During filming, a crew member running cables left a second story window open at the Oregon State Mental Hospital and an actual patient climbed through the bars and fell to the ground, injuring himself. The next day The Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon reported the incident with the headline on the front page "One flew OUT of the cuckoo's nest".
Will Sampson (Chief Bromden) was a Park Ranger in Oregon near where the movie was filmed. He was selected for the part, because he was the only Native American the Casting Department could find, who matched the character's incredible size.
Louise Fletcher was so upset with the fact that the other cast members could laugh and be happy, while she had to be so cold and heartless, that near the end of production, she removed her dress, and stood in only her panties, to prove to the cast members she was not "a cold-hearted monster".
Second of only three movies, the other two being It Happened One Night (1934) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), to win every major Academy Award (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay, Adapted or Original).
Author Ken Kesey was so bitter about the way the filmmakers were "butchering" his story, that he vowed never to watch the completed film, and even sued the movie's producers, because it wasn't shown from Chief Bromden's perspective (as the novel is). Years later, he claimed to be lying in bed flipping through television channels, when he settled onto a late-night movie that looked sort of interesting, only to realize after a few minutes that it was this film. He then changed channels.
Jack Nicholson took a percentage of the profits in lieu of a small salary for a modestly budgeted film. The move paid off when the picture went on to gross well over one hundred twenty million dollars.
The script called for McMurphy to leap on a guard and kiss him when first arriving at the hospital. During filming, Director Milos Forman decided that the guard's reaction wasn't strong enough, and told Jack Nicholson to jump on the other guard instead. This surprised the actor playing the second guard greatly, and in some versions, he can be seen punching Nicholson.
Director Milos Forman relied heavily on reaction shots to pull more characters into scenes. In some group therapy scenes, there were ten minutes of Jack Nicholson's reactions filmed, even if he had very little dialogue. The shot of Louise Fletcher looking icily at Nicholson after he returns from shock therapy, was actually her irritated reaction to a piece of direction from Forman.
Dean R. Brooks was a psychiatrist and director of the Oregon state hospital where the film was made. During filming, Brooks correctly diagnosed William Redfield with the leukemia that would kill him 18 months later.
Louise Fletcher was signed a week before filming began, after auditioning repeatedly for over six months. Milos Forman had told her each time that she just wasn't approaching the part correctly, but kept calling her back.
When Louise Fletcher neared the end of her Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech, she finished with a unique touch (a first in American Sign Language): "For my mother and my father, I want to say thank you for teaching me to have a dream. You are seeing my dream come true. Thank you."
A patient hired by the production company had a stutter that he had had all of his life. He was so inspired by his responsibilities while working for the producers, that his stutter was permanently resolved.
Emotionally strained by a demanding shooting schedule that kept him three thousand miles from his future wife, Rhea Perlman, Danny DeVito developed the coping mechanism of an imaginary friend, with whom he would have nightly chats. Concerned that his own sanity might be slipping away, DeVito sought the advice of Dr. Brooks, who assured him that there was no reason to worry, as long as DeVito could still identify the character as fictional.
In later interviews, Louise Fletcher said that she found ways to make her character human, yet remain unsympathetic, ultimately deciding that Nurse Ratched actually did care about the patients, and felt she was doing what was best for them, but was ultimately misguided and drunk on her own power.
The cast and crew had to become accustomed to working with extras and supporting crew members who were patients at the Oregon State Mental Hospital; each member of the professional cast and crew inevitably worked closely with at least two or three mental patients.
Mel Lambert (the harbor master) was a local businessman, rather than an actor. He had a strong relationship with Native Americans throughout the area, and it was he who suggested Will Sampson for the role of Chief Bromden.
Milos Forman said he directed the movie in a naturalistic style, significantly contrasting with the "totally stupid socialist rallies and movies" which were common in his native Czechoslovakia. "I was fascinated just to see real faces on the screen", he said. "That's what cinema verite (like Titicut Follies (1967)) taught me."
