‘Midnight Cowboy’ turns 50: Inside the making of a film classic

Decades from now, when people wonder what New York City was like in the late ’60s, all they’ll have to do is watch “Midnight Cowboy.” Released 50 years ago, on May 25, 1969, it shows the city in its gritty glory — particularly 42nd Street, the stomping ground of the film’s desperate hustler, Joe Buck, played by Jon Voight.

And that street, says Bob Balaban, who played one of the Texas cowboy’s customers, was every bit as filthy and dangerous as it looks in the movie. “If you had to walk down that street with a book or a wallet, you grabbed it and ran,” he told The Post.

The film’s cinematographer, Adam Holender, added, “You couldn’t create that roughness by yourself. Life created it.”

James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 novel provided the story that British director John Schlesinger put on screen, making superstars of its leads, Voight and Dustin Hoffman. But even Schlesinger, who died in 2003, had doubts. Michael Childers, his partner of 37 years and the film’s on-set photographer, remembers seeing him sitting outside his trailer, sobbing.

“Who’s going to see a movie about a cowboy who turns tricks on 42nd Street?” Schlesinger cried.

Many did, and loved it. Reviewing the film for The Post, Archer Winsten called it “an epic of the underside, a masterpiece of small lives and meager ambitions.” Schlesinger called it “a love story.”

“Midnight Cowboy” is the only X-rated film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. (Its rating was later revised to a less-daunting R.) And while Bob Dylan wrote a song for it and Andy Warhol clamored for a cameo, fate got in their way.

Here’s what cast and crew members told The Post about the making of a classic.

The search for Joe and Ratso

Producer Jerome Hellman was the first to picture Hoffman as greasy, gimpy Ratso Rizzo. He’d seen the actor in 1966 off-Broadway’s play “Eh?” and soon returned, with Schlesinger. As Childers recalled it, “They went backstage and immediately offered him ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ ”

They probably got a bargain. “The Graduate” opened a year after the play, and Hoffman became one of Hollywood’s top leading men. Childers says “Midnight Cowboy” hired bodyguards to keep “hundreds of teenage girls” from hounding him for autographs and breaking into his trailer.

Voight was a tougher sell. Schlesinger wanted Michael Sarrazin, the lanky star of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” But Sarrazin was under contract to Universal, and that studio tripled the amount it wanted United Artists to pay to use him.

Casting director Marion Daugherty lobbied hard for ­Voight, an unknown from Yonkers. Schlesinger, some recall, didn’t like his looks: “I think he said Jon looked like a slightly sad little Dutch boy,” Childers said.

But Daugherty was adamant that they review Voight’s screen test. When they did, they saw the angst, anger and charm they’d been seeking.

“If we’d gone with Sarrazin, Hoffman would have eaten him alive,” Childers says now. “He and Voight were equal sparring partners. They brought new things to the script during rehearsals, and Waldo [Salt, the screenwriter] used them all.”

That may have included Ratso’s legendary, taxi-thumping “I’m walkin’ here!” Although Hoffman claimed credit for it, Schlesinger said the line was in Salt’s script. “It doesn’t matter,” Childers said, “because Dustin’s so brilliant when he hits that cab!”

“Come now, darling!”

Brenda Vaccaro says she auditioned six times before being cast as Joe’s first paying customer, a well-heeled exec in a red fox coat. Schlesinger insisted she play a scene in the nude, and it was costume designer Ann Roth’s stroke of genius to drape Vaccaro in fur.

“F–ked in fox!” Schlesinger cried when he saw her. “I love it!”

Filming that sex scene was grueling, Vaccaro recalls: “We had our clothes off and we sat in bed all day long waiting for John Schlesinger to get in the room with the camera . . . At around 4:30 or 5, he came [upstairs] and said, ‘Well, my dears, I’m terribly sorry, but I didn’t get the shot I wanted, so we’ll just have to come back tomorrow.’ ”

When they finally did shoot the scene, Vaccaro said, “I remember slipping off the bed and onto the floor with Jon on top of me, pumping away . . . All of a sudden, Schlesinger leaned down and said, ‘Come now, darling!’ He just wanted to end the scene.”

