The irreverent, iconoclastic cartoons of John Callahan were a staple of the pages of Portland’s Willamette Week newspaper for nearly 30 years. Now, the story of Callahan’s life has made it to the big screen in the film “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.”
The title is from the caption of a cartoon Callahan drew poking fun at his own disability. John Callahan became a quadriplegic at age 21 after a drunk driving accident severed his spinal cord.
The film was directed by another Portland legend, Gus Van Sant. Several of his films have documented life in the Pacific Northwest, including “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho.”
Van Sant recently talked with OPB “Weekend Edition” host John Notarianni. The film focuses on how Callahan’s disability and his recovery from alcoholism influenced his cartoons.
“That was always central to his story,” Van Sant said. “His cartoons often addressed disabilities of various sorts in humorous ways.”
“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” was filmed in California, but much of the film is set in Portland. Van Sant said his memories of living in Portland in the 1980s contributed to the overall look and feel of the film.
“I was actually working at OPB in the early ‘80s,” Van Sant said. “It’s ingrained in me. We actually used some photo books too as reference. That was the fun part.”
The push to produce a film about John Callahan’s life was launched in the mid-1990s by the late Robin Williams. Callahan was involved in writing the film’s script, but the project was marred by various delays.
“John had joked that by the time we made this movie, we’ll all be dead,” Van Sant said.
Unfortunately, Callahan was partially correct. He died in 2010 and Robin Williams killed himself in 2014. After 20 years of hurdles, the film is finally reaching audiences with only Van Sant still attached to the project.
Still, as the film reaches audiences, John Callahan and Robin Williams are on Gus Van Sant’s mind. “Maybe they’ll see it, wherever they are,” Van Sant mused.
Use the audio player above to hear the full conversation from OPB’s “Weekend Edition.”