Colin Higgins

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Colin Higgins
Born(1941-07-28)28 July 1941
Died5 August 1988(1988-08-05) (aged 47)
EducationStanford University
OccupationDirector, producer, actor, screenwriter
Years active1971–1987

Colin Higgins (28 July 1941 – 5 August 1988) was an Australian-American screenwriter, actor, director, and producer. He was best known for writing the screenplay for the 1971 film Harold and Maude,[1] and for directing the films Foul Play (1978) and 9 to 5 (1980).[2]

Life and career[edit]

Early life[edit]

Higgins was born in Nouméa, New Caledonia, France, to an Australian mother, Joy (Kelly), and American father, John Edward Higgins,[3] one of six sons. Higgins' father enlisted in the army following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and his mother returned to her home in Sydney with Colin and his elder brother. Apart from a brief stint in San Francisco in 1945, Higgins lived in Sydney until 1957, mostly in the suburb of Hunters Hill, attending school at Saint Ignatius' College, Riverview.

After moving to Redwood City, California, Higgins attended Stanford University for a year, but then lost his scholarship because he became "obsessed" with theatre.[4] He moved to New York and hung around the Actors Studio but could not find work, so he became a page at the ABC television studios. He lost hope at becoming an actor and enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he was sent to Germany and worked for Stars and Stripes newspaper.

Higgins was discharged in 1965, spent six months in Europe, mostly in Paris, then returned to Stanford University to study a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing. Higgins later said, "after I had traveled and worked for a while I was anxious to study for the sake of studying. I took courses for what they were, not so that I could sleep in."[5]

While at college Higgins supported himself as an actor, playing in small theatre productions, including acting in a sex farce called Once Over Nightly for a year and a half. He wrote a play Once Around the Quad which was performed at Stanford after he left.[5]


After Higgins graduated from Stanford he got a job as an able-bodied seaman "because I wanted to see the Orient. It didn't take me long to realize that the days of Conrad and Eugene O'Neill were over. There was no work and too many people to do it."[5]

He visited Expo 67 in Montreal and was inspired by the film exhibits there and decided to learn about film. He began working on a Master of Fine Arts in screenwriting at UCLA, where his classmates included Paul Schrader. While there he made two short films, Opus One (1968), a satire on student films,[6] and Retreat, an anti-war statement. His M.F.A. thesis would serve as the basis for Harold and Maude (1971).[7][8]

Harold and Maude[edit]

After graduating he went to work for a wealthy family in Los Angeles as a part-time chauffeur and pool cleaner in exchange for free accommodation, where he met film producer Ed Lewis. Higgins showed a draft of Harold and Maude to Lewis, who then showed it to Robert Evans at Paramount. Higgins wanted to direct the script himself and was allowed to shoot a director's test for $7,000 but Paramount was not sufficiently impressed, and Hal Ashby was hired. Higgins collaborated well with Ashby and both were pleased with the final film, but it was not a large box-office success on original release.

Higgins got an offer to write a Movie of the Week for TV, The Devil's Daughter (1972), which he later described as "just a job".[9] He also wrote a TV movie, The Distributor, which was not made, and a feature film script, Killing Lydia, which would later become the basis for his 1978 film Foul Play.[10] He then received an offer from Jean-Louis Barrault in Paris to turn Harold and Maude into a play for French actor Madeleine Renaud. Higgins did so, working on the French translation with Jean-Claude Carrière, and the play ran for seven years. The film of Harold and Maude continued to run in cinemas around the world, where by 1983 it was in profit. (The same year it was estimated Higgins had earned $1 million from his script and productions of the play.)[11]

While in Paris, Higgins met theatre director Peter Brook and worked with him as playwright-in-residence for his company. They did a play about mountain people in Uganda called The Ik which ran in Paris, London and New York.[12] The producers of The Devil's Daughter hired Higgins to write a Hitchcock-style thriller. This became Silver Streak (1976), which was a hit under the direction of Arthur Hiller.[13] Higgins later said if he had directed it he would have been "a bit less faithful to the writer; I would have slashed away."[14]


The success of Silver Streak enabled Higgins to revive his earlier script, Foul Play (1978), and direct the film himself. It was enormously popular at the box office and launched his directing career.[15]

He was writing a comedy-thriller, The Man Who Lost Tuesday when he received an offer to re-write and direct 9 to 5 (1980).[5] It was a big hit, as was the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), which Higgins directed.

