Over the years, many motion pictures during production have been plagued with difficulties. Some, so much so that they’ve been rumored to have been cursed. This is especially true of films that deal with dark supernatural forces, “The Exorcist”, “The Omen”, and the “Poltergeist” Trilogy, just to name a few.
So it may come as a surprise to many not well versed in the industry that one of the most notorious “cursed” projects seems to be a rather mundane comedy premise concerning a portly Eskimo who heads off to the big city, resulting in the typical “fish out of water” series of mishaps. The majority of potential Hollywood actors playing the lead character dying before the film could even enter production is the main reason for such a reputation.
The project, unproduced to this day, is simply entitled, “Atuk”.
The name “Atuk” itself, despite what poorly equipped internet researchers believe, is not Inuit for “Grandfather”, that would be the Malaysian definition. The actual Eskimo word means “Caribou” or “Reindeer”. That cleared up, let’s move on to the project’s history.
In 1963, famed Canadian author/sociopolitical satirist, Mordecai Richler, published the novella “The Incomparable Atuk”, a metaphorical fable concerning an Eskimo poet named Atuk, whose notable writings concerning the wildlife in the winter tundra of Canada’s Baffin Bay attracts the attention of the top Canadian literati in the big city of Toronto, so he’s brought over to indulge them with his unique native take on things. Unbeknownst to them, Atuk, with merely a whiff of the jet set life, is already more than willing to corrupt himself to fit in with his new found admirers, and to do the same to others, such as national sweetheart, Bette Dolan, famous for swimming lake Ontario in record time (with a little prodding from her overbearing “Coach” father), and who, while attempting to help Atuk along in adapting, falls prey to his charms and becomes an alcoholic and a prostitute. Atuk then has his relatives brought over, before enslaving them in the basement of his new home, forcing them to churn out Eskimo “trinkets” for the market, while keeping them mesmerized, controlling their attention by treating modern technology as though it were magic. Atuk later falls in love with a young Jewish woman, and tells the Rabbi at her Temple that he wishes to convert to Judaism,and change his name to Abraham. The Rabbi dissuades him by explaining to him of how things have changed in the “Interfaith” world. ( A jab by Richler at his fellow Jews who were ashamed of their faith.) Trouble soon arises when it is discovered that years ago during a blizzard, Atuk had eaten the corpse of an American Army Sargent to survive, a move which unexpectedly sends the people into a joyful frenzy (Here, Richler satirizes Canadians’ Anti-American Nationalism) Evil businessman, Buck Twentyman, in an effort to eliminate the monster he’s helped to create, arranges for Atuk, now a prisoner, to agree to appear on a radical new quiz show entitled “Stick Out Your Neck” ( A rearranged version, “Stick Your Neck Out”, was released as the title of the novel for its initial American release), in which the contestant’s head is placed in a guillotine. If he loses the game, he loses his head. This happens to Atuk when he cannot answer a complicated question about a Canadian hockey team’s score.
The first rumblings of an adaptation came only a few years later. According to Reinhold Kramer’s book, “Mordecai Richler: Leaving St. Urbain”, a pair of Broadway producers named Steven Sharmat and Sandy Baron approached Richler around 1965-66 with the concept of turning his novella into a stage musical with music by Jerry Schwartz and lyrics by Bob Hilliard. Richler reluctantly agreed, and by the middle of 1966 it became a little obvious the project was going nowhere. Over the rest of the decade, as the playbook went through numerous rewrites, any question as to the project raised by Richler was met with false tales of start dates, or boisterous claims of being able to nab performers Ringo Starr as Atuk (Who would coincidentally go on to play an identically named character in the 1983 bomb, “Caveman”) and Phil Silvers as Twentyman. Finally, after years of foot dragging on the producers’ part, Richler declared the licensing option void.
Richler figured he’d have better luck with film. In 1971, he contacted Canadian born director Norman Jewison, in hopes of him directing an adaptation. The opportunity finally came along in 1973 while he was working on his adaptation of the Biblical musical, “Jesus Christ, Superstar”. He notified Richler of a screenplay draft written by fellow Canadian writer and actor, Don Harron, re-titled The Inimitable Mr. Atuk (according to the November 14th, 1973 issue of Variety). There was also some interest by, yet unknown in the States, Czech director Milos Forman. According to press releases at the time, Jewison was considering his leading man from “Fiddler On The Roof”, Topol, to play Atuk! They planned to set the project up at United Artists.