Rumors that production shut down because Jack Nicholson had hair plugs implanted are false (this can be verified by actually looking at his scalp). The story, as related by Production Designer Paul Sylbert, was that Nicholson and Milos Forman had very different ideas about how the narrative should play out. For example, Forman thought that the ward should be in bedlam when McMurphy showed up, and Nicholson posited that his character would have absolutely no effect on the mental patients if they were already riled up, which would have negated the purpose of his character, and therefore much of the plot. Nicholson and Forman refused to give an inch, each believing he was right, and the other was wrong. The "two months" that Nicholson was supposed to have disappeared, was actually closer to two weeks, and he didn't "disappear". In actuality, Nicholson spearheaded a coup among the other cast members, and refused to let Forman run rehearsals, running them himself instead. During production, Nicholson and Forman spoke to each other through the cinematographer, but faked a friendly relationship when the media and studio personnel would show up to the set. This is one explanation why Nicholson doesn't appear on any of the DVD special features.
During the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) scene, McMurphy says "a little dab will do ya" as the nurse is putting conductor gel on the side of his head. This phrase, not in the original script, is a reference to the advertising jingle of Brylcreem hair cream, which was a popular hair care product for men in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the novel, Nurse Ratched's first name is never revealed. In the film, when the hospital committee meets to discuss McMurphy's behavior, Dr. Spivey calls her "Mildred". Also, when McMurphy returns from electroconvulsive therapy and sits down at the group therapy session, he calls her "Mildred".
This was the second film to win the grand slam of the Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress. The first was It Happened One Night (1934).
Toward the end of the film, when Harding (William Redfield) and Martini (Danny DeVito) are playing cards, both use the word "hovno", Harding echoing Martini. "Hovno" is a word in Czech, Milos Forman's mother tongue, meaning "shit".
The play opened on Broadway, in New York City, on November 13, 1963, and closed on January 25, 1964, after eighty-two performances. The opening night cast included Kirk Douglas as R.P. McMurphy, William Daniels as Dale Harding, and Gene Wilder as Billy Bibbit.
Director of Photography Haskell Wexler worked thirty-one days on the film. His replacement, Bill Butler, worked thirty days, and then had to leave to work on another project. That left the door open for William A. Fraker to come on-board and work uncredited on the boat sequence.
Kirk Douglas starred in the 1963 Broadway production after buying the film rights prior to publication. He later passed the film rights to his son Michael, but kept a percentage of the profits. Every major studio had declined to make the film during the period he was trying to star in it. Kirk had met Milos Forman in Prague while on a State Department tour, and promised to send him the book after deciding he would be a good director for the film. The book never arrived, probably confiscated by censors of the Czech government, which was Communist at the time. Ken Kesey wrote a screenplay for the production, but Forman rejected it, because Kesey insisted on keeping Chief Bromden's first-person narration.
The cast and crew were concerned about the behavior of Sydney Lassick. He exhibited increasingly unpredictable and emotionally erratic behavior during his time in character, a pattern that culminated in a tearful outburst during his observation of the final scene between McMurphy and the Chief. Lassick became so overwhelmed during the scene, that he had to be removed from set.
Milos Forman had considered Shelley Duvall for the role of Candy. While screening Thieves Like Us (1974) to see if she was right for the role, he became interested in Louise Fletcher, who had a supporting role, and decided to cast her as Nurse Ratched. Duvall later enquired about playing the role of Rose, but was turned down.
(At around six minutes and sixteen seconds) When McMurphy first meets the Chief, the Chief must be standing on a lifting box. You can't see his feet in the shot. Jack Nicholson is 5' 10". Will Sampson was 6' 7". In the shot, Nicholson's shoulders appear only to come up to Sampson's elbows. Also, the finished height of most doorways is 6' 8" and Sampson's head appears to extend higher than that in the shot. Even accounting for perspective, he might be on a 5" plus box. Nowhere else in the movie is the height difference so apparent.
All of the actors who played patients, actually lived in the Oregon State Hospital psychiatric ward throughout production. The men personalized their sleeping quarters, spent their days on campus to "get a sense of what it was to be hospitalized" (as Vincent Schiavelli put it), and interacting with real psychiatric patients.