He was meant to follow it with The Man Who Lost Tuesday but Paramount felt the budget was too high and passed.[16]

In 1985, he was working on a project with playwright Jonathan Reynolds.[17] In 1986, he was reportedly writing a script, Washington Girls, as a vehicle to reunite Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton.

His last credit was a TV movie, Out on a Limb (1987), which he co-wrote and co-produced.

Legacy and Death[edit]

Higgins, who was openly gay,[18] died of an AIDS-related illness at his home on August 5, 1988 at the age of 47.[19] The Colin Higgins Foundation was established in 1986 to provide support for gay and transgender youth. It was established by Higgins following his diagnosis with HIV in 1985.[20] His writing is said to have inspired filmmakers like Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Wes Anderson and Paul Feig.

His brother is Australian actor John Higgins.[21]



Year Title Director Writer Producer
1971 Harold and Maude No Yes Yes
1973 The Devil's Daughter No Yes No
1976 Silver Streak No Yes No
1978 Foul Play Yes Yes No
1980 9 to 5 Yes Yes No
1982 The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas Yes Yes No
1987 Out on a Limb (TV) No Yes Yes


Year Title Role Information
1985 Into the Night actor in hostage film Cameo

Unmade screenplays[edit]

  • The Man Who Lost Tuesday – a comedy thriller set in Paris[22]
  • First Lady – a satire on politics to star Lily Tomlin[22]


  • Harold and Maude (1972)
  • The Ik (1975)


  1. ^ Lyall, Sarah (7 August 1988). "Colin Higgins, Film Director, 47, Creator of 'Harold and Maude'". The New York Times.
  2. ^ "Colin Higgins; Creator of 'Harold and Maude' Film". Los Angeles Times. 6 August 1988. p. 28.
  3. ^ "Colin Higgins".
  4. ^ David Stratton, 'Colin Higgins', Cinema Papers, December 1982 p 533
  5. ^ a b c d "Colin Higgins Discusses His Career". Stanford Daily. 2 February 1979.
  6. ^ Thomas (2 May 1968). "UCLA Screens Student Films". Kevin. Los Angeles Times. p. e10.
  7. ^ "Colin Higgins".
  8. ^ Noah, James (8 September 1985). "A Dash of Continental Charm". Los Angeles Times. p. 18.
  9. ^ "David Stratton, 'Colin Higgins', Cinema Papers, December 1982 p 534".
  10. ^ "Harold and Maude" Shedlin, Michael. Film Quarterly (ARCHIVE); Berkeley Vol. 26, Iss. 1, (Fall 1972): 51-53,1.
  11. ^ Aljean Harmetz (8 August 1983). "After 12 Years, a Profit For 'Harold and Maude'". The New York Times. p. C14.
  12. ^ MEL GUSSOW (18 October 1976). "Ik,' a Dramatization of 'Mountain People,' Portrays Tribe Lacking Human Emotions". The New York Times. p. 35.
  13. ^ Kilday, Gregg (20 April 1977). "The Producers: A Varied Bunch". Los Angeles Times. p. e8.
  14. ^ David Stratton, 'Colin Higgins', Cinema Papers, December 1982 p 535
  15. ^ Goldstein, Patrick. (24 January 1981). "Higgins: Writer-Director On Hot Streak". Los Angeles Times. p. b15.
  16. ^ "How Paramount 'Seven' Fared at the Box Office". The New York Times. 23 May 1983. p. C13.
  17. ^ Christon, Lawrence (28 March 1985). "Playwright Reynolds: Wasp With Subtle Sting". Los Angeles Times. p. i1.
  18. ^ The Alyson almanac: a treasury of information for the gay and lesbian community. Alyson Publications. 1990. p. 123. ISBN 978-1-55583-019-9.
  19. ^ Lyall, Sarah (5 August 1988). "Colin Higgins, 47, Director and Writer of Hollywood Films". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 April 2009.
  20. ^ "ABOUT « Colin Higgins Foundation". Retrieved 3 May 2016.
  21. ^ "Obituary of John Higgins". Hollywood Reporter.
  22. ^ a b Kilday, Gregg. (13 August 1977). "FILM CLIPS: Hawn on Deck for 'Foul Play'". Los Angeles Times. p. b6.

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