Harron’s drafts were more into a takeoff on American society. In his autobiography, “My Double Life: Sexty Years of Farquarhon Around”, Harron described the first draft as thus:
“Members of a New York advertising Agency fly to one of those remote Arctic islands to do a photo shoot for a classy fur firm. But they find to their horror that there is no snow, even in the high arctic, in the middle of summer. Disappointed, they make their way back to the plane. On their way, they see some poor slob trying to spear a seal through a hole in the ice. This is Atuk.
In a flash of inspiration, they decide to take him back with them to New York. He will be the only authentic prop in their proposed fur shoot. Atuk smells too bad to be included in the passenger section of the plane, so he ends up in cargo. And when they land in New York, they put Atuk into a separate cab.
But they forget to fund the Eskimo, and the cab driver turfs him out of the car when Atuk attempts to pay his fare with a Canadian $2 Bill. Atuk is dumped into Central Park and eventually ends up in their park zoo at three o’clock in the morning, happily cavorting with the seals.
When the zoo opens in the morning, Atuk is still there. But he is arrested for trespassing and ends up in a New York jail called “The Tombs”. Atuk’s cellmate is an enormous black man who resents his presence. But when he attacks Atuk, he gets a seal knife in his gut for his pains. The wound is fatal.
When Atuk rejects the food shoved under the jail door, he proceeds to cut up the corpse of his fellow prisoner and eat his blubber. Can you imagine anything more politically incorrect? I told Norman and Forman that it was a metaphor for life in New York City… dog eat dog.
Forman loved it, but Norman was very was very calm when he told me that the whole cannibalistic idea was just a little over the top.”
Richler concurred. Remarking on the material: “It leaves something to be desired.. Like another draft.”
Harron continues: “Undaunted .. I told Norman I could write him a sixteen page treatment with a new idea.
This time, it involved North America’s upcoming water shortage. It started with a CEO demonstrating a flushing toilet to his investors and explaining that four gallons of water gets wasted with every flush. The only solution was to raise funds for a Canadian company to drain that country’s water down into the States. But because of pesky regulations, the head of that company had to be a Canadian. That’s when Atuk comes in as your token CEO. Most of the rest of my treatment script ended up in Las Vegas at the Hoover Dam. I never heard what Forman thought, but Norman let me know immediately. And to think that he and I are still friends!”
By September 1973 until April ’74, with the project still in a standstill , and Richler joking that the project had become his “Annuity”, Jewison announced that he was now considering Dustin Hoffman for the title role, according to Variety. Ultimately, Atuk would go unmade, and Jewison eventually distanced himself from the project. Around this time, the project gets fuzzy, but by the early 80’s, it was apparently intended for Saturday Night Live comedian John Belushi to play the lead role.
United Artists executive Doug Draizin confirms that he had been responsible for sending the script to the portly comic, as well as the other “victims” of the role.
Of course, Belushi did die from a cocaine and heroin overdose in ’82., and that was that.
The next candidate was definitely considered, so much so that for a brief period, film nearly rolled on the project!
By 1988, the project had been shifted to MGM/UA and Tod Carroll,a National Lampoon veteran, had been brought in to punch up the script, and it was offered to Pentecostal Preacher turned foulmouthed primal screaming comic, Sam Kinison.
To be directed by the filmmaker who manned his first (and only) notable film role as Professor Turgidson in “Back to School”, Alan Metter.
In an unfortunately lost web page, Metter remarks:
“It’s always been a painful subject for me.” He said. “Because I really put a lot into that movie, and had high hopes for it. I thought it was going to be great, every comic’s dream. A classic, like an “Animal House”.”
And by “put a lot into it”, Metter wasn’t kidding.
“We were shooting in New York City, Toronto, and Frobisher Bay Nunavut Territory, and we brought the “A” team. We had a dogsled team of German Shepherds trained specifically for the movie. We had permits to shoot that dogsled going across the George Washington Bridge, through Central Park, and down Fifth Avenue. I had spent about four months on it, United Artists spent four million, and I shot one thirty second scene. It was the most expensive thirty second movie ever made.”
Carroll’s screenplay would still retain some of the elements of Harron’s earlier drafts.
In this version, Atuk, for the purposes of the actor, is now the half-breed son of an Eskimo woman and a western missionary,living in Alaska with the rest of his tribe. Because of his different appearance and his unwillingness to hunt and kill animals, he feels like an outcast. He studies subjects such as American commerce and dreams of visiting the U.S. His opportunity arises, when a beautiful American news anchor named Michelle Ross, and her team filming a documentary about Inuit life. Atuk stows aboard her plane and is undiscovered until it’s too late, so Michelle must allow him to enter the United States with them.
