The Lost Projects of Michael O’Donoghue
Lost Roles is a weekly column taking a different comedian, actor, or writer each week and exploring all of their movie and TV projects that almost happened but didn’t.
This week, we turn our attention to Michael O’Donoghue, one of the major creative forces behind National Lampoon magazine and Saturday Night Live during the two comedy franchises’ 1970s heydays. After leaving his job as SNL‘s head writer in 1978, O’Donoghue began working on a variety of movie projects, but given the sluggish nature of the film industry and the fact that O’Donoghue’s work is often too daring and edgy for mainstream audiences, most of the movies he wrote never got made. Let’s take a look at some of O’Donoghue’s unproduced scripts, from a sequel to Easy Rider to a a movie that cast Bill Murray as a paranormal exterminator five years before Ghostbusters, from an insulting monologue he wrote for Chevy Chase to deliver as SNL host in the ’80s to a possible collaboration with Quentin Tarantino:
Saturday Matinee (a.k.a. Planet of the Cheap Special Effects) (1977-1978)
Michael O’Donoghue left Saturday Night Live after its third season, but in between its second and third, he spent the summer renting a house in East Hampton, Long Island, with Chevy Chase to work on a feature film screenplay together. Chase had already departed SNL for a movie career, and he insisted on having O’Donoghue write his first movie with him. The idea they came up with was Saturday Matinee, a parody of the old movie house experience that they began working on as part of Chase’s deal with the studio United Artists. Here’s writer Dennis Perrin describing the inspiration in his excellent O’Donoghue biography Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue:
“Both were attracted to the old movie house experience where, for a nickel, patrons saw coming attractions, a newsreel, a cartoon, a bouncing-ball song or ‘soundie,’ a chapter of an ongoing serial adventure, and one, perhaps two, feature films. Here was a format rich in satiric possibilities … But only the wrapping would evoke warm nostalgia, for O’Donoghue and Chase had a bevy of strange, violent, absurd, and potentially offensive ideas in mind.”
O’Donoghue finished the first draft of the script during the third season of SNL, and it was a whopping 200-plus pages, even before Chevy Chase finished his parts of the script. Because the film was composed of short segments, there were 13 parts in the first draft for Chase to play. The script featured “a newsreel, a sports novelty, a documentary, a musical number, a cartoon, and a concession stand ad, as well as several film strips, five coming attractions, and two features.” The bulk of the movie was Planet of the Cheap Special Effects, one of the features that was an Ed Wood-esque early ’50s sci-fi movie. The Planet of the Cheap Special Effects portion of the script alone made up 164 pages of the screenplay, nearly twice the length of an average comedy script.
Stubborn O’Donoghue refused to trim his script down when Chevy Chase explained to him that it was a necessity, so Chase’s only options were to 1) cut the script down himself and upset O’Donoghue or 2) not make the movie and upset O’Donoghue. Chase chose the second option and opted to star alongside Goldie Hawn in Foul Play as his first movie. The script had been sold to United Artists as part of Chevy Chase’s deal with the studio, so O’Donoghue didn’t have the option of shopping it around elsewhere in Hollywood. The whole experience turned O’Donoghue and Chase’s relationship into a bitter one, and they never worked together again.
War of the Insect Gods (1978-1979)
After Saturday Matinee fell through, Michael O’Donoghue left SNL and started his own studio called Project X and hired writers Mitch Glazer, Emily Prager, and Dirk Wittenborn to write with him. The four writers worked on a movie called War of the Insect Gods, about an earth invasion of giant mutant cockroaches. O’Donoghue wanted Bill Murray to play the lead, an exterminator named Deadly Ed, a role that sounds pretty similar to his part in Ghostbusters. Here’s O’Donoghue talking to a reporter about casting Murray in 1979:
“Billy is who I want to play Deadly Ed. Cause he’s both a romantic lead and he’s a little sleazy. He looks like that exterminator kind of guy. And yet he’s a guy who can take on heroic proportions and look like an attractive American hero, which is what that range is. In fact, he is ideal for me Billy for what I want in that.”
O’Donoghue and company originally wrote War of the Insect Gods as a TV movie for NBC, but NBC bosses didn’t care for the script and encouraged him to write something else instead, which resulting in O’Donoghue and this same trio of writers making the infamous Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video. After NBC nixed War of the Insect Gods, O’Donoghue started trying to adapt it into a feature film, but it was hard to get studios interested – possibly because he was insistent on making the whole thing in black and white so that it would feel “like a nightmare.”
The Dreammaster (1980)
A rare non-comedic project for O’Donoghue, The Dreammaster was a sci-fi fantasy movie that O’Donoghue was to be the first in a three-picture deal that he signed with Paramount. He wrote the script with Nelson Lyon, writer/director of the cult hit sex comedy The Telephone Book. Here’s O’Donoghue describing the plot in his own words (via Mr. Mike):
“It’s … about a man. Actually a person of no particular gender. A person who can manipulate your dreams from a mythical city … very bleak and geometric like an Alphaville … He has a ray that beams common phobic dreams. It’s like a machine, a TV transmitter that goes directly to your head while you sleep. So he can drive people to leap out of windows due to the fear of what they think is going on. You immediately fall into his power … As this person becomes more and more powerful and the world falls closer and closer to fascistic order, the one protagonist who can get near him seeks to destroy him.”
As with Saturday Matinee, the script to The Dreammaster ballooned past the length of a regular screenplay and ran into story problems. O’Donoghue and Paramount agreed to abandon the project. O’Donoghue moved on, returning to SNL to “help” new executive producer Dick Ebersol try to save the show in 1981.
