Who Knew ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ Would Spawn So Many Stars

Everett Collection

The 1962 novel written by Ken Kesey was turned into a Broadway play in December 1963. The premise is that of a criminal who pleads insanity and is admitted to a mental institution, where he rallies the scared patients against a tyrannical nurse. Starring Kirk Douglas as Randle Patrick McMurphy and Ed Asner as “Chief” Bromden along with one rising star, Gene Wilder, as Billy Bibbit, it had 83 performances and closed on Jan. 25, 1964. While castmates Douglas and Asner were already on the A-list, Wilder was still getting his acting chops.

Kirk Douglas stars in the stage version of One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. Gene Wilder is the second from left.

John Springer Collection/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

After the play closed, Gene started getting bigger roles, and his rising star status shot off with Mel BrooksThe Producers, where he got his first Oscar nomination. He would get nominated again for his role in Young Frankenstein (1974), and throughout his career he would play a chocolatier in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), a gunslinger in Blazing Saddles (1974), a wrongfully convicted bank robber in Stir Crazy (1980) and quickly became one of the most beloved comedians of all time. Not to mention he married one of the funniest ladies in comedy as well: Gilda Radner of SNL fame. Another up-and-comer in the play was William Daniels, who later went on to star in two of the 1980s hottest TV shows, Knight Rider and St. Elsewhere.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, Danny DeVito, Jack Nicholson, 1975

Everett Collection

Gene isn’t the only one who struck gold with a role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The film adaptation came in 1975 and won five Oscars. It starred Jack Nicholson as the main antagonizer, who at the time was starting to make a name for himself, as he already had four Oscar nominations from Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown (1974). But it was Cuckoo that cemented his stardom with his first Oscar win. Other big household names now that started out in the film version are Christopher Lloyd (Taber) with his first film role and Danny Devito, who also was in the 1971 off-Broadway revival and reprised the role of Martin for the film. The two would go on to star together in the comedy classic TV show Taxi. Even award-winning director Miloš Forman was starting to make his mark on the industry. He went on to do Hair (1979), Amadeus (1984) and Man on the Moon (1999). Starting to see a tie-in with Taxi going on here.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, Louise Fletcher, 1975; STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, Louise Fletcher, (1998), 1993-1999. © Paramount Television / courtesy Everett Collection

Courtesy Everett Collection

Not only does there seem to be a Taxi theme but there were also six who were in variations of the Star Trek franchise. Louise Fletcher, who played Nurse Ratchet and won an Oscar statue for her role, had already starred in numerous movies and TV shows, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. She wasn’t the only actor to go dive into the Star Trek pool. Cuckoo was Brad Dourif‘s (Billy Bibbit) very first film role, and he was also in Star Trek: Voyager. Christopher Lloyd was in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Michael Berryman (Ellis), later known from The Hills Have Eyes (1977), was in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Vincent Schiavelli (Fredrickson), later known as Mr. Vargas in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), was also in an episode of The Next Generation, and finally, veteran actor Peter Brocco (Col. Matterson) was in an episode of the original series.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is streaming on Netflix, Apple TV+ and Paramount.

The Oscars
Want More?

The Oscars

March 2022

Test your knowledge on the award ceremony's most memorable hosts and the movies that won.

Buy This Issue