Could Keith Moon and George Harrison Have Saved ’Yellowbeard’?
One of the most highly anticipated comedies launched on June 24, 1983, and disappeared into oblivion. Yellowbeard had everything imaginable going for it on paper, including members of the Monty Python team, Mel Brooks collaborators and even Cheech and Chong. Then production issues changed everything.
Yellowbeard, played by Monty Python's Graham Chapman, is a 17th-century pirate who escapes from prison and wants to reclaim his hidden treasure. Unfortunately, word has gotten around, so he’s not the only one involved in the search. Co-stars in the ensemble cast include fellow Pythons Eric Idle and John Cleese, British comedy stalwarts Peter Cook and Spike Milligan, Brooks’ colleagues Madeline Khan and Marty Feldman, and even a cameo from David Bowie – who did it so he could say he worked with some Pythons.
What could possibly go wrong? Almost everything, including the passing of Feldman – which ironically meant that a double was required to shoot his character’s death scene. The bad news began, however, with the 1978 death of Keith Moon.
“Keith Moon, and old drinking companion of mine … suggested I write an adventure comedy,” Chapman explained in a 1983 TV appearance. “Looking at Keith, he reminded me in appearance of, in Treasure Island, Long John Silver [as] played by Robert Newton. … And also, Keith rather behaved like a pirate. He did whatever he felt like doing on the spur of the moment and didn’t give a damn about the consequences – which is very piratical in behavior. So that gave me the idea of pirates.”
Asked if Moon would have been seen on screen, Chapman replied: “He would indeed have been in the movie, either playing Yellowbeard himself or his arch-rival – who in fact we named ‘Moon’ after him.”
Watch the ‘Yellowbeard’ Trailer
Dudley Moore’s longtime comedy partner Cook recalled that the entire production was originally seen as a collaboration between friends. “It all started when Keith Moon, Sam Peckinpah, Graham Chapman and myself were dining [together],” Cook told The Movie Yearbook. “Keith suggested doing a movie about pirates and we were all discussing it and being enthusiastic – when I saw Sam, who was too tired to actually go to the lavatory, relieving himself in the artificial palm tree by the table. It was then that I thought the whole thing was rather unlikely to get off the ground.”
To his surprise it did, although not as originally devised. Moon funded Yellowbeard’s development, and Chapman hoped to have it produced by HandMade Films – the company formed by George Harrison to make Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Instead, the project wound up with Orion Pictures. They didn’t share the same vision, and hired Mel Damski to direct instead of the visually innovative Peckinpah.
The original script focused on a strong plot with the characters falling into line in reaction to events. The studio wanted more of a character-led chase production, where the jokes were more valuable for the reason they could be told. In the end, however, it simply wasn’t very funny.
Chapman was forbidden from editing sessions and his suggestions for tightening and speeding up the proceedings were ignored. As a result, Cleese called Yellowbeard one of the worst films of all time, while Idle said his time among the cast and crew were far more memorable than the result of their labors. “Sometimes, the best times can be on the worst movies and vice versa, e.g. Yellowbeard, which I wouldn’t have missed for the world,” he said in 2001.
“Once you’ve got everybody in costume and equipped them with a sword, a mustache and some handy cliches, there’s the temptation to think they’re funny. Not true,” Roger Ebert later argued. “You’ve got to go ahead and write characters and create a plot that leads from laugh to laugh. The sight of movie stars looking ridiculous is not, in itself, funny.”
He called the 96-minute movie a “chaotic mess in which herds of actors rush from one side of the screen to the other, waving their swords, making threats, and looking lost. The plot involves the most evil pirate of all time, but as Graham Chapman plays Yellowbeard, he never seems truly evil or even very mean – and with that anchor gone, the whole plot’s meaningless.”
Watch David Bowie’s Cameo in ‘Yellowbeard’
Yellowbeard had a promising opening weekend, but that promise was never fulfilled. The film ultimately took in just $4.3 million on a budget of $10 million. It also derailed the career of lead actor Martin Hewitt, whose budding career was more or less ended after he played Yellowbeard’s son Dan. His part was meant for Sting, who was developing his acting chops at the time and would appear in Dune the following year.
The studio wanted an American in the role, for fear that the production might seem too British. Chapman reported in his book Yellowbeard: High Jinks on the High Seas that Hewitt said: “Sting should have had my part. For crying out loud, I would have hired Sting over me any day.”
The absence of Moon’s influence can’t be measured, but it’s not difficult to imagine the production taking a completely different path had he lived. His personal magnetism might have convinced Harrison to get involved, which might have ensured the people who came up with the concept saw it through. Moon’s close friend Harry Nilsson had been asked to write the soundtrack but was dropped by Orion. Moon might have kept him aboard, adding another dimension to the adventure.
Or perhaps not. The last years of Moon’s life were marred by increasingly out-of-control episodes, and his health was crumbling. “I did try to get Keith into the movies but he would never have made a movie star because you’d have to be regimented, and he’d blow it every time,” his personal assistant Peter “Dougal” Butler said in 2012. “On Yellowbeard … he went for a screen test. Graham said, ‘Well done, Keith,’ but as soon as Keith drove off, the director came over and it was: ‘No way, Jose.’”
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