He freaked out audiences with a bizarre turn in Hal Ashby's tender romance, then vanished after studio rows, weirdo typecasting and a couple of car crashes. Alex Godfrey tracks down the star
Bud Cort has just come back from Ringo Starr's birthday breakfast. He has known Ringo for a while he says. "He's a dear friend and he's my dog's godfather."
Cort is, it's clear, a well-connected man; he has been in the film business for nearly 45 years, ever since playing the wide-eyed, ethereal lead in one of the key films of the 1970s, Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby's tale of a tender romance between a death-obsessed 20-year-old (Cort) and a life-loving, joyriding 79-year-old (Ruth Gordon). It is a film beloved by the likes of Cameron Crowe, Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson; Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann adore it so much they called their daughter Maude.
Yet Cort's career never topped it and, by his own admission, he's had "a chequered life". Raised in suburban New York, he had a Christian education and was headed for the priesthood before getting into acting through nightclub comedy gigs. Robert Altman gave him a bit part in M*A*S*H* and then, in 1970, the lead in whimsical comedy Brewster McCloud. A friend gave him the Harold and Maude screenplay and, after reading it, he related to the macabre kid in search of a connection. Cort says he was an emotional child, and his father, who had been in the first platoon to arrive at Dachau, had always been "very cold" to him.
He was just 21 when he got the job, but didn't lack for confidence in the audition. "I walked into this room and Hal [Ashby] was the first person I saw," he remembers. "Hal made me feel so warm and welcome. He said, 'This is Colin Higgins who wrote the script, this is Chuck Mulvehill who's producing it,' and I just looked at all three of them and said, 'I'm playing this part.' And Hal laughed and said, 'I guess you are!'"
Cort and Ashby grew close over the production. After filming, says Cort, Paramount took control of the edit from Ashby, so Cort went to a publicity meeting with the studio and told them he'd refuse to promote the film unless they gave control back to a devastated Ashby, which they did (other than a kissing scene which Paramount boss Robert Evans hated). Cort, though, then found himself persona non grata with the studio; he hasn't worked with them since.When the film came out, though, it met with scathing reviews, bombed, and vanished from mainstream cinemas within a week. "You couldn't drag people in," producer Charles Mulvehill told critic and author Peter Biskind. "The idea of a 20-year-old boy with an 80-year-old woman just made people want to vomit. If you asked people what it was about, ultimately it became a boy who was fucking his grandmother."
It was a bad time for Cort, whose father died of MS aged 50, just after shooting ended. This, though, was what finally brought Cort and co-star Ruth Gordon close. The morning after his father died, she called him and said: "'Oh, honey, let me tell you about the day my father died.' And suddenly we were the characters we had played. From that moment on, that was one of the most important friendships I've ever had. She was a great woman."
The next few years were fallow; a period of self-inflicted inaction. The film that made him, he says now, "was a blessing and a curse". He was typecast, offered only weirdos. He turned them all down, including Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (he wanted the lead instead). When they later cast Jack Nicholson as McMurphy, he begged for the Bibbit role, but Brad Dourif had already been cast.
After a car crash in 1979, Cort found himself with broken bones, a fractured skull, missing teeth and a lacerated face. He went back to work, and after a largely quiet decade, the phone started ringing again, leading to roles in such films as Heat, Dogma, Pollock and The Life Aquatic. Three years ago, however, he was in another car accident, in which his arm was almost torn off. In another accident his knee "fell off" his leg and he had to learn to walk again.
It means he has barely been able to work for three years, though he has recorded a voice role for a new feature animation of The Little Prince, co-starring James Franco, Jeff Bridges and Marion Cotillard. Cort plays the king, and is effusive about his experience, as he is about Harold and Maude, with which he seems to finally be coming to terms. Having struggled through his frustration with typecasting and, latterly, gripes with Paramount over his lack of residuals, he now speaks of it with immense affection.
Has he watched it recently? "No," he says. "But I'm so proud of it. I'm so lucky that I had the break I'd been dreaming of. The material matched my life so deeply, it was like giving birth to an elephant."
• Harold and Maude is out on DVD and Blu-ray on 14 July.