Bert Williams: Stark Raving Drama
The Art of Bert Williams, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds
By Bob Mehr
Reading time 92 Minutes
Bert Williams was a born artist
Bert Williams was a born artist. He spent most his life trying to prove that fact – to an abusive father, a doting mother, a doubtful wife, and children who viewed him with a mixture of affection and consternation. Mostly, Williams was determined to showcase his talents in Hollywood, where he flitted at the fringes of the movie business for fifty years.
As a character actor he appeared in more than 150 movies between the 1940s and 1990s – from John Ford’s Fort Apache to Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects – yet Williams’ greatest cinematic achievement is a film hardly anyone’s ever seen. Released in 1965, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds was a bewildering low-budget gothic horror thriller, and Williams’ one and only directorial effort.
Last screened publicly in 1967, after 50 years as a famously “lost film,” Cuckoo Birds has been recovered and restored–and is being presented for the first time at byNWR.
The film represents the apotheosis of Bert Williams’ odd, fascinating life. A champion diver, Navy veteran, amateur boxer and bodybuilder, professional tough guy, and born rebel, beneath his macho exterior lurked a gentle soul who only wanted to paint, act, direct and create something lasting.
“On one hand, he was the embodiment of post-war alpha male American supremacy, but at the same time he was also a frustrated artist,” said filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. “It was the need to express that drove him to make Cuckoo Birds. There’s something compelling about a man like that.”
Whether Cuckoo Birds was an expression of art or ego is hard to know – in Williams’ case the two were inextricably linked. In addition to directing the film, he was also writer, producer, editor and star of the project, his personal imprint on every frame.
“This is not a guy who wanted to step back and let the film speak for itself,” said Peter Conheim, who helped restore Cuckoo Birds. “It has vanity project written all over it – his name appears in the credits like nine times. But you can’t deny it has this incredible energy that’s so outside the normal feeling of films of that time, even for low budget horror films. It’s so out there it keeps you riveted.”
Even without seeing it, the legend of Cuckoo Birds has haunted the psyche of those who’ve known about it for years. Its mystery has sparked heated discussions and deep investigations, wild speculation and outlandish rumors – even inspired a song by punk legends The Cramps.
“This is a kind of marginalia, under the underground of cinema,” said Haden Guest, the Harvard Film Archive director who discovered the only known print of Cuckoo Birds. “These are the histories that aren’t told. These are the films that are forgotten. These are the artists, these interstitial figures, that are erased as time goes on. It’s great to recover them. It’s not to say it’s a masterpiece, but it is a quirkily significant film that speaks to a vast terrain of unwritten history that’s worth knowing.”
The full story of The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is perhaps forever lost; nearly all its cast and crew are deceased, including Williams, who died in 2001. But in the words and images and stories that remain behind, a picture of the man and his strange art emerges.
“Jesus Christ, Bert – you were a bad son of a bitch!”
“Jesus Christ, Bert – you were a bad son of a bitch!”
In the fall of 1995, in the autumn of his years, Bert Williams sat in his tiny Hollywood apartment feeding stories about his life into a tape recorder. His audience that day was a friend and fellow actor by the name of Graham Jarvis. Recognizable for his bald, bookish appearance in countless film and TV roles, Jarvis had met Williams a couple decades earlier when they appeared together on an episode of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Fascinated by Bert’s stories – tales of his youthful adventures, war heroics and artistic pursuits – he decided to capture some of Williams’ recollections for posterity.
Williams would spend several afternoons weaving tales for Jarvis, about his life in and out of Hollywood. Most of them were true, some were exaggerated, others made up out of whole cloth. That was the catch with Williams: it was hard to tell what was real, what was fiction, and what fell somewhere in between.
“Oh, Bert!” Jarvis would exclaim after another Williams corker, “that’s remarkable.”
The known facts begin with the birth of Bertram Roger Williams on April 12, 1922 in Newark, New Jersey. He was the middle child of three boys in an upwardly mobile East Coast family. His father Howard was a determinedly self-made man. After a difficult period during the Depression – which forced him to move his family around the country – he achieved success, establishing a chain of hat stores.
“We lived in several places,” recalled Bert of his childhood. “My father would open different [ladies hat] concessions. We’d live in Houston maybe two years, then San Antonio a year. He was from New York, and lived in New York quite a bit. In Washington D.C., he ended up opening his own stores.”
“They became a pretty affluent family,” said Bert Williams’ daughter Kim Stryker. “My grandfather was very determined that all three of his sons would follow him into business.” While both his older and younger brothers would tread the family path and ultimately become successful businessmen, Bert had other ideas.
“His father was like a tough guy, a strict disciplinarian and my dad was the classic rebel,” said Williams’ son Carl. “He did not like authority. Him and his father clashed a lot.”
As a child, Bert displayed a precocious gift for visual art. “Since I was five years old–it was all natural, it wasn’t learned,” Williams observed of his talent, which would earn him a scholarship to the Corcoran Gallery art school in Washington D.C. and see his portrait work appear in the Washington Post. “He won some big drawing competitions as a kid,” said Stryker. “But my grandfather was always very opposed to my dad’s artistic leanings.”
“If I was five minutes late from an art class, my dad met me at the door with a fist,” Williams would recall of his father’s rough discipline. It was Williams’ mother Emily who encouraged her son’s art, almost behind his father’s back. “My mother was a beautiful person,” Williams would say.
Despite his artistic inclinations, Williams also distinguished himself as an athlete. He played football, lifted weights, and boxed. But his true talents were in the water, where he proved a champion swimmer and high diver, getting his first taste of show business performing in amateur aquatic shows at the age of nine.
As he hit his teen years, Williams’ plans to pursue a career in fine art further rankled his old man. “His father tried everything he could to make him not be an artist,” said Stryker. “Having gone through the Depression he was probably worried about what was going to become of him chasing after an art career and these diving shows.”
Williams would describe a pattern of physical abuse at the hands of his father, which only steeled his resolve. “My dad used to beat me up and I would not cry, no matter what,” Williams recounted to Jarvis. “He used me as a punching bag against the wall. My head would hit the wall, back and forth. It’s a wonder I’m even sane today.”
At this point in the story, things take a curious turn. In his interview with Jarvis, Williams claimed that somewhere around 1936, at the age of 14, he ran away from home, essentially disappearing from his family for five years.
This adventure began with a fight in a burlesque theater that resulted in Williams tossing an usher from the balcony onto the audience below. Fearing his father’s reaction, Williams lammed it south with some pals, stopping briefly in Richmond, Virginia then hopping a freight train to Georgia. Caught by rail cops outside Savannah, Williams was shuffled off, without trial, to a chain gang in Marietta.
