‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ memorabilia part of OSH museum

The Mental Health Association of Portland has opposed the re-creation of the Oregon State Hospital, and the santization of it’s history. The film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a direct and harsh criticism of the hospital and its ilk, as operated by all superintendents, including Dean Brooks. Note: to date, the OSH Museum project has not shown off it’s fantastic collection of hand-crank portable electro-convulsive treatment devices, popular during Dr. Brooks’ time. Persons with diagnosis of mental illness are claiming their place in society – this history is our history, not to be curated and tidied by government administrators or psychiatric apologists.

From the Salem Statesman Journal, December 25, 2011

This leather director’s chair was given to Dean Brooks, former superintendent at Oregon State Hospital, by the producers of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It is currently in Brooks’ residence but will eventually have a home in the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health.

A personalized brown, leather director’s chair sits in Dean Brooks’ living room, with a matching script pocket hanging from the right arm. Inside the pocket is a handwritten letter, on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” stationery from the film’s production company, addressed to the former superintendent at Oregon State Hospital.

    Dear Dean,

    Just a little something to remember us by — Thank you for making it all possible.

    Saul & Michael

The gift, from producers Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas, is destined for display in the future Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health.

The museum will be housed on the hospital campus on Center Street NE in the historic Kirkbride U Building, the one with the cupola and other preserved portions from the old J Building, which was used in the filming of “Cuckoo’s Nest.” The museum is scheduled to open Oct. 6, 2012.

This leather director's chair was given to Dean Brooks, former superintendent at Oregon State Hospital, by the producers of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'

This leather director's chair was given to Dean Brooks, former superintendent at Oregon State Hospital, by the producers of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'


I had the privilege of sitting in that chair this past week when I visited with him to talk about plans for the museum. Joining us were his daughter Dennie Brooks, his grandson Sean Brooks and museum board president Hazel Patton.

I deferred directing the conversation to Brooks, who has a sharp memory and is a wonderful storyteller. I could have listened all day to him talk about his unforeseen path to the state hospital, his unending concern for the patients and their care and the unexpected benefits of turning the hospital into a Hollywood set.

Brooks was superintendent from 1955 to 1981, and although he did much to improve patient care during his tenure, he is best known for inviting the makers of “Cuckoo’s Nest” into the hospital in 1974-75.

Producers had indicated the film would be set in Oregon, regardless of where it was actually made. Brooks said they had inquired at other mental health facilities on the West Coast before coming to Oregon State Hospital.

“We had the space, and I’m a bit of a daredevil anyway,” Brooks said. “I thought, why not? If we’re going to have the name, why don’t we play the game?”

Brooks was the technical advisor for the film and even had a speaking part, for which he still receives an occasional residual check. The latest was for $83.

He played Dr. Spivey, who performed the intake interview with Randle McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson. Most of that scene was improvised by Nicholson — including his swatting of an imaginary fly, asking about a fishing photo and discussing his rape conviction — and Brooke’s reactions were authentic.

“You never knew what Jack was going to do,” Brooks said.

Nicholson also flicked cigarette ashes on Brooks and wiped them off, but that didn’t make the cut.

Brooks said Nicholson gave him good acting advice, including never let your eyes wander, don’t hurry your lines, speak slowly, and never break into another man’s lines.

Until then, the director’s chair stays with Brooks, who at 95 lives in a retirement community not far from the hospital.

The hospital was paid $250 for every day the film crew was on campus, for a stretch of about three and a half months. About 90 patients and employees worked on the film behind the scenes and in front of the camera.

“That’s what Dean wanted,” daughter Dennie said. “Not something that happened at the hospital, but something that happened with the hospital.”

Some of the most rewarding scenes came when the cameras weren’t rolling. Michael Douglas, for example, threw a New Year’s Eve Party at the house he was staying at in South Salem, but was nowhere to be found. He finally showed up at a quarter to midnight.

“Guess where he’d been?” Brooks said. “He’d been at the hospital going from ward to ward saying, ‘Happy New Year.’ ”

Nicholson and Scatman Crothers, who played the night orderly, Mr. Turkle, would visit the kids in the adolescent unit, playing games and singing songs with them.

Dean Brooks

Dean Brooks

The cast and crew gave back to the community during their stay in Salem — one of the first premieres was held at the Historic Elsinore Theatre exclusively for hospital staff and patients — and continue to give back in support of the museum.

Patton surprised Brooks during my visit with a $50,000 check from the Saul Zaentz Trust. The donation was made in his name in honor of the friendship he had with Zaentz. The trust also has indicated it will help provide access to clips and artifacts for the 2,500-square-foot, volunteer-run museum.

The film will no doubt be a centerpiece. Organizers, with an initial goal of raising $180,000 to open, are in the process of staging exhibits off-site.

Dennie Brooks and her two sisters will meet in January in New York with part of the production duo, Michael Douglas.

Patton, one of the champions for preserving portions of the J Building and for pursuing National Register of Historic Places status for the entire 144-acre campus, said about $11,000 has been donated by individuals.

The goal of the museum is to stimulate discussion about the treatment of mental health patients, and Brooks’ knowledge and insight will be invaluable.

He is on the advisory board, and his daughter is on the board of directors.

“Oregon State Hospital has a great history,” Dean Brooks said, “a great history.”

The museum’s exhibits will span the 128-year history of the institution. It will inform and educate visitors what it was and what it is, including a dark past when patients underwent risky treatments and brutal operations, from brain-cutting lobotomies and forced sterilizations to insulin-induced comas and electric shocks.

Electric shock treatment was shown in the movie Cuckoo’s Nest, and Nicholson’s character underwent a lobotomy. Brooks told me he thought the last lobotomy at Oregon State Hospital was done in 1958.

The patient population peaked at 3,545 that same year, which was early in Brooks’ tenure as superintendent. Today there are 479 patients on the Salem campus.

Brooks was hired as a staff psychiatrist in the fall of 1947. Three years later he was asked to be assistant superintendent, and in 1955 became the hospital’s 10th superintendent.

It was a quick rise for someone who wanted nothing to do with psychiatry in medical school. “I wanted to be a pediatrician and had my heart set on that,” Brooks said. “I skipped as many of my classes in psychiatry as I could. Who wanted that stuff?”

After serving in the Navy, on several ships in the Pacific, he was stationed at the Naval hospital at Camp White in Medford. The chief of medicine there told him he really liked his personality and was putting him in the psychiatry program.

“I hated it. I didn’t know how to tell whether a person had psychosis, anxiety disorder or whether they were normal,” Brooks said.

He was promised that he could get out of the program in two months, but languished for a year. And then something unexpected happened.

“I became enamored with it and found it was something I liked and wanted to follow through with,” he said.

Brooks’ administrative style at Oregon State Hospital was much different than his predecessors. He opened up communication between patients and staff. He invited patients to serve on committees to discuss hospital issues.

His motto was: “Find fact, not fault.”

Now, three decades after his retirement, he hardly recognizes the campus. Current superintendent Greg Roberts took him on a tour of the new facilities.

“I’m impressed with it and the amount of room everybody has,” Brooks said. “I would like to
find out how the patients like it. If they really like this, then it’s a success.”