Terry Southern

From Academic Kids

Terry Southern (May 1, 1924 - October 29, 1995) was a highly influential American short story writer, novelist, essayist, screenwriter and university lecturer. He was part of the Paris postwar literary movement in the 1950s and a companion to Beat writers in Greenwich Village; he was at the center of Swinging London in the sixties and helped to change the style and substance of Hollywood films of the 1970s. In the 1980s he wrote for Saturday Night Live and lectured on screenwriting at several universities in New York.

Southern's dark and often absurdist style of broad yet biting satire helped to define the sensibilities of several generations of intelligent writers, readers, directors and filmgoers. He is credited by journalist Tom Wolfe as having invented New Journalism with the publication of "Twirling at Ole Miss" in Esquire in 1962, and his gift for writing memorable film dialogue was evident in Dr. Strangelove, The Cincinnati Kid and Easy Rider. His work on Easy Rider helped create the independent film movement of the 1970s, in opposition to Hollywood film studios.

Born in Alvarado, Texas, Southern left Southern Methodist University to serve as a Lieutenant in the US Army during World War II, returning to the States to study at Northwestern University, where he graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1948. While studying on the G.I. Bill at the Sorbonne he wrote short stories, one of which ("The Sun and the Still Born Stars") was the very first short story published in the Paris Review.

In 1958 his first novel, Flash and Filigree, was brought out by Andre Deutsch, soon followed by The Magic Christian (1958) and then Candy (1960) by Olympia Press. Southern and Beat poet Gregory Corso helped convince Olympia Press to first publish a controversial new novel by a little-known writer: Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.

On the recommendation of British actor Peter Sellers, director Stanley Kubrick asked Southern to help revise the screenplay of Dr. Strangelove (1964). Kubrick's first draft of the script was based on the novel Red Alert (1958) by Peter George. Kubrick, Southern and George shared the screenplay credits, but most of the dark and satiric dialogue was written by Southern.

During the latter half of the sixties Southern worked on the screenplays of The Loved One (1965) The Collector (1965) The Cincinnati Kid (1966) Casino Royale (1967) and Barbarella (1967). In 1968 Southern wrote the script for Easy Rider, generously sharing writing credit with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. The character of the small-town lawyer played by Jack Nicholson was originally written by Southern for Rip Torn.

Hired by Michael O'Donoghue to write for Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s, Southern taught screenwriting at New York University (NYU) and Columbia University from the late 80s until his death in 1995. His final novel, Texas Summer, was published in 1992 by Richard Seaver.

In early 2003 Southern's archives of manuscripts, correspondence and photographs were acquired by the New York Public Library. The archives include correspondence and other items from George Plimpton, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Frank O'Hara, Larry Rivers, William Styron, V. S. Pritchett, Gore Vidal, Abbie Hoffman, and Edmund Wilson, as well as John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and the Rolling Stones. Fittingly, the announcement of this acquisition was made on April 1.



Film appearances:

Album cover photo:


  • "I started reading The Magic Christian and I thought I was going to go insane... it was an incredible influence on me." — Hunter S. Thompson
  • "Terry Southern writes a mean, coolly deliberate, and murderous prose..." — Norman Mailer
  • "I know you - you're the guy who showed me how to do it - who showed me how you can make a half-million dollar picture - without a studio - and make a lot of money! I know you!" - Sylvester Stallone, on meeting Terry Southern for the first time in 1980 at Harry Nilsson's home
  • "Terry Southern is the illegitimate son of Mack Sennett and Edna St. Vincent Millay." - Kurt Vonnegut
  • "In this world [of Flash and Filigree] nothing is true, and censure or outrage is simply irrelevant." - William S. Burroughs
  • "Terry Southern was one of the first and best of the new wave of American writers, defining the cutting edge of black comedy." - Joseph Heller
  • "Terry Southern is the most profoundly witty writer of our generation and in The Magic Christian he surpasses Flaubert's Bouvard et Pιcuchet, a work similarly inspired by conventional wisdom's serene idiocy." - Gore Vidal
  • "If there were a Mount Rushmore of American satire, Terry Southern would be the mountain they’d carve it from." - Michael O'Donoghue

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