Ken Kesey was so upset by the finished film, that he sued Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz for allegedly breaking a verbal agreement to not make wholesale changes from the novel. "They took out the morality. They took out the Combine, the conspiracy that is America." He sued for five percent of the film's gross, along with eight hundred thousand dollars for damages (equivalent to about three and a half million dollars in 2015). He eventually settled for two and a half percent of the gross.
A portion of the original NBC Radio broadcast of Game 2 of the 1963 World Series was used for the scene where the orderlies are listening to the game on the radio. Hall of Fame baseball announcer Ernie Harwell can be heard on the broadcast.
To call Ken Kesey's time at the VA hospital in Palo Alto is misleading. While a graduate student in Creative Writing at Stanford, he volunteered for experiments on the effects of LSD, which gave rise to the many surreal parts of the novel (deleted, along with the narrator's role, by Milos Forman). Kesey's experience with LSD led to the legendary bus trips, the Trips Festival, and all the events chronicled in Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test".
Jack Nicholson and Milos Forman had a falling out over Jack's character's motivation during pre-production, leading to them speaking through the Cinematographer, and Jack not contributing anything to the film's DVD special features. Nicholson took issue with Forman's suggestion that the hospital inmates would be an unruly bunch upon the initial arrival of McMurphy. Instead, Nicholson insisted that such disavowal of the medical staff's authority should only begin after the introduction of McMurphy into their lives and routines.
Neither the film, nor Ken Kesey's 1962 novel, made specific reference to Oregon State Hospital. Kesey was inspired by his experiences working at a veterans' hospital in California, and set his novel at an unnamed institution in Oregon.
The magazines seen on the shelf (in the scene where McMurphy is announcing the baseball game) include National Geographic, dated August 1960 and February 1961, as well as a copy of Life Magazine dated March 29, 1963.
Kirk Douglas first told Milos Forman about the project, promising to send Forman a copy of the book for his perusal. Douglas mailed Forman the novel, but the package was confiscated by Czech customs, and never reached Forman. Unaware of the parcel's fate, the filmmaker resented Douglas' broken promise, and Douglas thought Forman rude for never bothering to confirm receipt of the novel. It took a decade to sort the mess out, and things only cleared up when Michael Douglas took another crack at production, and contacted Forman once more.
Accepting the Best Picture award, Michael Douglas said that "Cuckoo's Nest" was the first picture since It Happened One Night (1934) to receive the four major Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress. However, Douglas incorrectly stated the Capra classic's year of release as 1937, not 1934.
Haskell Wexler was fired as Cinematographer, and replaced by Bill Butler. Wexler believed his dismissal was due to his concurrent work on the documentary, Underground (1976), in which the radical terrorist group "The Weather Underground" were being interviewed while hiding from the law. However, Milos Forman said he had terminated Wexler over mere artistic differences. Wexler and Butler received Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, though Wexler said there was "only about a minute or two minutes in that film I didn't shoot."
Jack Nicholson was unable to attend the 1975 BAFTA Awards ceremony to accept his Best Actor award, due to filming. However, he was able to make a pre-recorded and jokey acceptance speech via satellite from the set, with the cast and crew.
Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito played major villains in Tim Burton's two Batman pictures. Nicholson being The Joker and DeVito starring as The Penguin. Additionally, Brad Dourif, who also appeared in this film, was set to star as The Scarecrow in Tim Burton's third and cancelled Batman film; Batman Continues (1994). His role was replaced by Jim Carrey, and an entirely new villain in Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever (1995).
Because of the movie's longish six-word eight-syllable title, the picture is sometimes often referred to, particularly within the film industry, under an abridged shortened informal title, of the much shorter and more simplified name of just "Cuckoo's Nest".
20th Century Fox was interested in distributing the film, and agreed to finance the entire production if they re-wrote the ending to allow McMurphy to live. Producer Saul Zaentz took the film somewhere else.