Bill Hicks was one of the greatest comedians who ever lived, but he was a lot more than that. Hicks was a writer, musician, philosopher, and an all-knowing soothsayer whose work on and off the stage remains even more relevant now than it did when he died from pancreatic cancer at the young age of 32 in February 1994. Hicks was fearless in his approach to finding humor in the topics that most people found too serious to be taken lightly: drugs, abortion, organized religion, the government, and war. If you listened to his classic bit about the first Iraq War in the early 90’s (which Bill dubbed “the Persian Gulf Distraction”), you could swear he was talking about the recent Iraq War, right down to the name of the President… Bush.
Hicks never desired to become a television or movie star like many of his peers in the stand-up world, preferring to hone his material on the stages of comedy clubs around the world and write novels and screenplays that were never realized. Bill Hicks may be gone from this mortal realm but his legacy will endure for generations to come, and Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe is preparing to do his part.
Since 2008 Crowe has desired to make a feature film biography of the life and career of Bill Hicks his directorial debut. With his busy schedule that was easier said than done but now it looks like Crowe’s passion project is finally becoming a reality. In the early days of the project Crowe was also considering playing Hicks in addition to his directing duties even though at the time he was twelve years older than the comedian was when he died. I could see a younger Crowe in the prime of his career playing the part though, but those days are long passed.
The screenplay for the proposed feature was written by Mark Staufer, an old friend of Crowe’s whose treatment for the Hicks biopic was what first interested the actor. “Bill Hicks’ life is tragically short, but spectacularly interesting,” Staufer said, “The screenplay has gone through a number of drafts and we’ll go into production early next year.”
Bill Hicks’ story is one that deserves to be told and I applaud Crowe and Staufer and wish them the best of luck on this film. No other names have been attached to the project as of yet, nor have any interested potential financiers stepped forward. I can’t imagine this being made at one of the major Hollywood studios. Hicks wasn’t even a fraction as popular in his home country as he was in nations like the United Kingdom and Australia, which makes the involvement of Aussies Crowe and Staufer very appropriate. In those countries Hicks was a veritable superstar, but in the U.S. he was often a pariah, constantly being censored by television networks due to his controversial material.
On October 1, 1993 Bill made what would have been his final TV appearance when he guested on Late Show with David Letterman, but his jokes about fanatical Christians and abortion led the show’s producers to completely edit his set from the show. Later it was revealed that the decision came down from Letterman himself, long a fan and supporter of Hicks. The veteran host made amends for his mistake on January 30, 2009 when he invited Bill’s mother Mary on the show to be a guest and aired Bill’s unedited final appearance for the first time.
There are several excellent biographies of Hicks in print – Agent of Evolution, co-written by his longtime friend Kevin Booth, and American Scream by Cynthia True – that would make great source material for the movie. Plus anyone looking to get into the work of Hicks should check out the fine 2010 documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story. It’s a great primer on the man that would make a good jumping off point for Crowe and Staufer’s film.
In the meantime here is a small sampling of Hicks’ finest moments in comedy.