Southern Discomfort

Peter Fonda told him to call back at 4 p.m., January 16. "I'll be here," he promised Nile Southern, who has been waiting for years to hear those words, that hint of promise. "We'll talk then."

It's now 3:58 p.m. on January 16, and Southern paces around the basement office in his Boulder home--though paces may not be the right word for it. He damn near vibrates. Even his longish brown hair--normally askew, as if on loan from a young Gene Wilder--seems taut.

"I'm just a bit...trepidatious," explains the 38-year-old Southern, his soft voice floating nervously. He asks his visitor to sit behind the pink see-through curtain that divides the office. This way, Southern will at least feel alone when he makes the call.

Finally, he takes a seat at his desk, where he notices two photographic proof sheets featuring dozens of pictures of Peter Fonda taken on the set of Easy Rider, the film that proved to Hollywood it was indeed possible to get rich and famous making movies about dopers on motorcycles.

Standing next to Fonda in nearly each tiny picture is Nile's father, Terry Southern. Back then--in 1967 and '68, during the filming of Easy Rider--Southern was the epitome of hip, the coolest mother in any room. He was one of the Academy Award-nominated writers of Dr. Strangelove, director Stanley Kubrick's tenebrous, hysterical Cold War put-on. He had rewritten scripts for such films as The Cincinnati Kid, Barbarella, The Loved One. He had co-written the best-selling bit of cerebral porn in the country, Candy, in addition to the novels Flash and Filigree and The Magic Christian. He was a friend to Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, William Burroughs and Miles Davis, Lenny Bruce and Jean Genet.

Hell, in 1967 he was bestowed with the ultimate stamp of hipster prestige, landing his face on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And who was Peter Fonda back then? Just Henry's little kid and the star of some acid-drenched biker B-movies. In other words, a famous father away from being a nobody.

Terry had written the script for Easy Rider, which celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. There exists a script, which is in the safekeeping of Terry's second wife, that proves that Terry--and Terry alone--penned the screenplay about Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda) and their last-score dope deal before hitting the road in search of the good life. Southern had created the character of civil-rights lawyer George Hanson for his old pal Rip Torn to play (though it would become the role that made Jack Nicholson a star), and it was Terry who insisted on keeping the ending in which two rednecks shotgun-blast the easy riders all to hell. That was an especially Southern touch: Death to the rebels. Astonishing.

Yet Hopper, the film's director, to this day insists Southern had nothing to do with Easy Rider--well, except for coming up with the title. Hopper gave Southern that much. Otherwise, Hopper was known to rant, "This is my fuckin' movie!" And when it came time to be paid for Easy Rider, this little cult movie that became one of the most popular and profitable films of the 1960s (it made $60 million), Hopper and producer Fonda stuffed their pockets full of easy money.

Terry Southern, who made sure the two young nobodies got co-screenwriting credit with him against the wishes of the Writers Guild of America, got nothing more than the $5,000 he was paid up front to lend his name and his prodigious talent to the project. Though he was nominated for an Academy Award for Easy Rider, his generosity, his desire to help these kids get their movie made with the promise of more to come, would eventually be Southern's undoing.

When he died in 1995, at the age of 71, one of the most esteemed, forceful writers of the 1960s had only $2,400 in the bank. His farm in New Canaan, Connecticut, no longer belonged to him; his creditors and the federal government would see to that, even though Terry had left half of the house to his second wife and companion of 31 years, Gail Gerber. Terry owed the IRS more than $100,000, and thousands more were due to hardware stores, screenwriters guilds and friends.

"I guess I'm the only person he paid some money back to," Rip Torn says now.
You name it, and Terry Southern owed it to somebody, somewhere.
It has been left to Nile Southern to pay, quite literally, for his father's sins of generosity, stubbornness, naivete. As the executor of his father's estate, he has spent thousands of dollars of his own money trying to rescue from oblivion the dozens of screenplays his father wrote that were never made, the unpublished short stories and fragments that now sit in boxes in a New York City warehouse.