A Near-Fatal Car Crash Shatters the Career of a Movie Cult Hero

updated 11/12/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

He first appeared as wide-eyed Private Boone in the hit movie M*A*S*H and later as the airborne title character in Brewster McCloud. But it was Bud Cort's portrayal of the mock-suicidal rich kid who falls in love with a high-on-life octogenarian in Harold and Maude that left him etched in moviegoers' memories. Although the 1971 film turned Cort into a cult star, it had little effect on his offbeat life-style. During most of the '70s the free-spirited actor continued shuttling between jobs in New York and Hollywood, living in hotels, the guest rooms of friends and even for a while at the Bel Air home of Groucho Marx.

Then on the night of June 11, 1979, Cort drove his 1978 Honda Civic into the back of a car on the Hollywood freeway. He was sent hurtling into the windshield and suffered injuries that jeopardized both his life and his livelihood. Still scarred after repeated hospitalizations for treatment, he has only now begun to find "a little part here, a little part there," appearing in Love Letters with Jamie Lee Curtis, and doing the voice of Edgar the computer in Electric Dreams. His next film, Maria's Lovers, which stars John Savage and Nastassja Kinski, will open in late November.

Cort, 35, recently suffered a major setback when he lost the $10-million suit he brought against the driver of the other car. Even though the jury decided that the other driver was indeed guilty of "negligence," it found "contributory negligence" on the part of Cort, because the accident was a rear-end collision. In his rustic, one-bedroom, cabin-type Hollywood home, he met with reporter Mary A. Fischer to discuss the accident and its consequences.

I had just come from a Frank Sinatra concert and his tune The Best is Yet to Come was dancing in my head. I got on the freeway around 11:30 p.m. I began to change lanes and up ahead I spotted a car in the middle lane. Nothing unusual, but all at once I realized it wasn't moving. It was stopped but there was no hood up, no blinkers, no flares. I cried out, slammed on the brakes and tried to swerve.

The sound of the crash was frightening. The pain hit me suddenly. I struck the windshield and blood poured into my eyes. I felt my arm and leg break. It took every ounce of strength I had to heave myself out of the car. I dragged myself across the highway and collapsed on the side of the road. If it weren't for two paramedics who were called by a passing driver, I would surely have bled to death.

During the ride to the hospital I was in and out of consciousness. I was admitted to the emergency room, and the doctor told me I had a broken arm and leg, a concussion and a fractured skull. In addition my face was severely lacerated and my lower lip was cut and hanging by a thread. I also lost several teeth. I telephoned three friends from the hospital. One of them thought she was having a dream, turned over and went back to sleep. Another had unplugged his phone. I finally reached Sally Kellerman, who has been my best friend since we did M*A*S*H. She came and held my hand and stayed with me through the whole ordeal.

I wasn't a pretty picture, and when Sally first saw me she froze. I looked at her and said, "It's over, right?" She excused herself, went out into the hall and, she later told me, practically fainted. She said she thought to herself, "Yeah, it is over," but she came back and said, "Don't be silly. You're going to be fine."

The next day I had the first operation to save my face. I was semiconscious, and the doctors sewed for what seemed like hours and hours. Several days later I got up the nerve to look at myself in a mirror for the first time. I screamed. I looked like a monster, with my forehead, face and lip all sewn up. Also I was terribly black and blue. I wanted to die. I've had two more operations on my lip since then, one a year later and the other about a year after that. Glass was still working its way out of my forehead 12 months after the accident. I've had three additional operations on my face, and there's no more the doctors can do. This is it, take it or leave it. I try not to look in mirrors.

I was released from the hospital two weeks after the accident, and when I got home it hit me. I realized I wasn't going to be back to normal. My face was the constant reminder that things weren't going to happen for me overnight. It was torn to shreds. It was my faceā€”but it wasn't. Also the casts on my arm and leg stayed on for several months and I needed crutches and a day nurse.

For about a year and a half I went three times a week for physical therapy. I spent time in the whirlpool doing flexing exercises to regain strength and mobility in my arm and leg. But to this day, if I sit for a long time, my leg stiffens or caves in when I get up. I can tell you days ahead whether it's going to rain.

Oddly enough, I had a job waiting for me when I got out of the hospital. It was a role in Die Laughing that I had been scheduled to do before the accident. Jon Peters, the producer, called me in the hospital. My leg was up in the air, my arm was in a cast and my face was torn up. All I did was concentrate on breathing. I was sure he was going to have to fire me, but to my amazement he said, "Well, you're playing the villain anyway. I'll put back the start date. It'll be perfect. Think about how good it will be for the character."

After that film, which came out in 1980, I couldn't get a job. I had reached a point in my career where parts were coming my way, and then suddenly I had to start all over. People in the business still invited me to parties, but they tended to ignore what I'd obviously been through and would just talk about their latest project. I felt like a ghost.

I had to start auditioning again, and most of the time I didn't get the parts. No one would say it was because of the scars; they'd ask if I was getting a fever blister on my lip. I didn't tell anyone the truth because I didn't want to be pegged as someone who'd had a car accident. Sometimes I'd even go to auditions wearing makeup, but people would just look at me curiously. I probably should have told the press about it, because so many people thought I had just faded away or was no longer interested in my career. The truth is that acting is and always has been my life. I was playing Santa Claus when I was four. I studied acting for 14 years. I take it very seriously.

My career changed drastically. I started doing just voice work, then I did an onscreen segment of Insight, a religious television program. I played a deformed person who didn't want anyone to look at him. Let's just say it wasn't The Graduate. Some experiences have been inspiring, though. I had to start using other parts of my personality and talent. It made me reach out to people and be more vulnerable to them. I appreciate my friends more. I had been moving in pretty fast circles, and the ordeal has made me live more from moment to moment.

Whenever I get in real emotional trouble, I get out my music and go sing somewhere. So during this time I started a nightclub act at the Roxy, a Sunset Strip club. It also helped to pay some bills. The entire medical tab came to $45,000. I had some insurance and my family helped me all they could, but the rest came out of my pocket. It ate every penny I'd ever saved. That's why losing the trial is like having a double accident.

But I'm getting on with my life. I'm busy reading for parts and writing screenplays. I even played Freud in a new comedy, The Secret Diary of Sigmund Freud, due out at Christmas. Ruth Gordon always says that an acting career is like a Ferris wheel. You're at the top, and then suddenly you start down; you get some momentum, and back up you go. I tested for the lead, opposite Anne Bancroft, in Garbo Talks, and missed it by an inch. But what the hell. At least I came close. I'm working my way back.

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