July 30, 1941– Colin Higgins is a much loved director and screenwriter. From people that I know who have made his acquaintance, he was supposedly a real sweetheart. People in showbiz all seemed to have adored him. He is responsible for one of the most influential films of my youth, Harold And Maude (1971). I really love him for that.
Born on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia to an Australian mother and an American father, Higgins moved with his family to Southern California from Sydney in the 1950s. He attended Stanford University for a year, but he dropped out to hitchhike across the country. Higgins’ travels took him to NYC where he studied with the famous Actors Studio and then to Europe where he volunteered for the Army as the sports reporter for the military newspaper The Stars And Stripes. He eventually returned to school, attending Stanford University, receiving a degree in English and then he attended film school at UCLA. During his final year there, he wrote a little screenplay titled Harold And Maude.
Now it is considered to be one of the greatest of 1970 era Hollywood films, but Harold And Maude, smartly directed by Hal Ashby, was a huge flop when it opened during the Christmas season of 1971 with little fanfare and not much advertising. It’s an unusual story of the romance between a young man and a much, much, much older woman, played to perfection by Bud Cort and my muse Ruth Gordon, the film has had a huge impact on people my age, and although it bombed initially, it has become a cult favorite around the world.
Higgins was just a 30 years old, and ready to give up on his acting dreams, supporting himself as a pool cleaner and tennis-court sweeper in Hollywood when he managed to get his landlord, film producer Ed Lewis, to read a screenplay he had adapted from that master’s thesis for the UCLA screenwriting program. Lewis showed the script to Paramount’s Robert Evans, who agreed to make Harold And Maude.
Higgins also published a novelization of the screenplay, including some scenes that didn’t make it into the film. He had really wanted to direct the film himself and shot some test scenes for Paramount, but the studio gave it to Ashby, an experienced film editor who had just received glowing notices for his first feature, the quirky The Landlord (1970).
Higgins’ own 1980 stage adaptation of Harold And Maude ran for just nine performances on Broadway starring film great Janet Gaynor and gay actor Keith McDermott, but a French language version ran in Paris for seven years.
Higgins went on to write and direct some of the most successful films of the 1970s and 1980s: the screwball romance Silver Streak (1976) with Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, and Jill Clayburg; Foul Play (1978) starring Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase; the especially adored by the gays: 9 To 5 (1980) featuring the terrific team of Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Dabney Coleman, plus the musical The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas (1982) with Parton and Burt Reynolds.
Higgins had long planned both a sequel and a prequel to Harold And Maude. The sequel, Harold’s Story, focused on Harold’s life after Maude. The prequel would show Maude’s life before Harold and was titled Grover And Maude with a story about Maude learning how to steal cars from Grover Muldoon, the character portrayed by Pryor in Higgins’ Silver Streak. Higgins arranged for all the original actors to reprise their roles.
Higgins established a foundation which offers The Colin Higgins Courage Awards which recognizes ordinary but remarkable individuals who have endured overwhelming hostility and hate, yet have handled themselves with the grace as they educate and enlighten others about being gay. Each winner receives $10,000 as part of their prize. The Colin Higgins Foundation also funds scholarships for gay people wanting to study film and supports HIV prevention programs in places that really need them like as Fayetteville, Arkansas and Biloxi, Mississippi.
In 1986, he had just completed a mini-series based on Shirley MacLaine‘s memoir Out On A Limb, when he was snatched away by the plague. I wonder how many other terrific films he might have made for us, maybe something tasty and inventive for Netflix. Fucking HIV.