“The Point!,” Harry Nilsson’s fable about overcoming intolerance and bigotry, began with an acid trip in Laurel Canyon

By on June 14, 2016

Harry Nilsson‘s The Point! – the definitive collector’s edition is now streaming on Night Flight Plus — began with an acid trip high up in the Hollywood Hills.

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At the beginning of the 1970s, Harry Nilsson — born 75 years ago, on June 15, 1941 — was enjoying the likely peak of his successful recording career.

He was living with second wife Diane (they had just gotten married on December 31, 1969) in a New England-style 5-bedroom house located at 7708 Woodrow Wilson Dr., in a secluded part of Laurel Canyon, near Mulholland Drive.

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In addition to living near good friend Micky Dolenz, who lived with his wife Samantha Juste on Laurel Canyon Blvd. — the Monkees had recorded Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy” in 1967  and Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song” had been used in a memorable song-and-dance sequence in the Monkees’ 1968 counterculture film Head — some of Nilsson’s other neighbors included Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper and another friend of Nilsson’s, Dr. Timothy Leary, who had turned him on to LSD a few years earlier.

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One night in early ’70, Nilsson dropped acid and wandered off into a thickly wooded area nearby with his dog, Molly, later recalling:

“I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to point. I thought, ‘Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn’t, then there’s a point to it.'”

Nilsson later began thinking songs he’d written for recently aborted film project — based on “The Paradise Hat,” a short story he’d optioned, written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. — would still work in a different tale, which soon began taking shape in his imagination as “The Point!,” a bizarre little fable about overcoming intolerance and bigotry.

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The plot focused on a round-headed boy, Oblio, and his dog, Arrow, who live in a town in which every resident has a pointed head. Oblio has to wear a pointed hat in order to fit in, but nevertheless, he and his dog are exiled to the “Pointless Forest” — clearly inspired by that acid trip high up in the Hollywood Hills — where they have many fantastic experiences, including encounters with a 3-headed man, giant bees, a tree in the leaf-selling business, and a good-humored old rock.

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Nilsson began scribbling down the songs for The Point!, his sixth album for RCA, but eventually struck upon the idea that it should be an animated TV movie too, and presented the idea to animator Fred Wolf.

He’d seen Wolf’s 1968 Oscar-winning short The Box and thought that Wolf’s sparse, storybook-like animation style (typically line drawings with watercolor backgrounds) would work particularly well for the far out sequences he had in mind.

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Wolf had previously worked with Hanna-Barbera studios, designing the weekly title sequences for “The Flintstones,” and he’d also worked closely with many top name advertising agencies, creating animated television commercials for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger and Green Giants’ Little Green Sprout.

Wolf agreed to take on the project, writing a 22-page treatment which was then sold to ABC TV, who planned to air it as a 90-minute “movie of the week” later that year.

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Because they were under a time crunch, Wolf had to skip the step known as “pencil testing,” and proceeded straight to full color visuals. Meanwhile, Nilsson worked with a virtually-unknown writer, Carole A. Beers, who mainly came up with the names of the characters that Nilsson had already developed. Norm Lenzer would write the screenplay.

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According to Wolf in a 2004 interview he did with L.A. CityBeat writer Erik Himmelsbach, executives at ABC weren’t initially pleased when they heard Nilsson’s songs, perhaps expecting more songs like his version of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking,” a huge radio hit after it was prominently featured in the Academy Award-winning Best Picture Midnight Cowboy.

Nilsson would have to take a break from production on May 7, 1970, in order to accept his Grammy award for Best Male Pop Vocals for “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which had climbed to #6 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and became his first Canadian #1 hit.

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“The Point!” would air for the first time on Sunday, February 2, 1971, although the network had originally hoped to have it on their schedule in time to air during Christmas 1970.

The animated feature would include a framing device showing a father telling his son the story of Oblio as a bedtime story, and when Wolf (the film’s director) told Nilsson that they need to cast somebody big as a narrator, Nilsson approached Dustin Hoffman, asking him if he’d narrate the story for “nothing” (Hoffman was subsequently paid $20,000, once ABC approved the increase in the budget, way below the typical million-dollar salary he was being offered for other projects at the time).

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Unfortunately, Hoffman only agreed to do the narration for the broadcast, and so actor Alan Barzman was brought in to narrate the second ABC telecast. Actor Alan Thicke was ultimately brought aboard to narrate the third telecast version (airing on cable TV in the 80s) , and Nilsson’s good friend Ringo Starr provided the narration on the subsequent VHS and DVD releases.

Mike Lookinland — Bobby Brady on TV’s “The Brady Bunch” — was the voice of Oblio, and Paul Frees, who became known as “The Man of a Thousand Voices,” provides several of them here.

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During the rest of the 1970s, Wolf and partner Jimmy Murakami of Murakami-Wolf Productions would produce memorable Emmy-award winning work on TV specials, feature films (including Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels), and popular TV commercials, like this classic ad for Tootsie Pops.

Nilsson’s album, meanwhile, would be released by RCA a month prior to the ABC airing, in January 1971. Nilsson would handle all of the self-written narration and all of the character voices himself.

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An 8-panel comic storyboard, illustrated by Gary Lund, was included with the vinyl record when it was first released. The album’s artwork — with needlepoint on the cover by Kathy Torrence — would also feature Nipper, the RCA mascot, with a pointed head.

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Nilsson’s The Point! would spent 32 weeks on the Hot 100 charts, climbing as high as #24, while “Me and My Arrow” would sail into the Top Forty.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • http://sobieniak.blogspot.com/ Chris Sobieniak

    It’s interesting how many different ‘dads’ there were in “The Point”, I suppose I don’t recall Hoffman, Barzzman or Thicke’s performance myself, but Ringo certainly gave it an odd quality that perhaps lend itself well to the music and design of the film itself (if not, evoking the fondness for Yellow Submarine I also saw as a kid). It’s like a British ex-pat telling his American-raised child a tale while there’s still that disconnection between each other simply due to cultural differences.

    I noticed the screenplay writer Norm Lenzer would go on to write another film that Fred Wolf had to direct in the 80’s called “The Adventures of the American Rabbit”, one look at that and you’ll know quickly why the 1970’s was a big time for Murakami-Wolf Productions as a studio. They used to had that house style in each of these projects they worked on, including the Marlo Thomas special “Free To Be… You And Me” or the 1977 feature film “The Extraordinary Adventures of The Mouse and His Child”. That sort of simple, gritty, yet unique look soon vanished in the 80’s when it came to doing TV specials like Strawberry Shortcake and later TV shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Obviously now Fred had to run a business, there was less of that free-willing nature he once had on “The Box” from then on.

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    I grew up with the 80s telecast, so Alan Thicke is my Dad/narrator. It may just be that Alan Thicke was already my model Dad voice from Growing Pains, but I always found his to be the best interpretation and acting.

    I adore Ringo, but he’s not the world’s greatest actor. It crushes me that it’s impossible to buy a DVD or stream of Thicke’s version, and difficult to track one down at all.

    I heard Hoffman’s once on YouTube (I think it’s since been removed), and it was all right, but even he seemed like he just was reading a script for a children’s story, rather than embodying a father like Thicke.

    Anyway, just my two cents. I know I’m biased by nostalgia and my 80s childhood. In any case, there’s no accounting for tastes.

  • http://sobieniak.blogspot.com/ Chris Sobieniak

    We have our tastes, certainly.