In his telling, attempts by the fellow inmates to beat and rape him were fended off by Williams’ superior physical skills. His release, after thirty days, was secured thanks to his artistic talent.
“I sketched one of the [guards] – he showed it to the other guards, and I did sketches of all of them,” Williams claimed. “They showed it to the sheriff, who was in charge. He came in and said ‘Can you do a sketch of me like that?’ I said ‘I’ll do a sketch so good, you’ll hang it over your mantelpiece. Just take me out of hard labor.’ I made a deal with him. My ass was saved by doing that.”
“You had to figure out how to survive with all these murdering assholes around you. Like the sheriff told me, ‘You’re lucky – you probably would’ve never gotten out of here. You’d end up killing somebody or they’d end up killing you.’”
Freed from the chain gang, Williams said he headed down to Miami, working as a bell boy at a beachside hotel. There, he fell in with a traveling troupe of actors, and eventually headed west to Los Angeles, where he finished up high school. He claimed he was offered a football scholarship to USC before fracturing his leg, and started a career in pictures instead.
This part of Williams’ narrative sounds a bit far-fetched, like something from a fantastic coming-of-age film. Indeed, in later years, similar events would form the basis for an unproduced Williams-penned screenplay called Run-a-Way which he described as “the semi-true story of the author during his teenage years.”
The official record, however, indicates much of Williams’ tale was exaggerated. He may have run away from home, could’ve even spent time in a chain gang in Georgia, but certainly didn’t disappear for years, and was with his family in Washington D.C. for the 1940 census and for his final year at Woodrow Wilson high school in 1941.
In addition to his fertile imagination, his senior yearbook entry gave the earliest indication of Bert’s other outstanding quality: an unapologetic gift for self-regard.
In stating what he should be remembered for, Williams wrote of himself: “His superlative skill in the difficult sport of exhibition diving, approached only by his technique as an artist.” As to his life plans, Williams looked forward to “art school then a career as a master artist.” The accompanying portrait shows the 18 year-old casting a knowing gaze at the camera, as if peering into a pleasingly bright future.
The most likely scenario is that after graduating in the summer of 1941, Williams was eager to get away from his father and did flee to Miami where he found work as a hotel pool lifeguard. There, he met the actor John Ireland and struck up a friendship. Ireland encouraged Williams follow him to upstate New York, where he was about to start a season of summer stock at the Green Mansions resort in the Adirondacks.
The 19 year-old Williams made the trip and fell in with the theatrical crowd, playing “kid parts” onstage. For someone like Williams, acting was the perfect outlet, feeding both his ego and artistry, as well as satisfying his penchant for performing. “That’s where I kinda got bitten with the bug to act,” he recalled.
When the season was over, Williams did make his way out to Los Angeles, and started school at USC. Tinseltown in the early-‘40s was perfect for Williams. His swaggering good looks and he-man build – he bore a strong resemblance to Heisman Trophy winner and football hero Paul “The Golden Boy” Hornung – got him work lifeguarding Hollywood stars at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel pool.
A magazine feature from the era shows a virile young Bert being eyed by no less than Jane Russell. “Bert Williams stands ready to save Jane’s life,” ran the picture’s caption, “Until an emergency arises, however, the lifeguard is happy enough to just talk to her.”
In Hollywood, he made his first film appearances as an extra in B-pictures like Men of San Quentin and Swamp Water for poverty row studio PRC, and worked on six-day westerns starring Bobby Steele and Johnny Mack Brown. Williams would recall time spent playing craps in front of the gates of Paramount Studios, hoping some executive would see him and pluck him for stardom.
Then, in late 1941, Williams’ mother fell gravely ill with cancer. By this point, Bert had lost touch with his family, who didn’t know his whereabouts. Williams’ father had to take out ads in major newspapers across the country to locate Bert – including one in the Los Angeles Times that finally reached him. Williams made it back home in time to say goodbye to his mother. “I was there for the funeral,” he would recall somewhat sadly decades later.
Her passing did little to bring Bert and his father closer together. Though Howard Williams lived until 1979, he and Bert remained deeply estranged, and the two rarely ever spoke. “Anyone would want the approval of their father, and I know he did – we had conversations about it,” said Stryker. “But he never really got that.”
With World War II fully raging
With World War II fully raging, Williams enlisted in the Navy in 1942. He spent the better part of four years in the Pacific, serving as a seaman second class on the U.S.S. Hornet. and U.S.S. Lexington.
For Williams, the early part of the war was a floating crap game. He organized gambling and boxing matches, mostly to kill time in between combat. When it came to battle, Williams saw the war as a chance for personal glory. “My dad had an ego – huge, huge, huge ego,” said Stryker. “If you’re a medal-winning diver and you go in the Navy you want to win a medal, right? That was how he looked at it. He was out to prove himself.”
One story Williams would tell involved being on carrier when a pilot pal’s plane overshot the ship and crashed into the water. “My dad sees this as a golden opportunity,” said Stryker. “He decides to dive in and save his friend.” But Williams got caught in an air pocket that pushed him up and the wing of the plane down, smashing him on the head. “He gets knocked out cold, and so the pilot has to rescue him.”
As he came to on the ship, Williams was surrounded by his jeering buddies. “They’re going ‘Bert’s my hero! Bert’s my hero!’” Williams recalled. “They all saw me getting saved after trying to help this guy. They never let me live it down. Worst thing was, I got court-martialed for jumping ship.”
“But I had a lot of court martials,” added Williams, “I won seventeen medals and had seventeen court martials. They wanted you to be part of a command, and I never did buy that, or was ever part of any command.”
Williams was thrown in the brig for a week, where he spent his time making chalk drawings of nude women all over his cell walls. Ordered to wash off his illustrations, he refused. A commanding officer took pity on Williams. Rather than punish him further, he instead gave him a job sketching portraits of the fleet’s admirals for the military newspaper.
While most of Williams’ war stories were of the comic variety, he saw plenty of action and made serious physical sacrifice. Williams survived – just barely – a pair of Japanese attacks on the same day. The first came in the form of a depth charge that shot him up 30 feet in the air. “When I came down, I didn’t realize I had four feet of intestines hanging out of my rectum,” recalled Williams.
Saved from the water, he boarded another ship and was waiting to see a doctor when a Japanese torpedo tore through the vessel. “Next thing I knew I was about thirty-five feet under water,” said Williams. As he struggled to gather himself, and with his intestines still hanging out, Williams figured he would drown or burn alive from the fires around the boat. But somehow, he survived.
“I saw guys blowing up, guys burning up. I was saying prayers, believe me,” he recalled. “After nine hours in the water a [rescue plane] came by and saw the wreckage and picked us up. They took us to [a hospital in] New Caledonia and I got sowed up, had my intestines stuffed back in.”