Meanwhile, billionaire real estate mogul Alexander McKuen (based on Donald Trump), is currently battling efforts from environmentalists who are resistant to McKuen’s attempts to build a resort in the arctic, entitled, “The Emerald”.
Meanwhile, Alexander’s son, Bishop, a rebellious underage drinker, has just escaped his grounding punishment, and heads off for the docks in his own speedboat, when he crashes and nearly drowns. Atuk rescues him, and the two become fast friends. When Alexander learns of this, he sees in Atuk the “mascot” character for his project, and offers to put him up in one of his own hotels in the meantime, while Bishop, angry at Atuk for appeasing his father, whom he feels no longer loves him, is sent off to military school.
Atuk hooks up with Michelle again, and the both of them travel back to Alaska where Atuk is heavily made up and told to look and act more “Eskimo-like”, in an attempt to dissuade the environmentalists from making a scene. As they work together, Atuk and Michelle realize there is a mutual attraction between them. However, after viewing the actual commercial, Atuk realizes that he has been used, and heads off to break Bishop out of military school, and using a dog sled and the German Shepherds from the grounds, Atuk and Bishop head to a hearing for “The Emerald” where Atuk, in the type of profanity laced tirades Kinison was known for, tells the committee that the project will indeed be an environmental disaster, and that he regrets helping to endorse it.
His plans ruined, and now all of his backers abandoning him, McKuen sees his son, Bishop standing alone in the hearing room, and realizing that he’d been neglecting him, reconciles with him.
Atuk returns home to his village, only to be surprised by a plane with a bikini clad Michelle offering to take him to the tropics in a plane co-piloted by Bishop!
Here was the proposed cast list, according to Metter:
Atuk – Sam Kinison
Michelle Ross – Kelly Lynch
Alexander McKuen – Christopher Walken
Bishop McKuen – Ben Affleck (Yes, THAT one. He was 16 at the time and It was to be his first movie role, as he later recalled.)
Vera McKuen – Tuesday Weld
Misa (Atuk’s Eskimo Girlfriend) – Ricki Lake
Harry Dean Stanton in an unknown role.
Well, what exactly happened? As Bill Kinison, Sam’s brother recalled in the biography, “Brother Sam”
“CAA resurrected Atuk by turning it into a “package”. Producer Fred Roos, director Alan Metter, and costars Christopher Walken and Harry Dean Stanton all came attached to Atuk when it first got pitched around town. All were CAA clients. So, now was Sam, the film’s star. Using Sam’s “heat” as a major selling point, CAA set up Atuk at United Artists. It was slated to shoot in New York and Toronto in February of 1988.
In return for “delivering” Sam, Elliot Abbott was named executive producer. Later, Sam and I were told that Elliot passed on at least one other major project – without even running it by us – because that didn’t include Elliot as a producer. We were told this by Alan Rich, the President of Guber-Peters, and a big fan of Sam’s. According to Alan, Guber-Peters intended for Sam to star in its comedy, “Beetlejuice”. He said the title role, played by Michael Keaton, had been written with Sam in mind. “We wouldn’t make Elliot Abbott executive producer,” Alan told us in Atlantic City. “That’s why you never knew about it.”
Kinison continued that Abbott had told Sam that United Artists had said that he was free to rewrite his lines for the project. Sam, taking Abbott’s word for it, put off reading the script until shortly before pre-production, and relying on friends for their feedback, which wasn’t too good. By the time Sam himself finally got around to reading it In January of 1988, six weeks before shooting, and realizing how terrible it was, it was far too late.
He also feared that the story was an uninspired ripoff of “Crocodile Dundee“, so much so that he began to derisively refer to the project as “Eskimo Dundee”.
While undergoing preliminary dog sled training in Toronto, Fred Roos, the producer, who’d also produced such films as Copppola’s “Apocolypse Now” and “The Outsiders”, resigned from the project, which demoralized Sam even further.
“Charles Roven replaced Roos, and Sam said they started fighting the moment they got to New York. They fought about casting, the script, and how much Sam’s friends would be paid for their work on the rewrite. Sam’s clashing with Rove didn’t surprise me. Like most famous comedians, Sam had eaten a lot of s**t on his way to the big time. He’d built his career by himself, with virtually no connections. Roven, in contrast, was married to Dawn Steel, the first female studio head in history. Sam thought Steel had got Roven the job on Atuk, because that was the word on the set among Roven’s other detractors. When Sam looked at Roven,he thought he was seeing a guy who paid no dues.
