.

Hal was always trying to get the right shot. He shot a lot of coverage, not a lot of takes, but lots of coverage. Consequently, you ended up with lots of choices in the editing room.

Peter Bart: They were running late, behind schedule, and I was worried. At the time, Evans was enmeshed in “The Godfather” so it fell in my lap. I gave him a one-way ticket back to L.A. You couldn’t disguise the delicious smell of weed on the set, and I said you can’t lose days, and here’s the ticket home. There were tensions between the production and the budget, it was a tense atmosphere. The budget came in a million and three.

One thing I remember about the set was that Hal loved Cat Stevens’ music so much you could hear it playing in the background. It was really an inspiration to Hal, it connected him to the story.

In addition to the strained relations with Paramount, the production had a setback with a motorcycle accident.

Charles Mulvehill: Truthfully, the movie was challenging to pull off. We have the scene with the motorcycle cop where they’re replanting a tree. They’re pulled over by a motorcycle cop who at the end of the scene gets back on his bike and heads off down the road. And he had forgotten to put his kickstand up on the bike, he went flying off. Luckily he wasn’t seriously hurt, but it was bad enough that he couldn’t do the role. So that that’s when I asked Tom Skerritt, a friend of ours, if he’d do it as a cameo. And he played the motorcycle cop and he did a terrific job.

Dec. 20, 1971 was originally the day Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather” was planned to open. But the cut wasn’t finished, and Paramount decided that instead of the sprawling epic, the quirky black comedy “Harold and Maude” would be a festive film to release during the holiday period. It tanked massively, with Variety reporting “‘Harold and Maude’ looks dismal $8,500 in Village debut.”

Peter Bart: No one had put together a campaign, so it just opened with this blank ad.  The marketing people at Paramount were a little old-fashioned anyway — they didn’t get most of the pictures we were making then like “Downhill Racer,” “The Parallax View.” We were making really interesting movies. Bob was a wonderful, courageous head of production. No movie is easy, but that movie was difficult. Hal was decimated, he was very angry with the studio, with everyone, and rightfully so.

Charles Mulvehill: We thought it was a great film. It was really a shock when it was released and nobody cared. Nobody came and nobody cared.

The marketing wasn’t terrific. Nobody really knew how to approach the subject. The minute you mentioned an 80-year-old woman and a 20-year-old boy, you could see the eyes glaze over.

I was really shocked at the reception that it got. The first review I read was Variety — “It’s as funny as a burning orphanage.” I couldn’t believe it.

Then I had a meeting with Peter Bart. He said that the reviews generally were terrible and that Time magazine was doing us a favor by not reviewing it. (Our careers) were dead in the water for a period.

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The original type-only poster, left, didn’t give filmgoers much idea of what to expect. The Italian poster, center, had a lighter touch, while marketing for re-releases, such as the poster with the tagline “His hangups are hilarious,” was also misguided. Courtesy of Paramount/Everett Collection

Finally, in a world before social media, word slowly trickled out that this was a film for oddballs, nerds, and anyone with a slightly off-kilter sensibility. It played and played, from the Nuart in L.A. to Paris, France, and in 1983 finally turned a profit. It continues to gain new fans of each generation.

Tessa Thompson: One of my favorite films is “Harold and Maude.” There was this idea that it both spoke to its time and it was also ahead of its time. Some people would argue that the character of Maude was one of the first appearances of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but in her eighties. So she both defines the trope and defies it.

When I first started to make any kind of money at all, I had to incorporate, and the first thing I thought it was Viva Maude, viva the spirit of Maude. And now it’s felt like a long time coming to building my own company and producing and that was the name that has always stayed with me. Also, the year that “Harold and Maude” started to actually make its money back, was the year I was born, so there were many reasons.

Ellen Geer: I sometimes wonder if it had a hard start because to have a young man with an older woman, we’re so repressed about sex in our country. We’re so ditzy about sex, they didn’t even want to see it.

But once people started to see it, and see how true it was, then it became a cult movie. It was ahead of its time, when they woke up in bed. In this time now, maybe they would have been able to wake up in bed and kiss and see each other’s bodies.

Mulvehill went on to make four more films with Ashby, while Bart worked with him on “Being There.” The director who had a reputation as a hippie stoner influenced a generation of filmmakers and is now thought of as a genius who didn’t get the credit he was due.

Charles Mulvehill: I met Francis Coppola on “Rumblefish.” And he said, “Oh yeah, you’re the guy that worked for the crazies.” It had never been articulated that way to me, but I guess it kind of fit, for a while anyway.

I thought it was a compliment. I mean, I think what he was saying is that I worked with guys that were theoretically difficult to a lot of people.

Larry Karaszewski: I think you see a lot of Wes Anderson in “Harold and Maude.” There’s a “Rushmore” feeling. I think a lot of filmmakers were influenced by the way how Ashby used music and film, and he does it again in “Shampoo.”

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Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort in “Harold and Maude.” Karaszewski calls Harold’s jacket “Rushmore-esque.” Courtesy Everett Collection

In 2009, Peter Bart and Cameron Crowe hosted a screening at the Academy of Motion Pictures in honor of Hal Ashby’s career, with guests including Diablo Cody and Seth Rogen. Cat Stevens/Yusuf surprised everyone by playing songs from the soundtrack, and the somewhat reclusive Bud Cort also made an appearance. It was just one of many events, including theater productions and retrospective screenings, that have brought fans together to celebrate how the film connected with them.

Peter Bart: It was one of the nicest events I had ever seen at the Academy. My wife was sitting next to Hal Ashby’s girlfriend, who began to weep when Cat began to sing.

Ellen Geer: We did it years later at our theater and I got to play Maude and my daughter played Sunshine Doré. It was like passing it on to a new generation. A young man came up to me afterwards and was sobbing because he said he understood himself better after seeing this play, which was lovely.

I was surprised that so many people loved it so much. People still come up and tell me how important it was to them.

Charles Mulvehill: I’m living in Arizona now and have even done Q&As for screenings of “Harold and Maude” here. To me, it’s just amazing how people find it and it’s really gratifying that there’s a 50-year-old movie that still affects people. We’d hoped it would have from the beginning.

I met one guy who was having a rough time. He had a teenage daughter and he said that they saw that movie together and it kind of smoothed over a lot of things between them. And that’s gratifying to hear. It was a great experience for me, although harrowing, and I’m proud to have been associated with it.

Larry Karaszewski: It still has an ability to change people’s lives. I have a niece who was living in New York City and was on a certain track with her life. She was in her early twenties and she came out for a visit, so I showed her “Harold and Maude.” It blew her mind in that I think she didn’t realize movies could be this way. Now she’s in Los Angeles, working in the film business. It really did change her life and she’ll credit the fact that she’s seen “Harold and Maude” 50 times.

Angelique Jackson contributed to this interview.