After recuperating for several months, he returned to the U.S. to begin flight training school in Anacostia Naval Station in Maryland. “I was doing pretty good there,” Williams said. “Then, one night, I got drunk, stole an airplane to take a girl for a ride and they shot at us as we were taking off. I got court martialed for that too. They sentenced me – gave me a choice of [military prison] or to go on the U.S.S. Lexington. Went up to Boston and caught the Lex. Stayed on that till almost the end of the war.”
The war experience, particularly the carnage he saw – seeing bodies blown up and his buddies literally turned inside out – would fundamentally alter Williams’ visual perception of the world and later impact his filmmaking. As a young artist, his sketches were classical, realistic in nature. After living through hell in the Pacific, his imagery became exaggerated, even grotesque. “His later works are almost caricatures, they’re more extreme,” said Stryker. “That came after the war, and probably had to do with what he saw.”
After almost three years of fighting, Williams had reached the end of his rope. When the Lexington docked in Bremerton, Washington for repairs early 1944, Williams had a kind of mental break. “They gave us medals. And I took my medals off and threw them in the water,” he said. “I thought they were for shit, I wasn’t proud of them. I felt they they’d treated me so rotten, regardless of whatever mistakes I’d made.”
By this point, Williams had likely developed a severe case of PTSD. “I’d beat death so many times already… I’d never been afraid, but I was getting afraid. I was under so much stress from all the years, then they told me we were shipping to Tokyo.” Williams took a handful of pills in an apparent suicide attempt. “They threw me in the hospital, psychiatric hospital, up there in Bremerton. From there I escaped.”
Williams went AWOL and hitchhiked to Los Angeles, then kicked around Palm Springs for a couple weeks before turning himself into Navy authorities in Long Beach. After months bouncing between the prison, hospital and mental wards, Williams was finally given his discharge. “I’d done my fighting, and nearly my dying,” said Williams. “Now I was ready to live.”
In 1946, with his military service over
In 1946, with his military service over, Williams returned to Los Angeles. He re-enrolled at U.S.C. where he completed a degree in communication. He competed in bodybuilding competitions (placing in the Mr. California contest) and did some fitness modeling (his face and figure were splashed across ads for a water training device called Swim Boy).
It was around this time that Williams got a more serious taste of the film business. While recuperating in Long Beach he’d met Kay Thompson, a singer and choral director at MGM who was performing for the hospitalized soldiers.
“I romanced her verbally while she was playing the piano,” recalled Williams. “Told her I’m an actor and when I get out I’m looking for a place to land. She said ‘I’m at MGM, I’ll see if I can get you a stock contract’ – which she did.”
His stint at MGM was complicated by Williams’ rambunctious nature – he would recount, with some regret, how a series of verbal and physical altercations with studio brass slowed his ascent as an actor. “I would’ve been a superstar if I didn’t get hot so often,” he remarked.
Another inroad into Hollywood came via a woman who was (briefly) Williams’ first wife, the niece of famed film director John Ford. Williams would make appearances – albeit background and bit parts – in a string of Ford westerns (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande) starring another strapping USC alum, John Wayne. “I was tight with the Ford family for a while. Except for the drinking that went on in their house,” said Williams, who had little taste for booze.
Into the late-‘40s, Williams continued to make his living around the pool and off the diving board. He resumed his weekly diving shows at the Beverly Wilshire and began appearing in bigger aquatic spectaculars, featuring Hollywood’s reigning swim queen Esther Williams (“She was the most beautiful thing,” said Bert, “I was in love with her.”)
It was during one of these water shows when Williams’ life changed course and coasts. “I broke my back in 1949 diving from a trapeze into 16-foot diameter tank,” recalled Williams. “I hit a surfboard that had been put in the water.
“He was diving into the center of all these swimmer girls in a circle paddling on boards,” recalled Stryker. “Apparently, one of the girl’s boards shot out from under her and my dad dove right into it. He could’ve died. He didn’t, but he was paralyzed.”
Doctors told Williams the injuries to his spine were severe enough that he would never walk. “My dad just refused to believe that. He believed in the power of mind over matter: ‘No, I will not be paralyzed. Yes, I will walk again.’ He slowly started getting some of his feeling back. He fought his way back to where he could walk a little bit, then fought it to where he could dive.”
Still, after the accident, Williams body was ravaged and needed further recovery. “He wasn’t healing all that well,” said Stryker. “They told him he would do better living in a more humid environment.” In 1952, Williams took his doctors’ advice and headed to Florida.
Bert Williams was running the pool
Bert Williams was running the pool at the Chez Paree Hotel in Miami when he caught her eye. Her name was Margaret Ann Francis, but everyone called her Peggy. A Dayton, Ohio native, Francis was a sometime model and full-time musician. She’d come up playing organ in church and worked for a company that produced commercial jingles.
She was down in Florida with some girlfriends on vacation when she met Williams and fell madly in love. On the flight home, Peggy wrote a long besotted poem describing the cocksure Williams – how he worked the crowds of tourists and the diving board.
“His sparkling eyes and devilish grin, sure helped to con people in/But outside of teaching swimming and cleaning the pool, he had a god given talent with which he didn’t fool/High up in the air, he turned and he dipped and brought a sigh to everyone’s lips…. Maybe by some crook of faith I’ll meet him again on this earth/Oh, but wait, did I mention his name was Bert.”
Peggy headed back to Ohio long enough to pack her bags and move to Miami for good. She and Bert married in 1955, and soon had a family together, with daughter Kim and son Carl arriving in 1957 and 1960.
With a family to support, Williams decided to turn his eye to entrepreneurship, opening a fitness studio in Miami called Figure City. His self-promotional instincts paid off in print advertisements that touted – or perhaps exaggerated – his bona fides as “WORLD FAMOUS Bert Williams…WORLD DIVING CHAMPION…featured in over 40 Motion Pictures.”
Williams primarily targeted his business to out of shape housewives. He drew his own cartoon ads with a husband admiring a fit female passerby, while his grotesque missus looks on. The tagline wondered: “What is your body worth?”
Figure City was successful enough that Williams soon expanded it into a chain with locations in Coral Gables, Hialeah, and North Miami Beach. Wife Peggy helped manage the office and taught exercise classes.
Though Figure City was thriving, Williams was itching to get back into the movies. His opportunity came within the Florida film industry, which was turning out a slew of low budget regional pictures in the 1950s, like Wild Women of Wongo.
