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“Timothy Leary’s Dead”: A controversial post-mortem doc about the man Nixon called “the most dangerous man alive”
The 1997 film Timothy Leary’s Dead is one of a spate of documentaries released after Leary’s death at age 75 from cancer, on May 31, 1996, and it is also one of the most controversial. Directed by Paul Davids, the film is infamous for its shocking scene of the removal and cryogenical freezing of Leary’s head, something sources close to Leary insist never actually happened. Watch the film now on Night Flight Plus.
Directing from a screenplay written by Davids with Todd Eastan Mills, the director tells the story of Leary’s death by telling us first about his life story, in chapters arranged mostly chronologically, intercutting Leary’s old interviews with more recent conversations with Leary in the 1990s, and also showing us interviews with a variety of interesting people, including Baba Ram Dass, who, as Dr. Richard Alpert, was Leary’s LSD-friendly colleague at Harvard; with Dr. Ralph Metzner; with Summer of Love historian Allen Cohen and with writer Claire Burch, along with a couple of respectful ex-wives and an adoring stepson.
Leary is really the centerstage attraction here, though, depicted as “the Harvard professor who became the outlaw acid king,” at one point even boasting I’ve taken LSD over 500 times — I probably pushed my nervous system as much as any person living” and insisting that “the best, most direct and most natural way to find God is through chemicals and mind-altering drugs.”
More than twenty years after his death, Timothy Leary — author, psychologist, teacher, guru and the man Richard Nixon once called “the most dangerous man alive” — continues to be depicted as both a charlatan and a visionary, but there’s no doubt that during his life, particularly in the late sixties and early seventies, had a huge impact on the counterculture and beyond. We see him here during four key decades in his life: the experimental 1960s, the hippie 70s, his thoughtful 80s and the futuristic 90s.
“It was my ambition to liberate the world,” Leary says at the very beginning of the film, and from that point onwards much of the film is an analysis of what impact LSD had on his generation, with many of his followers adhering to his 1960s-era mantra to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
In his 1964 book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead — written by Leary with two of his colleagues interviewed in the documentary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner — instructed its readers how to prepare for and take LSD and other such drugs.
The title of the film is actually part of the lyrics to a song by the the progressive British rock band The Moody Blues, called “Legend of a Mind,” released in July 1968 on their album In Search of the Lost Chord:
Timothy Leary’s dead
No, no, no, no, he’s outside looking in
Timothy Leary’s dead
No, no, no, no, he’s outside looking in
He’ll fly his astral plane,
Takes you trips around the bay,
Brings you back the same day,
Timothy Leary’s dead.
The metaphysically-themed track — which features the sitar and tambura and a long, beautiful flute interlude in the middle of the nearly seven minute song — describes Leary as the person who dispenses thrills on “trips around the bay,” was once described in a 1996 interview by Moody Blues keyboardist Mike Pinder, who arranged the song, as using Leary “… as an out-of-body experience and looking back at life at a normal level.”
Pinder, in that 1996 interview, says that “Those who didn’t get the message behind the song were on the other outside looking in.”
In 1995, Dr. Timothy Leary was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, which he did not reveal to the press until after the death of Jerry Garcia in August of ’95.
From that point forward, in typically provocative fashion, Leary faced the inevitable conclusion of his life on planet Earth with a combination of philosophical calm, an abiding faith in technology, and an irreverent sense of humor.
During his final months, when he felt like it, he spent some of his time writing about space exploration and the process of death. Leary outlined the idea he had for a book called Design for Dying, in which he tried to give a new perspective on death and dying.
His close friends and followers updated his website/blog for him on a daily basis as his health deteriorated.
His friends also noted Leary’s continuing daily intake of various illicit and legal chemical substances: apparently he had a predilection for nitrous oxide, LSD and other psychedelic drugs (he also liked to snack on something he dubbed “Leary Biscuits,” which were crackers and cheese and a small marijuana bud, briefly microwaved).
Leary didn’t enjoy imbibing in every drug, however, and regularly voiced his strong views against the use of drugs which he said “dull the mind,” such as heroin, morphine and (more than occasional) alcohol.
Until his last weeks, he gave many interviews discussing his new philosophy of embracing death, and at one point told members of the press that he intended to have his head surgically removed from his body, and cryogenically frozen, to be reanimated by science and technology had become suitably advanced enough that it be reattached to another human body in order to continue his life journey (only, he insisted on the condition that it not “be brought back during a Republican administration.”)
Leary eventually decided against this plan, however, and chose instead to have himself cremated and some of his ashes sent into space in a capsule, what his website readily pointed out would be his “Final Trip.” Leary’s famous last words were “Why not?”
Seven grams of Leary’s ashes were arranged by his friend at Celestis, Inc. to be carried aboard a Pegasus rocket which was launched on April 21, 1997.
In addition to Leary’s ashes, the rocket was also carrying the remains of twenty-three other space travelers of sorts, including Gene Roddenberry (the creator of TV’s Star Trek), space physicist Gerard O’Neill), and rocket scientist Krafft Ehricke. The rocket remained in orbit for six years until it burned up in the atmosphere.
For this documentary, however, producer-director Paul Davids and his crew decided to go ahead and show a “simulation” of Leary’s head being removed from his body in order to be frozen, a grisly 30-second scene which alarmed those who saw this staged scene as an attempt to distort the actual truth about what happened.
“I’ve never said that my ending is real; I never made that claim,” Davids said of the post-mortem scene in his film at the time. “I’ve never denied that it might be, because I love confusion. It’s like an Escher ink drawing where you can see it both ways.”
Leary — who loved playing mind games and tricks, and was a master of self-promotion — probably would have loved the controversy the surrounded this film.