Sylvia Miles played the hardened Upper East Side matron who picks up Buck and, after their romp, hustles him into paying her. The performance earned her an Oscar nomination, which a “Midnight Cowboy” publicist says was an ordeal in itself.

“Sylvia had horrible clothes,” recalled Kathie Berlin, who had a designer make Miles “a fabulous dress” to wear to the awards ceremony. Watching the Oscars on TV that night, Berlin screamed when the camera fixed on Miles. “There she was, in some fringed, suede cowgirl outfit! I remember saying, ‘Please, God, don’t let her win, because then she’ll have to stand up!” (Berlin’s prayers were answered.)

No one The Post spoke to knew what became of Joe Buck’s fringed jacket. “I heard someone stole it,” said Childers. “I had the hat! I auctioned it for an AIDS [benefit] and got $8,000 for it.”

“Everybody’s talkin’ at me”

A Florida folk singer named Fred Neil wrote the song Harry Nilsson seemed destined to sing. The filmmakers couldn’t afford the rights to “Everybody’s Talkin’ ” at first, Childers says, so Schlesinger asked Nilsson to write something.

But “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” wasn’t quite up to snuff. Luckily, Childers says, after United Artists saw the film, the studio upped the budget — and Nilsson sang the song everyone loved.

Dylan wrote a ditty, too, Childers says. “He was our neighbor in Malibu, and he said, ‘Yeah, let me write a song for your movie.’ ”

The song was “Lay Lady Lay.” Childers says they got it two months after they’d locked in the soundtrack. The song later made it onto Dylan’s 1969 album, “Nashville Skyline.”

Andy’s party

Warhol suggested the filmmakers cast his friends — Viva, Ultra Violet, Patti D’Arbanville and Taylor Meade — in the druggy party scene, for which Schlesinger recruited some “really crazy” others, Vaccaro says. “One girl came in with green nails, green hair and a stuffed monkey on her shoulder. She said, ‘I’m a tree, and this is my monkey.’ ” Vaccaro remembers walking into her dressing room at Harlem’s Filmways Studio and finding two strangers there, having sex: “I said, ‘Whoa!’ and got the hell out of there.”

Holender, the cinematographer, says the party sequence was so outrageous that one crew member quit: “He felt his sensibility and religious beliefs were compromised.”

Warhol had no such scruples. He planned to put in an appearance himself, but when Viva called his studio, Childers says, “We heard ‘Pop, pop, pop. ‘Andy’s been shot!’ she started screaming.”

Warhol never fully recovered from the wounds inflicted that day by a crazed Valerie Solanas. When Childers saw the artist about a year and a half later, Warhol told him, “ ‘I wanted to be in the movie! It won three Oscars, and I could’ve been in it!’ ”

“There was kind of this shocked silence”

“Midnight Cowboy” was a tough film to publicize. Not only was it rated X, Berlin says, but its subject matter was rough — prostitution, drugs, gay sex, violence — and many of its actors were unknown.

“We couldn’t get any television,” Berlin recalled. “The ‘Today Show’ didn’t want ’em, ‘The Merv Griffin Show’ and ‘The Mike Douglas Show’ didn’t want ’em. I couldn’t get Jon and Brenda and Sylvia on anything until the movie became a hit.”

The only star the film had was Hoffman, and he, Berlin says, didn’t volunteer to do anything.

Things changed once critics and theater owners had a look at the film. Berlin remembers the first time “Midnight Cowboy” screened in New York and how, after the credits rolled, “nobody left their seats — there was this kind of shocked silence.” Then, she says, they went into the lobby and started talking: about how “extraordinary” the performances were, and how they’d never seen an American film like it, one that saw their city — maybe because it was through a British director’s eyes — in all its glamour and grime, so clearly.

After that, Berlin says, “we never had trouble filling the theaters.”

In the end, “Midnight Cowboy” lassoed three Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Hoffman and Voight were nominated for Best Actor, only to lose to John Wayne for “True Grit,” the sentimental favorite.

Still, some marvel that the film was made at all.

“No major movie studio would ever do that movie again,” Balaban said. “It would have been released as an independent, little picture by a subdivision of a studio. This was a major production.”

Half a century later, “Midnight Cowboy” is that and more: a moving portrait of two souls who, adrift in a harsh city, finally find someone who cares.

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