Shot on location at Miami’s Coral Castle – the cracked vision of Latvian stonemason Ed Leedskalnin – it was a jungle pic about Amazon women and ape-men that would go onto cinematic infamy as one of the all-time bad B-movies. Somehow Williams got wind of the project and got involved, helping cast the picture with weightlifter types, but ultimately secured a part for himself as the “King of Goona.”
Among the actors Williams recruited for roles was noted bodybuilder and beefcake model Ed Fury. Now age 89, Fury recalled Williams as “a real character.”
“He said ‘We’re going to make a picture down here – Wild Women of Wongo. Wasn’t much of a film, but it was a good title,” chuckled Fury. “Bert had his fitness studio going then and was helping with the film. He said ‘Ed, you’d be perfect for it. I’m going to be in it too.’ Two days later we’re on the set of the film. I said ‘How’s your business going?’ He said, ‘I don’t want it anymore. I want to act.’”
For Williams, the timing couldn’t have been better. A slate of TV shows, starting with Sea Hunt, began shooting in South Florida in 1958. Williams would work on several of these programs over the years –- including Everglades and Flipper – getting small speaking roles, but mostly doing aquatic and underwater stunts. “But he always considered himself an actor, rather than a stuntman,” said Kim Stryker.
Williams’ next break came with another Florida-shot film, Angel Baby. Directed by Gidget helmer Paul Wendkos, it was an overheated melodrama about child rape and Southern revival preachers, intended as a vehicle for pretty-boy actor George Hamilton to make a serious turn. The movie would instead prove a breakout for a young Burt Reynolds – but it was Bert Williams who was getting his name in the papers.
A May 1960 Miami News story, an item in “Herb Kelly’s Amusement Roundup,” noted that Williams, “whose business is helping women regain that slim figure and whose sideline is acting in movies and television, has a meaty role in Angel Baby. He plays a rapist who kills a little girl and when pursued by a posse finds refuge in an evangelist’s tent. The revival message strikes home and he repents and hits the sawdust trail.”
“It’s a real dramatic and hysterical scene,” Williams boasted to the paper. The story would end with a Bert-fed tidbit that claimed “when he finished his acting he won applause from the rest of the cast.”
By 1962, Williams was also performing regularly on the dinner theater circuit in Miami, most notably in the role of Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tim Roof. (Bert would often say that Tennessee Williams himself proclaimed his Big Daddy the best he’d ever seen).
“That showed me how committed my dad was to acting,” said Stryker. “Because even though he had the fitness studios and was working all day, he would be going down and doing the plays at night.”
He was committed enough that he decided to sell off three of his four Figure City locations so he could spend more time focusing on not just acting, but making his own movies. “I remembered my mother being somewhat aggravated by that,” said Stryker. “When he was at the studio selling memberships and really working the business they had money coming in and everything was great. He was risking a lot.” Next to his lone remaining Figure City, Williams opened an office and put up a sign: Bert Productions Inc. (one early unrealized project was an underwater adventure series called Speargun).
In May of 1963, the Miami News again noted Williams’ activities, reporting that he’d written a play called The Accident which Florida film company Flamingo Productions was considering turning into a feature. The same story mentioned another original piece Williams was working on called The Violent Sick.
When the screenplay was copyrighted nearly a year later, it was under the title The Nest of the Cuckoo Bird (the Bird/Birds designation would change several times prior to and even after the film’s release).
“He was always writing then, and the idea for Cuckoo Birds came along somewhere along the way,” recalled Stryker. “My mother would be sitting at the dinner table typing these scripts and all the changes for him. I remember him leaning over her talking out different ideas.”
In the months between the death of John F. Kennedy and the arrival of Beatlemania, Bert Williams conjured up a strange filmic fantasia – part detective story, part regional exploitation flick, part Hitchcockian horror thriller, and part European art film, with a dash of psychosexual titillation thrown in for good measure. If it didn’t hew to a single genre, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds likely had one powerful motivation behind it.
“Honestly, I think he wanted to make a movie so he could star in it, so he could showcase himself as an actor,” said Stryker. “He came up with this detective hero who gets to rescue the damsel in distress, and threw in these horror/drama elements that seemed cutting edge. He saw this as his big chance… as the world’s big chance to discover Bert Williams.”
The strange plot of The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds
The strange plot of The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds, as summarized in the original distributor’s pitch, only hints at the truly bizarre quality of the film.
“The Cuckoo Bird Inn is a century old hotel, last used by tourists many years ago, who sought the seclusion of the Everglades. Into a world of lost and demented characters, Johnson, an agent for the Liquor Control Department, is dispatched to disband a gang of cut-throat still operators, headed by their leader ‘Doc.’ The only access to the island is by rowboat. He is discovered by the moonshiners and narrowly escapes by diving into the crocodile infested swamps. Completely exhausted by the swim, he stumbles and falls and is nearly stabbed by a naked female killer that lurks along the beach every full moon.
Finally making his way, he comes upon the Cuckoo Bird Inn. Mrs. Pratt, the twice-widowed ex-showgirl and owner of the Inn has a beautiful daughter named Lisa. Lisa is kept chained in her attic room except during the night, since she will not escape into the darkness that she fears. Harold the caretaker of the Inn, is a Taxidermist whose strange mental and physical deficiencies are advantageous to Mrs. Pratt.
Johnson is schemed against by the guests of the Inn. In the meantime, the naked killer has made many unsuccessful attempts on Johnson’s life. Later he finds Doc’s corpse being readied for stuffing. Johnson realizes he must discover the killer’s identity or suffer the same fate. In the exciting climax, Johnson wrestles with a knife-wielding killer in a chapel of dead men praying as a fire threatens to reduce the island to cinders.”
It’s possible Williams had directed prior to making Cuckoo Birds. There’s some suggestion he’d already been behind the camera shooting clips for Scopitone – the pioneering French “video jukebox” company that Miami attorney Al Malnik brought to the U.S. in 1964 – but actual proof such credits are elusive.
Whatever Williams’ directorial experience was, his visual sense was highly defined and hyperactive. “He was always sketching,” said Kim Stryker. “He’d be sitting having a conversation with you, but he’d drawing the whole time. A lot of the imagery and shots in the movie probably started out as his sketches.”
With these quasi-storyboards as a basis, Williams began filming Cuckoo Birds in August of 1964, with a promise from Lionex Films of New York to distribute the movie. The budget was reported as $127,000, a number that seems ridiculously high for the time, and was likely more of Williams’ press puffery. Regardless, funding for the film came out of his personal savings, money he’d made selling off his fitness studios.
To manage costs and to fully express his vision, Williams ended up wearing numerous hats. As the Miami News reported, he was “writer, producer, director, leading man, makeup man, worked on the camera, built sets, handled lights and did other jobs like art and dialog director and film editor.”
