Bonus CURSED OBJECTS Material: The "Atuk" Screenplay

This entry about a cursed Hollywood screenplay was another casualty of space. But it was also difficult to categorize as an object. I mean, the idea of a cursed manuscript gets me tingly, but this cursed screenplay wasn’t a single physical manuscript. And maybe not even the same words on each copy,as screenplays go through all kinds of rewrites, especially ones that been around for a while. It was fun to research, though. I rented a lot of movies and wrote them off as work expenses.

John Belushi, Chris Farley, Sam Kinison, and John Candy share a good bit in common: They were all famous plus-sized entertainers who wielded their weight in astounding acts of comedy. They also all died young. And they also all might have been the victims of a cursed screenplay called Atuk.

Like many screenplays, Atuk started out as a novel. The novel came out in 1963 and was titled The Incomparable Atuk. It was written by a Canadian journalist named Mordecai Richler. The Incomparable Atuk was a satirical novel about a Canadian Inuit poet named Atuk who moves to Toronto and then is corrupted by the city. Seems not deadly.

But it also doesn’t seem like the type of book that would light fire to the desks of Hollywood executives to flatten it onto a theater screen. However, if you change the city of Toronto to New York and use the phrase “fish out of water,” then you’ve got yourself a flick. And that’s exactly what the Atuk screenplay did.

Fellow Canadian Norman Jewison, the Academy Award-nominated director of In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crowne Affair, bought the rights to the novel in 1971, and Todd Carroll wrote the script. The first person who read the script with an eye to playing the starring role was John Belushi, famous for his stint on Saturday Night Live and his roles in movies like Animal House and The Blues Brothers. That was at the beginning of 1982. Soon after, on March 5th of that year, Belushi would die of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. He was thirty-three years old.

The next attempt to bring Atuk to the screen was in 1988. Sam Kinison, who was famous for his intense and biting stand-up routines, had been cast in the starring role. Production actually started this time with United Artists backing it. However, Kinison clashed with the studio over creative control, and production halted almost immediately. Later, United Artists would sue Kinison for sabotaging the movie. Kinison would die four years later, on April 10, 1992, when he was hit by a drunk driver on U.S. Route 95 near Needles, California. He was thirty-eight years old.

The screenplay stayed alive, though, and in early 1994, the loveable star of Uncle Buck and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles John Candy was approached to play the part of Atuk. He would die of a heart attack in bed a few months later on March 4, 1994 in Durango, Mexico. He was forty-three years old. And Canadian.

After that came Chris Farley, who had a similar arc to John Belushi, kickstarting his career at Saturday Night Live and then going on to starring roles in major comedy movies like Tommy Boy and Black Sheep. He would also die of a drug overdose. He was found in his apartment at the John Hancock Center in Belushi’s hometown of Chicago on December 18, 1997.

Those four entertainers are considered the main victims, but the cursed screenplay also had some collateral damage. Screenwriter Michael O’Donoghue, who was Saturday Night Live’s first head writer and the co-writer of the 1988 Bill Murray film Scrooged, was a friend of John Candy’s. O’Donoghue either gave Candy the Atuk script or read it with him, but O’Donoghue died suddenly at the age of fifty-four of a cerebral hemorrhage a few months after Candy’s death. Phil Hartman, a friend and colleague of Chris Farley, who had a massive career in movies and television, also read the script, with the idea of taking another role in it while Farley played Atuk. Hartman was shot and killed by his wife at their Los Angeles home months after Farley’s death. He was forty-nine. And another Canadian.

Some say that these curse stories have been cherrypicked. That with the script circulating for so many decades in Hollywood, that these tragic souls weren’t the only ones to read the script and express interest in taking on the mantle of the lead role. Other actors and comedians rumored to have been attached to the script at one point or another have included Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Jonathan Winters, John Goodman, and Josh Mostel. All actors famous for both their prodigious talent and body type (except maybe for Ferrell). But, as of this writing, only Jonathan Winters among this group have died. And Winters died in 2013 at age eighty-seven of natural causes. Cursed objects don’t really do long lives and natural causes.

The deaths of Belushi, Candy, and Farley also vector on another supposedly cursed screenplay based on the John Kennedy Toole novel A Confederacy of Dunces. The story is about a delusional, unemployed man who lives with his mother. The book came out in 1980, eleven years after Toole’s suicide at age thirty-one. The actors were each up to play the story’s main character Ignatius Jacques Reilly, who also fit their similar personas. Instead of Kinison this time, though, the fourth victim was Divine, the hefty drag queen and actor from director John Water’s troupe. He died at age forty-two due to an enlarged heart.

But if Atuk is the actual cursed screenplay, and the book it was based on wasn’t cursed, then it seems any blame for the curse would fall on the screenwriter who adapted it, Todd Carroll. Caroll has only a small handful of produced screenplays to his credit, the most prominent of which is Clean and Sober in 1988, starring Michael Keaton, Kathy Baker, and Morgan Freeman.

The L. A. Times caught up with him at his home in Tuscon, Arizona, in 1999 to ask him about this apparently cursed script. According to the paper, Carroll’s response was, “I think it’s either coincidence or practical explanation. I’m not a superstitious person, and it doesn’t have any meaning to me.” The other interesting part is that for some reason, Carroll has never written a script about a writer who writes a cursed script that kills half of the oversized comedians in Hollywood.

Regardless, one fact about Atuk is undisputable. As of this writing, the screenplay still has not been produced. 

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