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An Alcoholic Quadriplegic Cartoonist: John Callahan's Life Story Was One Big Red Flag To Movie Studios

Director Gus Van Sant (L) and Joaquin Phoenix (R) on the set of Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. (Photo by Scott Patrick Green, Courtesy of Amazon Studios)
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It started with Robin Williams. In 1997, when the actor/comedian was working with director Gus Van Sant on Good Will Hunting, he asked if Van Sant would want to make a movie with him about the life of cartoonist John Callahan.

Williams had optioned the rights to Callahan's memoir, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, and he wanted to play Callahan himself.

The book tells the story of Callahan's life -- was adopted from an orphanage in Portland, Oregon, he never knew his biological parents. When he was 12 years old, he started drinking. At 21, he was paralyzed in a car accident. Both Callahan and the man driving his car were drunk.

Eventually, Callahan got sober through Alcoholics Anonymous. He became a successful cartoonist, delighting in the fact that his edgy comedy often offended readers. In his animated short I Think I Was an Alcoholic, Callahan distills the essential elements of his story:

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But the feature film almost didn't get off the ground, even after Van Sant interviewed Callahan and produced a couple of scripts. He suspects that the subject matter scared studios away. "AA, a very dark cartoonist, being disabled," Van Sant says, "were like warning signs to a studio."

John Callahan died in 2010. Then, in 2014, Robin Williams died.

Sony got in touch with Van Sant to see if he still wanted to make a movie about Callahan, and he wrote another script. He enlisted Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan this time, but when he went back to Sony, now they weren't interested.

The studio allowed Van Sant to take the idea somewhere else, he said -- and that's when Amazon picked it up.

After all the years it took to get the film made, now that it's completed, Van Sant thinks Callahan would have been excited.

"He might privately and maybe to his close friends just say, 'Oh it's a piece of crap,'" Van Sant told us. "But he was a promoter, and so long as the film is promoting [him], it's a good thing."

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot is in limited release. It opens widely on July 27. (A version of this story also aired on the radio; listen on KPCC's The Frame.)

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