He rustled up a cast of local actors to co-star, mostly pals from the Miami dinner theater scene. “I think that acting style, that very stylized acting in Cuckoo Birds came from the theater he had done,” said Kim Stryker. “A lot of the actors in the movie were from that world.”
For several months, the whole of the Williams family was sucked into the production, with most of the shooting taking place in North Miami near Key Longo.
The family home would be turned into a makeshift production office and prop house.
“I remember being there when they were pouring chocolate syrup and using it as fake blood,” Stryker told writer Alex DiSanto. “My dad thought it was a really funny joke to tell my brother and me, ‘Here, you hold this syrup, we're gonna take it and put it on our sundaes.’”
At one point Williams was fabricating the gruesome looking bodies for the Chapel of the Dead scenes, with the fake corpses covering the family’s living room. “I came home from school and all of those dead guys were in my house and I just screamed in terror,” recalled Stryker. “It almost scarred me for life.” Williams would drive the bodies back and forth from the set in his convertible; his wife often wondered how the police never pulled him over.
Though it was his first time directing a feature film, Williams cut a confident figure on set. “There was nothing that my father ever lacked confidence in,” laughed Stryker.
Judging by a surviving shooting script, which differs radically from the finished film, it appears Williams did a fair amount of improvising during the shoot.
“He always did,” confirmed Stryker. “Later, in the movies he was cast in, he would get into arguments with directors because he always wanted to change the script. I’m sure a lot of Cuckoo Birds was made up in the moment.”
There’s a hallucinatory, almost psychedelic quality that hangs over the film. It leads one to wonder about Williams’ relationship to drugs and whether he’d “turned on.” “Some artists want drugs to go to that next level of creatively,” said Stryker. “I don’t think my dad needed it. He was already there. He lived at that level naturally.”
Williams edited the film on the set using an old Steenbeck flatbed. “There was this kind of archaic equipment and you'd look through it like a microfiche. I remember sitting there and he would ask me to help him,” Stryker told DiSanto. “He would cut it and he'd have me tape it ‘cause I was young, my eyes were good and he'd say, ‘Make sure it's straight and tape it right here.’”
Wife Peggy Williams was recruited to write the music for the film; she would notably be credited in the film’s press materials as the “Fulford Methodist Church organist” – the North Miami house of worship where she played each Sunday. She recorded the haunting title theme and the song “Lisa” and came up much of the film’s instrumental score. “She could compose anything, anytime,” said Stryker. “She was kind of a genius musically.”
Shooting on Cuckoo Birds wrapped in December 1964. It was another eight months before it made its world premiere at the Hi-Way Drive In Theater. The Miami Tattler newspaper sounded somewhat dubious in its preview of the picture. “A ‘kookie’ one…the film is a who-done-it murder mystery wrapped around sex and horror… [with a] female lead…who exposes herself to the limit of censorship.”
For the handful of people who’ve seen The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds, the film seems to herald the camp cinema of the 1970s. “When I saw it I thought immediately of John Waters or the Kuchar Brothers,” said Harvard’s Haden Guest. “But then this is different, because there’s no irony, there is a sincerity to this project. At the same time its straining and it’s coming apart at the seams; the makeup is literally melting off of the characters’ faces at times. Yes, you can laugh at that, but if you take the film seriously it does come across as a deeply personal project.”
The tone of the film see-saws between a gothic horror piece and a European art picture. “I have to imagine Bert had seen or was aware of Janus Films/New York art house cinema world that was exploding at the time,” said Peter Conheim, Cuckoo Birds’ restoration expert. “Bert probably thought, ‘I want to get in on that.’ But he came from a genre background. He probably didn’t know how to reconcile all those elements, so he just made the film the way he did.”
As The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds began showing regionally
As The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds began showing regionally in the South in 1965, Williams was quoted as saying “its big grosses are coming in like a tidal wave.” The truth was the receipts were more like slow drip.
Early on, the film was screened at small theaters in Georgia and Tennessee. The farthest it got initially was Ohio. Even that was a lucky break, as a BoxOffice article at the time noted. “Mr. and Mrs. Morris Schwartz, who own the Little and Paris Theaters in Columbus, Ohio, heard about the film when they were in Miami on vacation, stopped by Williams’ office and studios, viewed and booked the film.”
Although Lionex was listed as the original distributor, another company called Thunderbird – along with a series of smaller regional distributors, including Criterion in Canada – took over the booking as the film made a slow 18-month trek into theaters across North America.
Williams eventually was forced to handle distribution himself, with decidedly mixed results. His hard sell, pie-in-the-sky approach didn’t have the desired effect on everyone, as a correspondence with M.M. Grimes of Atlanta’s Bailey Theatres revealed.
“Dear Bert – I have your letter of August 5,” Grimes wrote in the summer of 1966. “Your sights are still set entirely too high for what I feel we could get out of CUCKOO BIRDS. So let’s just forget it.”
What Williams lacked in distribution know-how, he made up for with the film’s hype-filled advertising campaign. Initially, his distributors had devised a stock set of posters and ads, reusing imagery from other low-budget flicks including Creature With the Atom Brain and Go, Go, Go, World!
Chucking that, Williams came up with a pair of one-sheets for the film himself, dominated by his primitive folk art imagery of a wild knife-wielding woman. Beneath that, Williams’ ad copy literally screamed: “STARK NAKED DRAMA – Sadism – Quack Love – Horror.” Other of Williams’ ads proclaimed “AN ADULT AVANT-GARDE UNDERGROUND FILM! WILD! CRAZY! Bold and bizarre experience about love in the South today! Voted Primitive Art Action Film of the Year.”
Through 1965 and 1966, Cuckoo Birds fanned out to several larger cities, with short runs in Denver, Newark and Chicago. As Williams continued to look for an audience, his promotional copy took on a more challenging tone: “We defy you to guess WHO is the KILLER” ran one ad. “If you have a weak heart STAY AWAY” warned another.
Finally, as the campaign waned, Williams decided to take a confessional approach: “This picture is not great, BUT… They stand in line to see it! All It Does is Make Lots and Lots of Money. It’s breaking records in Drive Ins, Family Theatres & Art Theatres.”
Sporadic bookings of Cuckoo Birds continued into the fall of 1966 in the Midwest and West Coast, before it limped to a finish with a final screening in Los Angeles in early 1967.
As it turned out, it would be the last time anyone would see the film for almost 50 years.
The failure of Cuckoo Birds to capture the public imagination
The failure of Cuckoo Birds to capture the public imagination didn’t seem to faze Bert Williams. Even before the film had finished its theatrical run, he’d publicly announced plans for a follow-up project called 28 Watched (later changed to Death Watch 28). “28 watched and did nothing to help,” ran a teaser. “The poignant film of a girl’s tragic murder. Based on today’s realities.”
