Synanon Goes Hollywood

Synanon Goes Hollywood

by Paul Morantz

(C) paul morantz May 2011

Hollywood became more addicted to the House. In August of 1962 Steve Allen hired the Synanon Combo to appear on his TV series Jazz Scene, USA. First into film production was Herb Rosen who in 1963 wrote a play, “Some Sort of Cage,” about an addict placed wrongfully in a mental institution for the criminally insane. It was based on Rosen’s own experience. Actors Peter Baldwin and William Akllyn with donations from studios and film labs turned it into a 35-minute film filled with Synanon’s rough language. The cast was made up of former addicts and filmed at the Santa Monica Synanon House. During the shooting the film makers played synanons with the Synanites to toss around ideas. In November of 1963 it was shown at the Brussels Film Festival as a United States entry. All proceeds went to Synanon.

But a bigger picture had been in the works since October of 1961, two-months before Charles Dederich went to jail. Fred Gadette and Henry Hope, Bob Hope’s nephew, following Steve Allen’s dream, signed a movie deal with Dederich, paying him $300, and assigned Barry Orringer to write the screenplay. Orringer moved in for six months to get a feel and later moved in on a permanent basis. Gadette became a regular at Synanon meetings, bringing other Hollywood friends to attend. Ralph Story joked on the air that maybe it should be a film about a Hollywood producer who set out to do a film on narcotic addiction and got “hooked” on a story of this “peculiar place and method of treatment.”

On June 25, 1962, Columbia Pictures and Richard Quine Productions (Jack Lemon was a partner) signed a deal taking over the exclusive film rights. The property was brought to Columbia by Artists and Production Associates. The studio offered Dederich $50,000 for the story and Dederich told the executives to pay it to Synanon. Quine had directed “The Notorious Landlady,” “Paris When it Sizzles”, “Sex and the Single Girl”, “Bell Book and Candle”, “The World of Suzie Wong” and “How to Murder Your Wife” and was about to do “Under the Yum Yum Tree.” S. Lee Pogostin was hired for a treatment and screenplay, the final draft written by first time screenwriter Ian Bernard.Orringer and Pogostin got story credit. It was assisted by Zev Putterman, an addicted movie director and producer who entered Synanon in 1962 at age 33, and filmed entirely in and around the armory.

Originally the producers wanted Jackie Gleason to play Chuck but the role eventually went to Edmund Obrien, who had won an Oscar for his performance in the “Barefoot Contessa,” while Eartha Kitt was chosen to be Betty Coleman. Richard Conte played Reid Kimball. And while initial efforts were made to get Sydney Poitier and Tuesday Weld, Synanon members were played by Alex Cord (his screen debut), Chuck Connors, Barbara Luna, Alejandro Rey and Stella Stevens.

Connors character wanted to stay in Synanon afraid otherwise he would revert to street life but is pulled out by his parole board because there are ex-felons in Synanon. Cord’s character, loved by Stevens, can’t be kept by Chuck, splits and OD’s. Connors’ last act before removed is to make sure Stevens stays. Dederich at the film’s end is seen going off to jail to do time for refusing to close Synanon down. During the filming, Kitt, who herself had run away three times during her New York childhood, became so inspired by the story she gave dancing classes at the Ward Sisters Studio on Melrose to the beat of bongos pounding out an African “bembe,” charging the public $3 an hour and donating all the money to Synanon. Quickly signing up for the classes were celebrities Ann Miller, Joi Lansing and Jayne Meadows.

For Dederich it was a further introduction to Hollywood’s elite. Not only did Tinsel Town visit Synanon but Dederich became a party invite. At a get together at director Quine’s home just before film shooting, attended by Dederich, Conte, Cord, Fred Astaire and Jack Lemon, Reid Kimball delighted them all by telling them he had crossed paths before with Edmund O’Brien. Kimball and some friends were doing a robbery when O’Brien pulled up innocently blocking the get away car. Kimball walked over and stuck a sawed-off shot gun in O’Brien’s face and yelled, “Get this car out of here now, motherfucker, before I blow your brains out.” O’Brien laid rubber in reverse. When O’Brien then arrived at Quine’s they all then watched Kimball say, “You know we met once before.” As Kimball then told the story slowly a second time O’Brien turned white. He also became appreciative of the man he would be portraying on film.

