MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Robert Altman’s son made more than a million dollars writing the lyrics to “Suicide is Painless.”
“Happy accidents” are common in the world of entertainment. It often requires a rare confluence of events for anything to become a hit, but there’s a particularly odd branch of hit songs in which the artists didn’t believe in the material. I’ve previously spotlighted the story of how the hit Strawberry Alarm Clock song “Incense and Peppermints” was recorded by a teenager hanging out in the studio because no one in the band wanted to sing such a dumb song, and how the classic “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” was recorded under a made-up band name because the songwriters didn’t want to be associated with it. In the “proud” tradition of those artists, then, we have for you the story of how a teenager was enlisted to help pen the “stupidest song ever written” and how said song then made millions.
The hit 1970 film M*A*S*H* was a big break for director Robert Altman, who at that point was mostly known for his work on television shows like Bonanza (although he had helmed two movies in the two years preceding M*A*S*H*). After the success of the film, he went on to become one of the most acclaimed directors of his generation, garnering five Academy Award nominations for Best Director over a career that lasted into the 21st century. However much Altman owed M*A*S*H* for his career, in strictly financial terms the film wasn’t a major windfall for him. In fact, that was almost certainly a major factor in him getting the job — that he was cheaper than a “name” director. He was paid $70,000, which was good money, of course, but noticeably less than what a major director would net at the time. His family, however, fared a good deal better, as Altman’s teenage son made millions off of the film (it’s sort of like the old legend that Judy Garland made less for The Wizard of Oz than the dog that played Toto)!
There’s a notable scene in the film where one of the characters, Walter “Painless Pole” Waldowski (played by John Schuck) decides he wants to kill himself. So the other characters hold a “Last Supper” and then give him a sort of “honorary” suicide. During the silly ceremony, Private Seidman (Ken Prymus) sings a song for him while playing an acoustic guitar.
The acclaimed film composer Johnny Mandel was hired by Altman to write the melody. Mandel recounted the situation to Marc Myers a few years ago:
Mandel: I was brought in before the movie was even shot, which was highly unusual. In most cases, you’re the last one in the line to see the film when scoring it. So Bob and I were sitting around getting rather ripped one night. Bob said to me, “You know, I need a song for the film. It’s that Last Supper scene, after the guy says he’d going to do himself with a pill because his life is over, because couldn’t get it up with the WAC the night before.” I said, “A song for that?” He said, “Yeah, that Last Supper scene where the guy climbs into the casket and everybody walks around the box dropping in things like scotch, Playboy and other stuff to see him into the next world. There’s just dead air there.”
Myers: But if I recall, the scene features just a guy singing with an acoustic guitar.
Mandel: Right. Bob said, “We’ve got one guy in the shot who can sing and there’s another guy who knows three chords on the guitar so we can’t use an orchestra.” Bob also said the song had to be called Suicide Is Painless. “Since [Capt.] Painless commits suicide with a pill, that would be a good title,” he said. Then he said, “It’s got to be the stupidest song ever written.”
Myers: What went through your mind?
Mandel: I said to myself, “Well I can do stupid.” Bob was going to take a shot at the lyrics. But he came back two days later and said, “I’m sorry but there’s just too much stuff in this 45-year-old brain. I can’t write anything nearly as stupid as what we need.”
Myers: So who wrote the lyrics?
Mandel: Bob said, “All is not lost. I’ve got a 15-year-old kid who’s a total idiot.” So Michael Altman, at age 15 [Mandel is slightly off on the age here. Altman was born in 1955 and the film was released in January of 1970, so he was definitely 14 at the time, not 15 – BC], wrote the lyrics, and then I wrote the music to them. It was the first scene in the movie that they were going to shoot. They had to have the song for it as a pre-record, so the actor could mouth the words, allowing for a dub later.
As the song was prepared before the movie was finished, Altman was able to listen to it a lot, and as it turned out, he really liked it. He decided to try it out as the song played over the opening credits (in a new version performed by session singers John Bahler, Tom Bahler, Ron Hicklin and Ian Freebairn-Smith, none of whom were credited on the film). Mandel thought it was a terrible idea but gave up on arguing the point when he realized the filmmaker had already made up his mind.
The movie became a big hit and an instrumental version of the song became the theme song of the M*A*S*H* TV series that followed. In an 1985 interview on The Tonight Show, Altman remarked that his son had made more than a million dollars from royalties (the song’s lyricist gets paid, of course, even if only the melody is used and the songwriters get paid every time the song is played, including every syndicated rerun of M*A*S*H*). Years of syndication later, the royalties are certainly well into the multiple millions.
And all for “the stupidest song ever written.” Not bad for a 14-year-old!
The legend is…
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Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!
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