Money, however, had become an issue. By the end of the ‘60s, Williams sold off the last of his fitness studios. Meantime, the TV industry in South Florida dried up, his appearances on Gentle Ben – where he played Ron Howard’s father in a couple of episodes – offering his last steady work in the region.
Though the financial figures and box-office receipts for Cuckoo Birds are largely unknown, Kim Stryker said the film “took every penny the family had. And they second- mortgaged the house too. They sunk everything into it. The movie was made and over and they were still broke.”
That didn’t stop Williams from taking out a large ad in a January 1969 issue of Variety, blaring the headline “Making the Big Profit.” It listed him as producer, director, actor, writer of Bert Williams Motion Picture and Distributor Inc.: “We are experts who produce films of quality and profit.”
The ad listed five Williams films supposedly in pre-production with budgets ranging from $65,000 to $675,000. Among them were The Knife Fighters (“Most unusual western ever conceived”), Adventure to Treasure Reef (“The modern Treasure Island”), and The Accident (“A 3 act play all happening in 3 hours of life”). “We also produce exploitation films from $20,000 to $45,000 with extemporaneous scripts on locations at sea, camps, etc.” concluded the ad.
Just as he’d willed himself to walk again after his paralyzing diving accident, Williams was trying to will himself into a career as a film mogul.
Peggy Williams was understandably frustrated by her husband’s unwillingness to face the reality of the situation. “She felt like, ‘We all gave one hundred percent for you to make your movie. How long does this have to go on just to feed your ego?’” said Kim Stryker.
“My mom basically said, ‘You have a family, a mortgage, and you need to take care of us and put your dreams aside and your feet on the ground and start acting like a family man and businessman.’ He just couldn’t do it.”
By the end of the ‘60s Williams had managed to nab a few small parts in bigger films shot in Miami – including a couple with Frank Sinatra, Tony Rome and Lady in Cement – but steady work was hard to come by being stuck several thousand miles from Hollywood.
In 1970, Williams called his wife and kids together for a family meeting. “His words were ‘My career is taking me to Los Angeles’,” said Stryker. “I remember my mom saying, ‘What career?’ She was so against it at that point.”
Williams was determined. “I’m going to California,” he told them again. “Does anybody want to come with me?”
There was a strained silence. Kim was just entering her teen years and had no intention of leaving her friends and schoolmates behind; her younger brother Carl wasn’t going anywhere either. Bert was on his own.
Williams packed a U-Haul, hitched it to his convertible and drove out to L.A. soon after. “He left really believing my mom would follow at some point and support him in his decision,” said Stryker. “I don’t think he thought that was the beginning of the end.” Though the couple would not live under the same roof again, they were never formally divorced.
“He was not the traditional family guy that’s gonna hold a 9 to 5 job and take the kids to soccer games,” said his son Carl. “That was not his thing in life. He loved his children and family and everything, but he always did his own thing, marched to the beat of his own drummer.”
At age 48, Bert Williams was leaving his wife and kids behind to pursue his dreams of being an actor, filmmaker and artist, no matter the cost.
Bert Williams’ move would not be the star-making triumph
Bert Williams’ move would not be the star-making triumph he’d hoped for, but it would put him within tantalizingly close reach of the big time.
Initially, the only work he could find was in off-off-off Broadway theater in New York. But within a couple years, Williams had gained a foothold as a reliable character actor in film, starting with a brief appearance in Serpico starring Al Pacino.
A string of prestigious projects would follow in the early-to-mid-‘70s that would see Williams acting alongside some giants of the screen: All the President’s Men with Dustin Hoffman; The Klansmen with Richard Burton and Lee Marvin, Seven Days in May with Burt Lancaster, Tom Horn with Steve McQueen.
Over the next three decades Williams would rack up a bevy of film, TV and commercial credits. With his bluff manner and blustery voice, the roles were usually that of cops or cowboys, bartenders, bad guys, and generally outsized characters. The parts may not have been big or glamorous always, but the gigs were steady. “He was a working actor,” said his grandson Kyle Stryker. “He was that familiar face – ‘Oh, it’s that guy.’ The kind you see on the screen for a minute, who has a couple lines, but turns up all the time.”
Williams would often talk his way into gigs – landing roles in dozens of shows from Columbo to Emergency to Police Woman – just by hanging around the studio lot. “He’d get a day-playing job shooting at Universal or Columbia and then get friendly with the security guards on the lot,” added Stryker. “Then he’d go back the next day and the guards would just let him waltz in and he’d wander his way onto sets. He’d just kinda bullshit with people to get jobs. He was good at that.”
With his big fish stories and larger than life persona, Williams was a favorite of fellow actors and crews. He worked with veteran directors Harvey Hart (Lady Ice) and Tom Gries (Helter Skelter) multiple times and made half a dozen films with British helmer J. Lee Thompson, including several Charles Bronson flicks.
Williams and Bronson appeared in series of films together in the ‘70s and ‘80s including The White Buffalo, Ten to Midnight and Murphy’s Law. “Bert loved Charles Bronson, he just wanted to work with Bronson all the time,” said Williams’ friend Ed Fury. “Bronson couldn’t believe anybody admired him as much as Bert did.” (a number of Williams’ later paintings feature Bronson prominently).
Sylvester Stallone was another Williams pal. They’d met in the ‘70s in New York, boxed together and palled around in the pre-Rocky days. Williams was somewhat hurt when Stallone hit it big and didn’t bring him along – though he eventually gave him a small part in the 1986 action flick Cobra.
Always chasing the next opportunity, Williams became an active member of the Motion Picture Academy and a fixture on the Hollywood party circuit. “He was go-go-go, always on the move. Going here and there, went to all the different functions at the Academy,” said Fury. “He’d meet a lot of important people there and was very sociable. Bert was an Aries, and Aries go right into things, right into what they want.”
In between acting and hobnobbing, Williams was still trying to make his own films. His most serious attempt came in 1976 with a script called Shark Bait. It was a satirical comedy about a couple of small time misfits who try and win a cash prize by seeing who can last longest in a tank with a great white shark (the idea was partly inspired by Williams’ own experiences wrestling and riding sharks down in Florida).
In the wake of Jaws, shark properties were hot and Williams found backing for the film (the source of the financing is unclear). He set up a production office and began prepping the picture in mid-’76. A Variety ad for the project – written in the inimitable Williams style – promised a film with the “charm of Lilies of the Field… the action and suspense of Jaws…and the deep interpretative comic values of Cat Ballou.”
