There’s a moment in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when we learn a little more about the quietest, most mysterious character on the screen, Chief Bromden.
Chief Bromden faked being deaf and mute, and he fooled everyone at the Oregon State Mental Hospital. But he confided his ability to hear and speak to Randle McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson.
In the film, actor Will Sampson played the role of Chief. And it turns out that Will Sampson has a son, who is also an actor. Today Tim Sampson plays the same role his father did, this time in the Portland Center Stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Q & A with Actor Tim Sampson
Listen to the audio of Geoff’s interview at OPBNews.org.
Geoff Norcross: Tim, it’s so good to have you.
Tim Samspon: Yeah, it’s good to be here.
Geoff: I know your father died in 1987, but did you have a chance to talk with him about this role before he did?
Tim: Not only did he talk about it, but he predicted that I’d be doing this role here.
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Tim: I guess it was about three or four years after the movie had come out, he was doing the stage version down in Jupiter, Florida. And I just saw the last week of it he was down there and he called me up and wanted to know if I wanted to come down and see it. I said, ‘Sure,’ so I drove down there to Florida and I saw the last few performances of it. And I was backstage with him one day and he was putting on his make-up and his costume getting ready to go on and he said, ‘Look and learn ‘cause one of these days, you’re gonna be doin’ this.’
Tim: And I wasn’t an actor at the time. I go, ‘Nah, man, you’re crazy.’ You know there’s no way I could get in front of a stage, or front of a camera or anything at that time to act. I said ‘No, no, you crazy.’ But, you know, years later, in 2000, or in 1999, Steppenwolf was casting for the Chief.
Geoff: The Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
Tim: Yeah, the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago was doing the play and a friend of mine called me up and said, ‘They’re still looking for the Chief, they’re having open auditions, just come on down.’ Anyway, I just went on down there and tried out and got the part. You know, it was my dad’s vision, his dream, or his prophecy, you could say that it was coming true and lo and behold here I am doing the role.
Geoff: It’s almost as if you were born to it.
Tim: Yeah, well, born to it, handed it down, whatever it may be and I thought — when my dad did the movie, I said, ‘Well, he was born for that part.’ You know ‘cause they looked for a lot of years for the Chief, they couldn’t find an actor to play the part and they wanted somebody like — I guess like my dad.
Geoff: You are from Oklahoma.
Geoff: You are Native American.
Geoff: Just in case anybody has any doubt.
Tim: [Laughter] Yeah.
Geoff: So was your father.
Geoff: There’s a Hollywood archetype for Native American roles. Do you think that this role, Chief Bromden, is in that mold?
Tim: Not really. I think it’s a different… to me he’s more of a human being than most of what Hollywood has been portraying in the past. I mean for me, it’s an actor’s role ‘cause most roles I got in film and television was always just being an angry Native American… about broken treaties, or stolen land, so always playing these parts, angry Indian with a shotgun. But this role here is different. I mean he laughs, he cries, he dreams, he dances, he’s quiet, he’s scared. All the emotions you can ever think of are in this acting role.
Geoff: You mentioned the hurt and the pain and it’s obvious that Chief has these feelings for his father.
Tim: Um, hm.
Geoff: What about your actual relationship with your actual father do you bring to this role?
Tim: Well, that’s interesting that you ask that question because one of the longest scenes in the play is between McMurphy and Chief where he actually talks about his dad and his mother and the tribe and the drinking. When I was doing the play with Steppenwolf we were rehearsing that scene with Terry Kenny, our director. It was hard for me to get to that level where he wanted me to be. I mean, we must have done that scene all day long, kept going over and over and I’d try to get in and thought i was going deep enough for him and he’d go, ‘No, no.’ He said, ‘It’s your people, the trail of tears, the alcoholism, the broken treaties, your father, your mother…’ I said, ‘Okay.” I’d keep trying over and over. To a point I was getting tired, I was getting mad, getting frustrated — both of us were and I started yelling at him, ‘What — what do you want?’ And he finally said, ‘I want Tim Sampson to do the scene.’ I said, ‘Alright!’
So we took the day off and I went back to my apartment and I got out a poem that I wrote about my dad after he had passed away. I wrote this poem called “The Owl Man.” And I asked myself why did I write this poem? Why did I write this poem about my dad? And what it boils down to, because I loved my dad so much, and that’s when it dawned on me. So I took that and went to the rehearsal the next day with that in mind — in my heart.
And when I did the scene, it came out as you see it on the stage now. And that’s what I found was Bromden — throughout the book, throughout the play, he talks to his dad. You know, his dad has gone on, his dad was his hero. And so, same way with mine… I mean my life and Bromden’s life kind of parallel. And that’s where I made the connection is with our fathers.
Geoff: Tim Sampson plays the role of Chief Bromden in the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s at Portland’s Center Stage until March 27th. Tim Sampson, thank you so much for talking with me about this.
Tim: Thank you.