Columbia issued advertising lobby cards announcing the movie as “Synanon…where dope fiends fight their way back! Some make it! Some Don’t. This is the story of both kinds!” It put out a press kit for its promoters across the country for a special “Synanon sell.” It hit hard on Life Magazine calling Synanon a “Tunnel Back” and the Foundation’s work in prisons. The promotion plan included arranging civic and social discussion groups, contacting high school and college newspaper editors, hospitals, churches, encouraging civic groups–in front of the media–to award Columbia and Quine for promoting public awareness of Synanon and providing private showings of the movie for community leaders. Promoters were to locate drug addicts in their community and have them publicly speak about Synanon. “Hang Tough” was to be used as a slogan. Another stunt was to arrange radio and TV contests where participants were to write in 50-words-or-less a response to the question “What does Synanon mean to you?”

Columbia also produced a 5-minute 16 mm “Behind the Scenes at Synanon” narrated by Chuck Conners on the relationships between the dope fiends and the actors in making the movie and two 15 minute interviews with dope addicts on their way to Synanon to be played by radio stations. Sixty and twenty-second Trailers were made for television while displays and badges were distributed.

One of Columbia’s advertising copy men, Mike Kaiser, became so impressed he quit his job and moved into Synanon. During the filming a British actor while viewing a synanon at Synanon in 1964, observing people defend against indictments by pushing the attack on to someone else, called the group interaction the most adult “game” he had ever seen. Dederich like the sound of that and renamed synanons the “game.” Now he could say it wasn’t therapy, which a provider of must have a license, and the fact it improved people was simply an outgrowth of having a good time.


In 1965, the same year Cat Ballou,” “Harlow,” “High Wind in Jamaica,” “Mirage,” “Nobody Waved Goodbye,” “Ship of Fools,” and “The Yellow Rolls-Royce” were released, “Synanon” hit the theaters, much to the chagrin of Santa Monica, and earned Synanon $17,855 in film rights that year. More income came from the movie soundtrack album, “Synanon” released on Liberty Records, along with a 45 rpm carrying two of the movie’s themes. Columbia also donated to Synanon 107 custom shirts and 24 pairs of socks from its wardrobe department.

The Synanon Art Fair in Santa Monica that year raised another $12,000. The population reached 570.


Dederich was as famous as he dreamed. Ralph Story of CBS called it the “only institution to offer a permanent, workable solution to drug addiction in this country.” Another reporter wrote, “If you haven’t heard of Synanon by now your are not reading the newspapers or watching TV.” Dr. Elliot Markoff presented a favorable paper on Synanon at the 1965 American Psychiatric Association meeting in New York. A bronze bust of Dederich was placed in front of the Armory.

But internally, away from the public eye, the critics claimed a mind-set was emerging. Dederich had seen what adversity could do, how it bonded Synanon; how the club had grown from the Great Cop Out and the criminal trial. It was clear his time in jail had seeded Synanon’s success.

No one could see at the time that the experience could also be the seeds of destruction. Synanon had flourished from having enemies. Charlie Hamer put it into words. “While drugs are an enemy there’s a bigger enemy at our door trying to smash our right to live clean,” said Hamer. “The shits are trying to kill us but instead have given us an espirit de corps.” Chuck talked of the enemies often–the lunatic fringe– those who would destroy Synanon and return everyone to what they were. They had to be alert, bonded, on their toes, committed. “The Department of Corrections, the newspapers, the courts. the City Attorney, the Police,” Dederich listed, “all the supposedly nice-smelling people.”

One Department of Corrections official had refused to visit Synanon fearing he might be raped. The Department also frowned on the cruelty of the verbal haircuts. Years later when Judge Baida was murdered by his wife, Dederich bragged a merciful God had sent “buffoons” to be their enemies…and “somehow bad things always happened to them.”

So in the 60’s, building spirit and pride, Dederich, sent followers to the doors of drug peddlers in Santa Monica warning them to get out of town. When the police were informed Dederich admitted it and the police smiled and then looked the other way. In 1964, Synanon called the police to break up a wild teen-age party going on in one of its vacant buildings. But in the future calling the police would no longer be allowed.

Dederich kept discipline bringing forth rule offenders for a fireplace scene, later renamed a general meeting, to be blasted by a third degree given by Dederich in front of the house, the lesson caroming throughout. Members screamed at the offenders and Dederich would ask the members what should be done with each offender. Dishpans? A bald head? Toss him out? Reid Kimball mimicking his old crime days, would snicker, “We oughta break his legs.” The phrase caught on as a popular taunt. No one at the time took it seriously or thought one day, slightly over a decade later, long after Kimball had peacefully and nobly passed on, Hollywood’s star child would go past the money and the phrase would become a battle cry.