“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” is a new film by director Gus Van Sant, based on the 1989 autobiography of the same name, that recalls a life-changing car crash in 1972 that left cartoonist John Callahan partially paralyzed.
On July 22, 1972, Callahan went on a drunken trip through Los Angeles that took him to a marijuana-filled pool party, several bars, an amusement park, and lastly, a strip club. Despite being completely impaired, this night of action did not stop him from getting in a car with his equally drunk friend who decided to take the wheel.
Joaquin Phoenix plays the disabled alcoholic cartoonist John Callahan in Gus Van Sant’s cleverly volatile biopic “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” https://t.co/omEVYK7dJD— New York Times Arts (@nytimesarts) July 11, 2018
The trouble began when Callahan’s companion had mistaken a lamppost for an exit while driving at 90mph right into it. He walked away unscathed, miraculously, but Callahan was in a much more dire situation.
He was rushed to Long Beach Memorial Hospital where he was told by the doctor that because he severed his spinal cord, he would be paralyzed for life in all likelihood. However, the 21-year-old alcoholic who had been drinking since age 13 was actually saved, in a sense, by this accident.
“His lifestyle was so self-destructive that if he had not been paralyzed, he would have died [young] from something else,” Callahan’s brother, Tom, told the New York Post. He became unable to use his arms but still went on to draw distinctly jagged cartoons that were well-loved by many.
The film, which is set to open on Friday, stars Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan, while Jonah Hill plays the man who helped Callahan to sober up and get back on his feet.
Following the crash, it took several months of rehab for Callahan to recover, but once it was all sorted out, he moved back to Portland.
Joaquin Phoenix learned to draw to play John Callahan, but "it was all terrible," he says. "I never could get it to where it matched his work at all." https://t.co/temNfRGmLf— USA TODAY Life (@usatodaylife) July 11, 2018
There, he was under the supervision of government caretakers, who were often feeding his addiction by leaving alcohol near him at his disposal and providing candles for him to light cigarettes off of.
After hitting an all-time low in June of 1978, Callahan decided that it was time to join Alcoholics Anonymous to sort his life out. The AA leader there even inspired him to enroll at Portland State University and get a degree, but it was in 1981 that his cartoon career began.
In the fall of that year, he drew a cartoon to impress a girl by grasping the pen with both hands and using his upper body to facilitate movement. He used his talent on a small-scale at first with the University newspaper but went professional in 1983.
Often times his cartoons were controversial, but the editor of one of Portland’s newspapers, Mark Zusman for the Willamette Week, saw great potential in his work. It was from then on that Callahan would give readers a taste of his distinct dark humor for over 27 years.
Zusman, who is played by Van Sant in the film, was appreciative of Callahan’s ability to gather controversy.
“When I would tell John that I lost an advertiser over one of his cartoons, he’d smile. Part of me loved that.”
Going on to have his work featured in national newspapers across the country throughout the 90s, Callahan became known all over for his lack of political correctness and occasionally his brutal honesty.
In 2010, he quickly became ill with an incurable lung infection and only had a few months to live. When he visited the hospital for what was expected to be a routine checkup and heard this news, he told doctors that he wanted to die, so 20 hours later he essentially died on his own volition.
John Callahan Garden, built in his memory, was unveiled last October in the Portland Legacy Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon, where he was a patient during his recovery from alcoholism.