Williams’ daughter Kim, then in her early 20s, was recruited to work on the film. “It seemed to me like it was going to get made,” she said. “I was out for the summer answering mail and helping out at the office. I went back to Florida for a bit and next thing I knew the deal had fallen apart. I never got the details, but whoever was funding it must’ve changed their minds.” Williams continued to flog Shark Bait, unsuccessfully, for several more years.
In 1980, Bert tried his hand selling a TV show, called Fifth Street Gym, about the fighters, trainers, and characters populating an inner-city boxing facility. The pitch made its way up the ladder at Aaron Spelling Productions but again ended in disappointment.
“Enclosed is your script for Fifth Street Gym,” wrote Spelling’s project development VP Cindy Dunne. “Please accept my apologies for taking so long to reply but unfortunately the script was misplaced and only recently surfaced. It’s an interesting idea with some marvelous characters, but unfortunately it doesn’t feel like a project we would have much success in developing.”
In 1985 another Williams script titled “One More Werewolf” seemed like it might make it into production. Italian-rooted film company Euramco was “extremely interested” in the project – proposing a cast that included Williams, Candy Clark, John Phillip Law, and Robert Forrester, with fellow actor Stuart Margolin directing. Despite promises of funding from Euramco chief Renato Romano, nothing came of the project.
Williams continued acting throughout the late-‘80s, but the offers came less often, and the quality of the projects dipped. He was no longer co-starring in grade A fare with Hoffman and Burton, but rather taking bit parts in Police Academy II and Penitentiary III.
Frustrated, Williams would privately rail against a cabal of casting agents he viewed as enemies (“the lowest form of person in this business”). He took out aggressively worded ads in the Hollywood trades touting himself as a still-viable talent. Under a photo of him acting with Peter Fonda in “Wanda Nevada,” Williams’ text screamed: “WATCH THIS PERFORMANCE – perhaps you’ll go back to using the old experienced actors again, past names who need work too. They will upgrade your films, giving them ultimate impact.”
Within a few years, as the roles dried up even further, Williams’ tone would change. After landing an increasingly rare audition for a Steve Bochco-produced cop show in the early-‘90s, he penned a heartfelt letter to casting agent June Lowry-Johnson.
“I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for bringing me in for the reading. You don’t know how much it meant,” Williams wrote. “It is really hard for me, as one who has spent so many years on the top, to finally realize I am no longer there. Fifty years…seemingly lost. And, now starving for good roles.”
While Williams had fallen out of favor with the powers that be, he proved to have a keen eye for new talent. In 1993, Williams connected with up-and-coming director Bryan Singer, taking on a role as the town mayor in Singer’s debut feature Public Access.
Made on a shoestring budget of $250,000 and 18-day shooting schedule, Williams was on familiar ground. “Bryan was like a kid making his first indie film,” recalled Stryker. “My dad told me, ‘Kim, this guy is unbelievable, he’s going to be famous someday.’”
Williams would accompany Singer to the Sundance Film Festival that year, where Public Access would share in the grand jury prize. “My dad was really excited about that. Him and Bryan and were really close,” said Stryker. Singer would give Williams a small part in his acclaimed 1995 follow-up The Usual Suspects. It would be his final screen appearance.
As his acting career wound down, Williams returned to one of his early loves: high diving. He started training again at his alma mater USC, swimming and diving daily at the school’s pool. Still a talent in the water, he joined the masters circuit, competing against other seniors in meets across the country.
By then, Williams’ son Carl had moved out to L.A. and saw his father’s daily routine up close. “He’d ride his motorcycle – he had a big Goldwing – head over to USC and work out at the pool. Then he’d have breakfast with a bunch of actor pals, then stop and see his agent, and go around to studios,” said Carl. “He was always looking for that big role, to get to that next level.”
On January 31, 2001, Williams made his usual morning visit to USC to dive, stopped for a coffee at Starbucks, and then went back to his apartment, where he was later found, dead, at age 78. The official cause of death was listed as heart failure, though due to his advanced age no autopsy was conducted. Williams’ family believe the effects of a recent motorcycle accident and Bert’s insistence on continuing to high dive into may have contributed to his passing.
Memorial services were held at Forest Lawn in Glendale, attended by old friends and acting biz buddies. Williams was buried among his fellow Navy veterans at Riverside National Cemetery. Small obituaries were published in the industry trades. Variety observed his passing, describing him as “a well-known actor who appeared in over 160 films.” None of the remembrances mentioned The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds.
When his family went through his things, they found an old briefcase stuffed with papers. One pile was a stack was Williams’ unfilmed scripts. The other was a series of rejection letters from studios, along with copies of queries Williams had sent to various Hollywood figures seeking work.
He’d mailed missives to John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, Milos Forman and Oliver Stone. These semi-form letters were filled with Williams’ flowery, flattering language, while unabashedly extolling his own virtues.
“As one who is still awed by your rare talent and ability to shape an audience, seemingly at will…that magic is part of my reason for wanting to be part of your vision ON SCREEN. You once expressed your desire for this to happen. Think of a principal role, and I will deliver, as in the past, Academy Award style.”
“What I am saying, in short, is that I will give you a solid and meaningful performance in your show. I have played many strong characters (chameleon challenges). Please consider all options. I’ve been looking forward to this ever since you said it would happen.”
“He never really stopped going for it,” said his grandson Kyle Stryker. “He was this macho character but also this incredibly sensitive artist at heart. It was almost a conflict of interest for him to exist in the world.”
In the decades following its last public screening
In the decades following its last public screening in 1967, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds would develop a quasi-mythic reputation. This was largely due to the scarcity of the film. Likely only a handful of prints were ever made, and all of those disappeared from circulation and never resurfaced in any form.
It’s unclear if Bert Williams himself ever even had a copy. One story suggests the negative for Cuckoo Birds was held by the processing lab in a dispute with Williams over payment. Eventually forgotten, it was likely discarded or destroyed. Another version claims Williams did possess a print, but that it was stolen when the storage of his Hollywood apartment building was ransacked and robbed. The only evidence of the film Williams’ family found were some audio tapes and makeup tests recovered after his passing.
Over the years, Cuckoo Birds would become the “holy grail” of lost films, hotly discussed and debated on movie message boards and at film conventions. The film – or at least its title – had acquired enough a cultural currency that punk rockers The Cramps released a song called “The Nest of the Cuckoo Bird” on their 1994 album Flamejob: “You wanna get her tail until she purrs/Run your fingers through her fur/In the nest of the cuckoo bird.”
Given the dearth of information, people began to speculate as to reasons for the film’s disappearance. One theory held that it was intentionally buried because of Peggy Williams’ religious affiliation – that the movie’s titillating aspects were a source of embarrassment to the Fulford Church organist.