Sam also kept telling me that Roven had a “people problem”. “This guy doesn’t like anyone” Sam said. “I don’t think he likes human beings. It’s affecting the set. Me and Metter are going to get him fired.”
But the trouble was just beginning:
“The first day of shooting arrived on February 15. Sam surprised me that night when he didn’t call. When he still hadn’t phoned the next day, I figured the first few shots in New York were in the can, and that Sam and everyone else had flown back up to Toronto. Sam finally called me at home the following morning.
“How’s it going over there?” I said.
“What do you mean? Where’s home?”
“I’m here in L.A.” Sam said.
“You can’t be in L.A.!”
“They pulled the plug, Bill. They cancelled the movie.”
Sam said he’d flown all night on a red-eye. Sounding drowsy but calm, his main emotion seemed to be one of relief.
“If I did it the way they wanted me to” he said “I could be working Laff Stops the rest of my life.”
Sam told me it fell apart like this:
The Night before shooting was meant to begin, a crucial meeting was called for late the next afternoon. UA Chairman Tony Thomopolous and head of production Roger Birnbaum would be flying in from Hollywood. All week long, Sam and Metter had told each other that Roven needed to go. When they heard that the UA bosses were flying out, they assured each other that they’d both speak out at the meeting.
The next day, Sam delivered about one-third of the script he’d rewritten with his friends and Metter. This included the first few scenes to be shot in New York. Sam was not blowing off the rest of the script. He thought they would have ten more days to rewrite it, while production stopped before everyone left New York for Toronto. Furthermore, on Back to School, Rodney and Harold Ramis had been writing new pages throughout the production.
Sam put on his full eskimo costume and makeup, thinking, we’ll have to shoot SOMETHING. But shooting never started. Sam sat around, then went to the meeting late that afternoon. Entering the room, he saw several people lined up on one side of a table, and one chair on the other side waiting for him.
Dressed like an eskimo, Sam felt like an ass.
He also understood he was totally on his own: Along with Roven, Thomopolous, Birnbaum, Alan Metter sat on the other side of the table. So did Elliot Abbott.
One of the studio heads asked why no one could get along. Sam, alone, said the problem was Roven. One of the studio heads cut to the chase – The script for Atuk would be shot in its original form. Sam said that script wasn’t funny. UA should use his rewrite.
“What rewrite?” One studio head asked Sam. He told Sam that UA had no knowledge of one.
Intuitively, Sam believed him. He glared at Elliot, who’d been telling Sam for months that the studio welcomed a rewrite. He glared at Metter, who’d been working with Sam on one.
The meeting degenerated, and Sam lost his temper. He told the UA executives, “You think it’s a funny script? Let’s do it the way it’s written. I’m in costume,let’s do it right now! But I promise you one thing. I’ll walk through this f****n’ movie!”
Metter got nervous and finally spoke up. He’d just directed Richard Pryor in “Moving”. The film wasn’t released yet, but word had spread that it reeked, and that Pryor had walked through his role. Metter said he couldn’t direct another movie like Moving.
Sam chimed back in “I’ll do this movie, because I have a contract. But after it’s out, I won’t promote it. I will not promote a bad movie.”
One of the studio heads said he’d heard enough. Atuk had too many problems. UA was pulling the plug.
Sam said, “Okay, I’m going back to L.A.” He stood up and walked out the door.
After I heard Sam out, I formed this opinion:
Thomopolous and Birnbaum had not planned on killing Atuk when they flew to New York that morning. If the matter was closed, why even step on a plane? Even during the meeting, when they said they were closing it down, they were just trying to frighten Sam into compliance. Powerful men,they expected Sam to beg for another chance. But they ran into a guy as stubborn as they were.
Although nobody won on Atuk, Sam took the hardest hit. UA probably spared itself the embarrassment of releasing a flop. In fact, before it shut down operations, UA briefly shopped Atuk to other comedians,[similarly gravelly screaming comedian “Bobcat” Goldthwait for starters, which he turned down. This event, coupled with a feud the two had been having for a while, came to a head on an episode of The Howard Stern radio show in 1989. Aside from that, Judge Reinhold and Dudley Moore were supposedly considered as well,] but nobody wanted in. As for the $5 million,UA announced it had already been spent in preproduction, studios often make entire movies which are never released into theaters. On a film that was looking increasingly like a dog, UA might have saved itself millions by cutting its losses early.
