The photos certainly have the feel of The Far Side. Oversaturated reds, purples, and browns. Pillow-shaped humans with beehive hairdos. A certain dinginess to household surfaces and the clothing. But there’s also something… off in the pair of low-resolution, behind-the-scenes stills posted to social media a few months ago by Dirk Blocker.
“Many years ago we were part of a test for a Far Side film,” the Brooklyn Nine-Nine actor wrote—first on Instagram in February and then on Twitter in April. “Sadly, nothing came of it, but we had a grand time.”
A long-lost Far Side film, much less a live-action one, was news for many. As far as anyone knew, Gary Larson’s iconic one-panel comic strip had received only two official screen adaptations, both 30-minute animated specials: Tales From The Far Side, which aired on CBS in 1994, and Tales From The Far Side II, which aired on the BBC three years later. Just two months after Tales From The Far Side premiered, Larson brought the comic to a close, ending a 15-year run that had seen the strip syndicated in more than 1,900 daily newspapers.
Until Larson announced a new Far Side website in late 2019, he’d all but stopped giving interviews and had worked only sporadically since 1995. But his retirement and withdrawal from the public eye didn’t cause The Far Side’s fanbase to wane. If anything, the dozens of collected anthologies and daily desk calendars garnered new legions of fans who loved the comic’s inimitable, heady surrealism and naturalist themes, motifs cultivated from Larson’s longtime interest in biology and environmentalism.
And so, when Blocker posted the film stills earlier this year, Far Side lovers immediately peppered the actor with questions: Who else is that in the photo? Why was virtually no one aware of this until now? Which director was game, brave, and/or audacious enough to agree to such a project?
“For me it was laugh at first sight, each one a classic,” Alan Rudolph recently told The A.V. Club via email, remembering when he was introduced to Larson’s strip some 40 years ago. “Chaplinesque. Silly, genius, properly cracked, perfectly angled, wise and dumb simultaneously.” Rudolph’s is not a name with the same level of recognition as Larson’s. You’re more likely to find an old Far Side calendar page or greeting card on someone’s shelf than a copy of Remember My Name, Choose Me, Trouble In Mind, or The Moderns—all films directed by Rudolph. But, like Larson, the one-time Robert Altman protégé has his diehard fans. He also shares the cartoonist’s preference for privacy and letting his work speak for itself.
In 1980, Rudolph released Roadie, a musical comedy starring Meat Loaf, to critical and commercial failure. Not long after, he stumbled upon The Far Side’s meddling extraterrestrials, handy cows, and talking insects. “Originally, I was just a fan,” Rudolph said. “But then as Far Side calendars and compilation books began to appear, thoughts of a possible (impossible?) film wouldn’t go away.” Rudolph, who lived in Washington less than an hour from Larson’s Seattle home at the time, reached out to the cartoonist’s newspaper editor, and the two eventually met for drinks in a nearby bar.
With Larson’s approval, Rudolph began work on a script in 1983. In it, Professor Henderson—the pith-helmeted character inhabited by John Larroquette in the photo Blocker posted—is on a journey to “an unknown corner of the world to discover the missing link between everything.” Being The Far Side, that “unknown corner” wound up being only a couple blocks from the character’s home. Professor Henderson’s quest continued from there, accompanied by a “kid on a bike.”
A few years later, in 1986, British producer (and House of Lords member) David Puttnam was named CEO of Columbia Pictures. As Rudolph put it, he was hired to “shake things up and make less expensive product.” Rudolph had previously met the man who brought Chariots Of Fire, The Killing Fields, and Midnight Express to theaters—they’d spoken about Rudolph’s long-gestating look at the Lost Generation, The Moderns—and a mutual friend later facilitated a delivery of the Far Side script to the newly minted studio exec. Puttnam reportedly thoroughly enjoyed what he read, despite having never heard of, much less seen, the comic. “But he did know that my budgets were minor and the films had some attempt at brains. Apparently, that was enough,” Rudolph said.
Still, the director was “shocked to read” that Puttnam soon announced a Far Side film as part of the first wave of Columbia releases of his tenure. “He read the script but couldn’t make out what it would be like, yet had a positive gut reaction,” Rudolph said. He quickly moved to make the project a reality. “It was all too good and weird to be true.” Rudolph wasn’t wrong. “Sure enough, [Puttnam] was too revolutionary for Hollywood”—after taking the top job in June of 1986, he was out by September the next year following 18 months of trying to “radically change” the system, buck nepotism, and finance “the definitive movie about a talking penis.”
Despite the abrupt rise and fall of what Rudolph dubbed “the biggest little movie deal that never got made,” the announcement of a Far Side film caught the attention of Paramount Pictures in 1988. Interested in the idea and hoping to fast-track production, the studio first asked to see what something as arguably incomprehensible as a live-action Far Side movie would look like. Requests were put in for test stills for various characters and sets, something “more complicated than it sounds,” said Rudolph.
“To create Far Side characters in [sic] Far Side world for stills only would be like building a single tank or tract house. Like creating an entire opera production in costume for a poster,” Rudolph said. At first, the director considered making the project a black-and-white film akin to The Far Side’s early, monochromatic days. Instead, he used then-recently introduced, Larson-approved color calendar editions of the strip as his guide, employing copious amounts of Styrofoam to help construct the asymmetrical, oddball backdrops and set pieces.
But when the time finally came to assemble a stand-in cast and shoot the test photos, Rudolph instead decided to go ahead and film some footage as a more realized proof of concept. He quickly drafted some dialogue for his actors and shot what he could for about the same cost as the stills. If he got the green light, Rudolph hoped to create a “sketch-based narrative with a loose story. Basically, an examination of everyday life in which humans, non-humans, and objects equally occupy [space] with competing bizarreness.”
When the time came to present to Paramount, in 1988, Rudolph offered to show them the test footage rather than the photos. The director cautioned that the scenes wouldn’t be in the final product, but were instead “an indication of what might be possible visually in a relatively primitive way.” The studio heads said they understood, accepted the footage, and promised to return with an answer soon. Three weeks later, they delivered their verdict: no dice.
“They loved the way it looked but weren’t sure of the scenes, none of which were in the script but adapted to the raw materials we had for the test,” Rudolph said. “In other words, if we had only presented stills, it likely would have been made.”
Although disheartened, Rudolph was also relieved at their decision—a firm reminder, he said, of “why I couldn’t survive in the studio system.” Larson, for his part, “seemed unsure” of what footage he saw, “though he laughed.” Still, Rudolph remembers his attempt fondly, painting it as “a well-done, sweet, absurd sample of something greater.”
Rudolph, Larroquette, Blocker, and Larson would all move on with their respective careers. Larroquette was soon cast in his iconic, multi-Emmy Award-winning role as Dan Fielding on Night Court. Blocker would pop up throughout the 1990s and 2000s in TV series and films like Inherit The Wind, Criminal Minds, Deadwood, and, of course, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Larson surprised fans by returning to The Far Side last year in the form of new, “experimental” online entries. (In a note posted to the Far Side website, he largely credits a “clogged pen” for helping to inspire him to try out drawing via digital tablets.)
Rudolph, meanwhile, is currently writing a screenplay. Looking back, the director recalls something Larson said to him years after their attempt at the Far Side film, while playing jazz guitar for one of Rudolph’s films, no less: “Gary informed me… that perhaps what I had done was exactly what it should be.”