“That’s definitely not true,” said Kim Stryker. “My mom might’ve been the organist at the church, and she was a Christian, but never a fanatic. That never entered into it.” In fact, in her later years, prior to her 2016 passing, the music Peggy Williams composed for the film remained a personal touchstone. “Whenever she got in front of a piano, she would start playing ‘Lisa’ and ‘The Nest of The Cuckoo Birds,’” said Stryker. “It's like those songs were just ingrained in her.”
For Kyle Stryker, Bert’s grandson, the film always loomed in the background. “Cuckoo Birds was almost like family folklore,” said Kyle, who into followed into the industry, becoming a cinematographer and camera operator. “I’d hear about how my grandfather did this horror movie – how they used chocolate syrup for the blood, the story about my mom coming home to a pile of dead bodies in the living room. I’d heard all of it, but I always assumed it was gone forever and we’d never see it.”
The closest anyone had come to glimpsing the film was in late 2014, when snippets of celluloid from Cuckoo Birds – which had been discovered in an abandoned Miami hotel back in 1972 – were auctioned online.
Then, in 2015, the Harvard Film Archive made a surprising discovery after it acquired a collection of prints from the now defunct Little Art Cinema in Rockport, Massachusetts. “We acquire a lot of collections from a lot of different sources, but the ones from theaters tend to be the most intriguing,” said Harvard Film Archive director Haden Guest. “Films can be forgotten or abandoned by the distributors in theaters. These are almost accidental collections that oftentimes contain gems.”
Though the Little Art mostly showed canonical or contemporary art films in the 1960s, nestled among the prints of Rome, Open City and Belle De Jour, Guest found a curious title: The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds. “Pretty quickly we were able to determine that this was quite possibly a lost film,” he said.
Realizing it was likely the only print in existence, Guest had a lab digitally scan it rather than take a chance damaging it by projecting it. When he finally saw the film, Guest was sufficiently intrigued.
“I’m a film historian, especially on experimental cinema, cinema made at the margins,” he said. “It struck me immediately that this film is totally off the grid. Yes, it clearly has reference to horror films, Southern gothic movies, and the sort of crudeness and rawness associated with exploitation cinema —performances where people shout rather than speak. While it’s ‘badly’ made, there was an authenticity and a vitality there that was really fascinating.”
Around this time, Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn was making his own headlong dive into the marginalia of American film. “Generally, the artists at the fringes of culture are making things out of a pure necessity to create,” said Refn. “I don’t mean that there aren’t people at every stage of creativity who do the same thing. But the idea that you can create something and let it exist without even having a real commercial seek for it… I’ve always been fascinated by that.”
Refn had become consumed with the career of prolific, self-taught exploitation filmmaker Andy Milligan. That led him to author and Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough, who eventually sold Refn his collection of Milligan and other underground film posters. Refn soon expanded his pursuits into collecting prints of these films.
For Refn it’s less the movies themselves that fascinate, than the personal impetus behind them. “I remember I had all these Andy Milligan posters laid out, and my wife asked ‘Why on earth do you want to do this?’ I remember thinking well, this could’ve been me. I only make films out of my pure fetish and desire. It’s the only true meaning or reason to do anything.”
Refn decided to turn his expanding poster collection into a book called The Act of Seeing. He was scouring eBay for some rarities, when he came upon a seller with a one-sheet of The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds. He’d never heard of the film, but was immediately struck by the abstract imagery created by Bert Williams.
“It was like a Basquiat painting,” said Refn. “If you put it on a wall you wouldn’t know it was a movie poster. I didn’t know anything about it, but he only wanted 20 dollars for it, so I bought it.” When he reported his find to McDonough – the incredibly rare poster was likely worth several thousand dollars – the author, stunned by seeing the color poster for the first time, confirmed the score. “It turned out it was like the ultimate urban legend within [pop] movies,” said Refn.
A few months later, Refn was debuting his poster book at Fantastic Fest in Los Angeles when Dennis Bartok of Cinelicious Distribution approached him. Bartok had been contacted by Harvard’s Haden Guest about Cinelicious possibly releasing The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds. Bartok figured Refn would be a perfect benefactor for the film, and arranged a screening for the director.
“As I watched it, I was like, wow, this is obviously a very, very peculiar film, made with very peculiar talent,” said Refn. “It was like a regional noir fantasy, existential swamp dream. Is the film good or bad? I think it’s beyond the definition of good or bad. It’s just an experience. I wanted to share that experience.”
Refn agreed to restore and release the film – part of a joint deal with Harvard – and handed the job to preservation experts Peter Conheim and Ross Lipman, who were tasked with cleaning up the surviving print. “It had some damage, but no missing footage,” said Conheim. “The print was embedded with dirt, and we had to digitally paint out scratches, long running gouges, through people’s faces.”
Conheim also set about cleaning up the rather muffled audio, going deep into the soundtrack to out filter noise. “It’s about finding where the dialogue lives, and extracting it,” he said. “In a sense you’re remixing, but you don’t have multitracks. It was a bit like making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – or an alligator hyde, in this case.”
The new version – with its sharp black and white compositions lovingly restored by Lipman – is a testament to Williams’ artistic instincts. “It’s staggering how much detail is actually in there. That’s where the magic of the film is. Bert must’ve been looking through the viewfinder and saying ‘Look how beautiful that is!’” said Conheim. “He clearly was aspiring to something. In terms of the photography and the action and cutting, it’s so different from most exploitation films, where the camera never moves and nothing ever happens. They’re usually dullsville and this is most definitely not dullsville.”
For Refn, the film’s greatest quality is the passion and purity of Williams’ – albeit peculiar – vision. “It’s a very free-thinking movie, it’s not bound by anything other than a need to tell a story,” said Refn. “It’s one of those rare films that can only get made by one person’s determination. It’s someone saying ‘I want to make a film, I’m going to make it completely as I want it to look and feel and be and not have anyone control me.’”
The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds now has its last and strangest twist: This obscure film, lost for half a century, has been recovered by one of the most prestigious university archives, restored and released by a celebrated young director. It’s a redemption story so outlandish not even Bert Williams’ fevered imagination could’ve dreamed it up.
Some fifty years after the film’s release, and nearly two decades after his passing, Williams work is getting the due he would, undoubtedly, feel it deserves.
“I only wish my dad was around to see this,” said Kim Stryker, chuckling at the thought of her father’s reaction. “Oh he’d love it, he’d absolutely love it. He’d probably say: ‘I told you. I told you so, baby. I’m an artist.’”
Special thanks to Alex DiSanto for additional research.
Bob Mehr is the author of the New York Times bestseller Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.