Biker Heaven (1982)
Michael O’Donoghue and Nelson Lyon wrote this sequel to Easy Rider together in the early ’80s, and stars Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson and studio boss Bert Schneider were all interested in making it. The original’s co-writer and a hero of O’Donoghue’s, Terry Southern, received a co-writing credit (despite only contributing a few lines), and according to a Playboy profile, O’Donoghue was going to make his feature directorial debut on the movie. Biker Heaven was set in 2068 – a hundred years after the original – and saw the original movie’s main characters resurrected by “the Biker God” to recover the original Gadsden flag in the wake of a nuclear war, as they encountered numerous biker gangs. At different points, Schneider or the movie’s stars expressed hesitation, and the sequel was never made.
Kittens in a Can (1983)
Kittens in a Can was a parody of “women in prison” films that O’Donoghue co-scripted with his fellow original SNL writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller.
Factory of Fear (1983)
O’Donoghue wrote this Twilight Zone-esque TV movie with Nelson Lyon for HBO. It followed an alien race of Dobermans who run a disco so that they can draw in humans to eat them. HBO commissioned the movie but pulled out pretty soon thereafter.
SNL Monologue for Chevy Chase (1985)
When Lorne Michaels returned to SNL in 1985 after five years away, he brought back several key members of his ’70s writing staff with him, including Al Franken, Tom Davis, Jim Downey, and Michael O’Donoghue. O’Donoghue was hired to make short films and videos, but he never got any on the air due to his stuff being deemed too edgy and weird for the show. When O’Donoghue saw Chevy Chase was to host the show that season, he wrote up a blistering monologue mocking Chase’s career (via Dennis Perrin’s Mr. Mike):
Right after I stopped doing cocaine, I turned into a giant garden slug and, for the life of me, I don’t know why.
Hi, I’m Chevy Chase. Have you noticed that, in the years since I left Saturday Night Live, my eyes have actually gotten smaller and closer together so they now look like little pig eyes? Why? Again, I don’t have a clue. As I was saying to Alan King the other day at the Alan King Celebrity Tennis Tournament, ‘Alan, I need more money. What I can’t fit in my wallet, I’ll eat or I’ll shove up my ass, but I must have more!’ And when I looked in the mirror, my eyes were the size of Roosevelt dimes and had moved another inch closer to my nose. ‘What is going on here?!?’ I exclaimed to my new wife, who looks like my old wife except she’s new.
Still, the fans showed up for my last movie – The Giant Garden Slug’s European Vacation – a movie any man would be proud of, particularly if that man was Cantinflas. There’s much more I can say but I have a twenty lodged in my lower colon and it’s just driving me crazy. My next film is called The Giant Garden Slug Blows Eddie Murphy While John Candy Watches and it opens tomorrow at Red Carpet Theaters everywhere. Don’t miss it.
Chevy Chase loved the monologue and found it to be really funny, but Lorne Michaels wouldn’t let him do it on the show. O’Donoghue was fired from SNL a few weeks later after making a disparaging remark to The New York Times about the show, saying, “I think the show is an embarrassment. It’s like watching old men die.”
Arrive Alive (1989)
Michael O’Donoghue and frequent collaborator Mitch Glazer began writing the movie Arrive Alive in 1983, and it actually made it into production years later in 1989. The film followed Mickey Crews, a dirtbag Miami hotel detective who gets involved in in “a mystery involving killer whales, Everglade Indian tribes, and Florida land development.” If you’re interested in more about the movie, you can read Drew McWeeny’s review of the script at Hitfix or producer Art Linson’s book A Pound of Flesh, which chronicles the production, amongst other Hollywood tales.
McWeeny surmises that the Mickey Crews role was written for Bill Murray, but Willem Dafoe ended up playing him in the movie when Paramount put it into production in 1989. Jeremiah Chechik, who had just helmed National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, was hired to direct, but the studio shut the movie down after a few weeks of filming. The studio blamed it on budget and scheduling issues, but McWeeny says the real reason production was shut down was because of non-comedy actor Dafoe was coming off as too creepy and not likable in his performance as the main character. McWeeny also notes that the Humane Society was extremely offended by the script when the studio sent it to them for approval.
The House Guest (1989)
O’Donoghue wrote an unproduced script for a movie called The House Guest, based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Berger. The book told a dark story about a charming and polite near-stranger who becomes a house guest at a family’s summer home. He’s nice at first but then becomes aggressive and abusive, turning the family against him.
Michael O’Donoghue created this sketch show pilot called TV for the Fox network in 1992. It featured Kelly Lynch and was directed by Walter Williams, the creator of Mr. Bill, but like a lot of O’Donoghue’s work, it was too out there for primetime TV.
Collaborating with Quentin Tarantino (1994)
The summer before his death in 1994, Michael O’Donoghue was visited at his home in Ireland by director Quentin Tarantino and his then-girlfriend Julia Sweeney, who had just left Saturday Night Live. Tarantino, who was awaiting the release Pulp Fiction, told O’Donoghue he was a big fan of his National Lampoon work, and O’Donoghue complimented him on Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino stayed with O’Donoghue for two weeks, and the duo talked about collaborating on a movie. O’Donoghue tragically died a few months later at the age of 54.
For more on Michael O’Donoghue, I highly recommend Dennis Perrin’s biography Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, which I used as a source throughout this piece.