MR. LEARY'S OPUS : Preparing for a '60s Flashback

Judy Brennan is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Tune in. Turn on. Drop out. The mantra of the '60s will soon become the focal point of a film about the man who coined the phrase and epitomized the lifestyle--Timothy Leary.

Just as Leary, 75 and dying of prostate cancer, anxiously anticipates his third act, he spends part of his days recounting the "experiment" pegged as a turning point in America's history.

If the public's perception of Leary and LSD is irresponsible behavior for an irresponsible time, it couldn't be further from reality, says Ted Field, chairman and chief executive Interscope Films, which produced the recent box-office hits "Jumanji" and "Mr. Holland's Opus."

"The irony is Tim, a brilliant Harvard psychologist, came to embody that slogan and that time. But the fact is, he began an experiment using drugs because he felt that psychotherapy had stalled," Field says. "In what became known as the Harvard experiment, he used prisoners to see if these mind-expanding drugs would alter their behavior positively and help cure the recidivism rate of prisoners slipping back into the system after release. When some divinity students learned of the drug and the experiment, they used it to see if they could come in contact with God.

"And that's the irony. It was this responsible project at Harvard, done under rigorous sanctions, that went awry. You have to ask yourself, 'How did an institution like that ever allow this in the first place?' But Leary became the experiment's victim and wound up as a political vanguard."

And the subject of Interscope's upcoming film about a certain segment of the radical's life.

There is irony, too, that this subject is such a pet project of Field, who says he never used drugs and even served on the board of D.A.R.E.

"Considering the political climate of the moment, I'm sure this film will be vilified as a pro-drug piece from the people who brought you [gangsta rappers] Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg," Field adds. "I defend my rap group music unabashedly just as I will this film. But again, 'Leary' [the working title] will have a neutral point of view about an experiment that went awry and how it changed a whole generation."

Randall Johnson is writing the script of Interscope's anticipated $15- to $20-million movie, which could start production as early as June. At the moment, Field and his production chief, Scott Kroopf, are searching for the right director and the actor to play Leary--"a tremendous turn for an actor," Field says.

A few days ago, Leary says, his friends Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon paid him a visit. He is a big fan of Sarandon, with a large painted portrait of her hanging in his den. Leary says Robbins told him he would like to direct the picture. And that would suit Leary fine: In Leary's mind, Robbins gets what he is all about.

Interscope confirms that Robbins' is one of several names being batted about. Others include Tim Burton and Oliver Stone, another whom Leary calls "friend."

Who would play the man remains undetermined, although Oscar contender Nicolas Cage's name has popped up. Leary says he'd like to see the role go to Christopher Walken because he loved his performance in "True Romance," one of Leary's 10 all-time favorite films.

Asked at his home about the notion of a movie made on his life, Leary says wryly: "I think there should be 100 movies made of my life . . . everyone's lives. These are the Harvard years. And then we'll have the golden years in Beverly Hills."

The benevolent Leary finds his once-abundant energy spent quickly in interviews these days. But he perks up when the topic centers on the "experiment" itself. It was the time (1966), as Field put it, for "Tim's public coming into being."

Leary says it was a time of awakening for humanism. "It was a classically beautiful scientific experiment. There were eight Harvard psychologists and the prisoners. We were in the experiment as well as the prisoners. Some of us were given placebos [sugar pills] and others [LSD]."

Once the word spread, the guards and the prisoners wanted to be a part of it, he says, and it simply got out of hand. Eventually, Leary was booted out of Harvard. He would continue to experiment with drugs, find himself repeatedly incarcerated only to become a figurehead of the free-love, free-drug, free-spirit movement.

"What would I want this film to say about the '60s that others haven't? That the '60s brought a real explosion of humanism and that humanism is the glorification and empowerment of individuals," Leary says. "I think what happened with the '60s and the Harvard experiment was inevitable and I would never say it was an irresponsible time."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World