Terry Southern, born on May 1, 1924 in Alvarado, Texas, was an integral part of the post-Beat literary scene of the 60’s. A “new journalist” (so proclaimed by Tom Wolfe) and screenwriter as well as an author, he may be best remembered for writing two very successful films, “Dr. Strangelove” and “Easy Rider.” These and other playfully anti-establishment films like “Candy,” “Barbarella” and “The Magic Christian” particularly captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s.
Southern didn’t often wander into the introspective literary territory of the Beats, though when he did (as in some of the stories in his 1967 collection “Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes”) he did it well. This book is my favorite Southern work: it begins with the sacred (white kid and black guy lazing happily around a ramshackle country village) and ends with the profane (a speed-crazed magazine writer searching for more drugs, in a story William S. Burroughs called “one of the funniest stories I have read in a long time.”)
In 1968 Southern participated in the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention riots against the Vietnam War along with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet. He wrote many books, articles and films in the 70s, 80s and 90s, though usually without attracting great notice.
There is an interesting degree of connectedness between Terry Southern and the Beatles. His picture is on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” along with many other celebrities of the time. He wrote both the source material and the screenplay for one of Ringo Starr’s first solo film efforts, ‘The Magic Christian’. More indirectly, the animated character of the chief Blue Meanie in “Yellow Submarine” is clearly based on the character of Dr. Strangelove as portrayed by Peter Sellers in the movie of the same name (just check out the voice and facial expressions of both).
In 1981 and 1982 Southern served as a writer for “Saturday Night Live,” which is not a great honor as the show was going through one of its worst phases at the time. He died of respiratory failure on October 29, 1995 while on his way to Columbia University, where he taught a screenwriting course.