When the news first got out, the entertainment media smelled blood. Unsurprisingly, Sam got eaten alive. Why tell a complicated story, where everyone shares some guilt,featuring unknown names like Roven and Metter and Abbott, when the public might find that boring? Why risk upsetting the Hollywood power structure when Sam’s “self destruction” made such an appealing target? Keep it sexy, keep it simple. Bury the mouthy comic.
Before Atuk, Sam had been labeled “colorful” by the media. He was mostly seen as a guy who raised some Cain,a guy whose black humor you might not get,or approve of, but a guy who was easy to like if you met him face to face. After Atuk, Sam was “out of control”.
That’s not all, according to several of the crew members present, Sam nearly got physically violent, as well. http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2007/07/how-many-of-you-contestants-are-from.html
“In the late 80’s, maybe early 90’s I was a P.A. on a movie called “Atuk”, starring Sam Kinison. It was a fish-out-of-water story with him playing an Eskimo in NYC. On the first day of shooting, we all sat around while Sam and the Director screamed at each other in front of the crew. After lunch we tried our first take, and Sam had to be held back from hitting the director. The end result of the day was that we had exposed about 30′ of film and the producers trashed the next day’s call sheet and told everyone that tomorrow’s call time would be 8:00am at the rental houses to unload the trucks. Oh, good times. – Nathan”
In a matter of weeks, Sam’s agency dropped him, as well as his manager, Abbott.
“As UA and CAA cranked up their PR machines, all kinds of rumors began to make the rounds. One of the wildest ones we read was that Sam “had shown up late for the meeting with UA, drug-crazed and clutching a wad of loose notebook pages.” Other stories floated that he’d stormed off the set in the middle of a scene, while the cameras were already rolling.
The cameras had never rolled.
The rumors grated on him, but Sam was much more upset by United Artists’ next salvo. On February 25, it hit Sam with a $5.5 million breach-of-contract lawsuit. Although Sam was concerned about legal fees, I thought we should fight it. SWo did Sam’s attorneys. Sam was in costume that day, ready to work. He never left the set until THEY pulled the plug. Not that Sam was blameless. He should have read the script before signing on. He should have dealt directly with UA and CAA, instead of relying on Elliot. He was getting high in New York. But to pin the collapse of an entire movie on him? A movie that had never had an IDEA behind it in the first place? I thought that was bulls**t. I thought they wanted to teach him a lesson, because Sam had refused to back down.
His contract with UA promised him $350,000, but it was supposed to be paid in weekly installments, beginning at the end of the first week of production. When UA pulled the plug, Sam never got paid at all (except a few thousand dollars in expense money). His attorneys suggested we countersue UA, to collect the $350,000. While we mulled this over, we learned that UA had also sued Elliot Abbott for breach of contract. Apparently, UA agreed with Sam on that much: Elliot had misrepresented both sides.”
The only visual record, aside from the script is this photo of location scout, David L. Snyder, freezing in the Baffin Bay tundra.
Of course, many years later, Sam was hit and killed by an underage drunk driver outside of Needles, California in 1992.
Over the years, other comedians, such as John Candy, and Chris Farley, had also been considered for the role, with Metter still attached as director, only for both of them to pass on as well, as this clip touches on.
For what it’s worth, the screenwriter Tod Carroll, obviously sees no curse involved. http://articles.latimes.com/1999/feb/21/magazine/tm-10276
“When it came time to start filming, Sam wanted it rewritten,” says Carroll. “Once they started shooting it, it had accumulated a lot of costs.” The production eventually shut down, and Candy and Farley, among others, read it and expressed interest. United Artists has retained the rights and the film project remains in turnaround. “I’m not a superstitious person,” Carroll says, “and it doesn’t have any meaning to me.” Carroll hasn’t heard about plans to revive the script, to his disappointment. “With the right actor and right tone,” he says, perhaps a bit cautiously, “it may have been a nice movie.”
However, in this day and age of politically correct tones on how natives are percieved and seeing as how the arctic fish out of water concept has been used in films such as Will Ferrell’s “Elf”, it looks like Atuk will be forever, pardon the phrase, be on ice.
For those of you who care to read the Kinison draft of the screenplay for yourselves, again, my buddy Don has it available at his blog: