DEPOE BAY — Imagine this usually noisy port oddly hushed as a loudspeaker echoes off the high rock walls, “Quiet Please! Lights…Camera…Action!”
It’s been 46 years since director Milos Foreman turned Depoe Bay into a Hollywood set to film the Oscar-sweeping 1975 movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” thrusting the quaint fishing village and its residents into everlasting cinematic glory. Starring Jack Nicholson and an ensemble cast, the motion picture won five Academy Awards and is rated No. 20 in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Best Movies.
While much of the picture was filmed in the oppressive confines of the now-shuttered Oregon State Hospital using actual mental patients and staff for bit parts, the magnificent middle act was shot in Depoe Bay against the striking backdrop of the “World’s Smallest Harbor.” Dozens of local residents were employed as movie extras and technical experts. Many have died or moved on, leaving only a tersely-worded plaque installed in 2019 by the state tourism department to recall the event.
In 2013, however, I interviewed the late Fred Robison about his recollections of the episode. Fred, a legendary founder of Depoe Bay’s modern sportfishing industry, was a hale 91-years-old at the time. His memories of that day in the sun were still sharp as a gaff hook.
Robison had seen much in nine decades, beginning with the rise and fall of his childhood home, Taft (now the southernmost “pearl” of Lincoln City), from a busy port once jammed with schooners and log barges to the tourist backwater it is today. He remembered taking the daylong journey to Newport before the construction of Highway 101, a trip along beaches and sandstone bluffs that required a tide table instead of a map. He watched Depoe Bay grow from an impoverished pioneer settlement into a booming tourist town. But few spectacles, he said, compared to the arrival of a full Hollywood production company and its retinue of stars, including Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, who would both earn Oscars for their performances.
“I was just sitting on my boat, the Jimco II, one day when this fellow came up and wanted to know if it was for hire,” remembered Fred, a marine surveyor and retired charter skipper who owned the 12-boat outfit, Jimco Sportfishing. “He was Michael Douglas, the producer. He told me, ‘I’ve got the right cast and the right story. I’ve got a hit and I’m going to make money on this baby.’”
Douglas, a formidable TV star at the time, confided that he had purchased the movie rights for the 1962 Ken Kesey novel from his own father, Kirk. The elder Douglas had starred in the Broadway stage adaptation of Cuckoo’s Nest but was then too old at 60 to play Randle P. McMurphy, the convicted rapist who finagles a transfer from prison to a mental institution to avoid hard labor.
If the premise sounds too insensitive for today’s prevailing tastes, Douglas was elated to have signed the 38-year-old Nicholson and relieved that Fred Robison could handle the demanding marine work.
Though a different skipper and boat appeared in the movie’s famous fishing scene, Robison earned most of the local production budget as operator of the supply ship. Hired to ferry the director, script girl, girlfriends, reporters, wardrobes, cameramen, lights and other movie equipment throughout the shooting, Robison packed his boat with cartons of cigarettes, booze, chewing gum, sack lunches and other supplies. For six weeks, the vessel served as a floating platform for “continuity” shots and location scouting.
“Jack Herford, a great old salt, and his son Ted, got all the glory when they drove the Hyak and that boatload of rubber-room escapees to sea, but I got most of the money,” chuckled Robison, who became good friends with crew and cast alike.
The movie’s plot was faithful to Kesey’s outrageous novel. Upon arrival at the mental hospital, brash rebel McMurphy rallies the patients to resist the oppressive Nurse Ratched. The best part of the movie, according to Robison, occurred when Nicholson led the inmates on an escape to Depoe Bay, where they steal a boat and go salmon fishing. The scene climaxes when the lunatics prevail over all obstacles to land a colossal Coho.
“Actually, we bought the salmon at the fish market in Lincoln City,” revealed Robison.
Phil Taunton, a lifelong Depoe Bay resident, was 10 at the time and managed to skip school with his pal Glen Hunter during the filming. They were hired as extras for $25, and Phil appeared in a crowd scene at dockside as the Hyak returned to harbor.
“We joined the cast and crew for lunch one day at the Community Hall, which they had commandeered as a commissary,” recalled Taunton, who became an accomplished chef and respected town elder. “I sat between Danny DeVito and director Milos Forman.”
Post-Academy Awards bashes wouldn’t hold a candle to the giant wrap party held at the Inn at Otter Crest, whose restaurant and convention hall was the trendiest spot on the central coast in the 1970s. There, locals rubbed shoulders with the producers, crew and actors in the bar and great room. The stories flowed fast as the booze.
Robison recalled how Jack Nicholson gave his gorgeous fiancé, Betty, a friendly hug, then cut loose with one of his famous lines from the movie: “They was giving me ten thousand watts a day, you know, and I’m hot to trot! The next woman takes me on’s gonna’ light up like a pinball machine and pay off in silver dollars!”
The filming of Cuckoo’s Nest is just one of the many recollections that Fred Robison shared with those lucky enough to know him. Like any mariner worth his salt, he kept a footlocker of photographs that chronicled his amazing life. Among them was a scrapbook of priceless black-and-whites that captured his service with the U.S. Coast Guard during WWII, when he took a piece of shrapnel in the cheek off Borneo before returning home to Oregon. Fred Robison passed in 2017.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” wasn’t the only movie filmed in Depoe Bay, nor has the drip-drip-drip of Hollywood glitterati passing through local bars and restaurants over the years left the town star-struck. For locals, Depoe Bay has always been a stage with its own cast of characters, like the unforgettable Fred Robison. Everybody else, including Jack Nicholson, is an extra.