Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)


Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy, cheeky petty criminal undergoing psychiatric evaluation

Oregon State Hospital, Fall 1963

Film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Release Date: November 19, 1975
Director: Miloš Forman
Costume Designer: Aggie Guerard Rodgers

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!


Today is Jack Nicholson’s 85th birthday, a worthy occasion for recalling one of his most iconic roles: the irreverent and incorrigible Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Consistent with the increasingly cynical and gritty cinema of the 1970s, “Mac” more closely resembles the archetypal anti-hero than the traditional sympathetic protagonist. He is, after all, a self-admitted criminal with a history of belligerence and a recent charge of statutory rape, which landed him in his current situation. “As near as I can figure out, it’s because I fight and fuck too much,” McMurphy offers as the rationale for his being sent for a psychiatric evaluation.

Adapted from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest retains its setting in the early ’60s, beginning in October 1963 just before the JFK assassination often cited as a defining moment in modern America’s proverbial loss of innocence, followed by a dozen difficult years of political assassinations and civil injustice, massive deaths during the Vietnam war, and the disillusionment of the Watergate scandal. As David Shuck wrote for Heddels, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest bookends the American countercultural revolution.”

Production ended in April 1975—the same month that Nicholson turned 38, matching McMurphy’s stated age—just as the government was pulling the final U.S. troops out of Vietnam and just months away the Helsinki Accords that marked a shift toward détente as a prevailing Cold War philosophy. In this age where Americans were growing increasingly disillusioned and distrustful of its government, who better to emerge as a cinematic hero than a rebellious maverick like R.P. McMurphy?

Indeed, Mac urges his fellow inmates to “be good Americans” by defying authority—not even to commit a criminal act—just to watch the World Series. But even the fabled “great American pastime” is arbitrarily ruled against by the establishment, as embodied by the despotic head nurse, Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher, who also received a deserved Academy Award for her performance.) It was this dynamic that had most appealed to director Miloš Forman, who envisioned the story as an allegory for the oppressive rule that the Czechoslovakian-born director endured under rule of the Nazis and the Soviets until he left the country following the violent 1968 invasion.

“I bet in one week, I can put a bug so far up her ass, she won’t know whether to shit or wind her wristwatch,” McMurphy challenges himself of Ratched, though he’s incredulous upon learning that most of his fellow patients are voluntary rather than actually committed to the facility: “Geez, I mean you guys do nothing but complain about how you can’t stand it in this place here, and then you haven’t got the guts to walk out?”

Apropos the classic maxim, McMurphy literally teaches each man to fish as he works to encourage them to assert their sense of independence—drawing upon his own everyman interests of sports, fishing, and beer—all the while increasingly drawing the ire of Nurse Ratched and the hospital leadership who resent and grow fearful of his “dangerous” influence on their patients.

What’d He Wear?

Randle P. McMurphy spends his two months in the Oregon State Hospital dressed in variations of his streetwear, which he’d worn upon his arrival. The outfit establishes our baseball-loving protagonist as the quintessential American blue-collar everyman, clad in a hardy kit that pulls from military heritage pieces and classic workwear.

In his source novel, Ken Kesey described a similar outfit of a leather jacket worn with “work-farm pants and shirt, sunned out till they’re the color of watered milk” but differing slightly with a black brimmed motorcycle cap, heavy gray iron-heeled boots, and—less celebrated on screen—a pair of coal black satin undershorts “covered with big white whales with red eyes” that he obtained “from a co-ed at Oregon State… a Literary major.”

The Knit Cap

Breaking down Jack Nicholson’s screen-worn outfit from head to toe, McMurphy tops his dome with a dark navy blue ribbed knit cap, a cuffed style alternately known as a “beanie” or “watch cap”, the latter a more martial designation referencing its use among soldiers and sailors standing watch in colder environments. Shorter versions that more closely fit the wearer’s head shape—as sported by McMurphy—are also known as “skull caps”, for anatomically obvious reasons.

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Mac’s navy ribbed beanie has become associated with Nicholson’s performance due to extensive prominence on the movie’s promotional posters and artwork.

The Leather Jacket

Since their increased popularity at the beginning of the 20th century, leather jackets had long been associated with toughness and rebellion, whether sported by the maverick aviators who dared to test gravity in their barnstormer planes or military bombers or by gangs of motorcyclists represented by Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

McMurphy’s leather jacket gets little extra by way of description in the book, but the screen-worn garment appears to be a civilian variation of the classic A-2 flight jacket authorized for the U.S. Army Air Forces through the 1930s into World War II. (The literary McMurphy is said to be a Korean War veteran, though I don’t believe this is explicitly mentioned in the movie adaptation.)

Made of a well-worn brown leather, the jacket has a large shirt-style collar that hangs free, lacking the hidden snaps of the A-2, as well as narrow shoulders bereft of the looped shoulder straps (epaulettes) on the military version, though McMurphy’s jacket does have leather strips sewn down to reinforce each shoulder. The rest follows much of the A-2 pattern, with a short extended fly running the length of the front zip from hem to neck, where there’s an additional snap to close the top. The low-slung patch pockets are mitred on the bottom corners and covered with single-snap flaps. The waist hem and cuffs are finished in a dark brown narrowly ribbed knit wool that shows much fraying, no doubt the result of considerable wear and hungry moths.

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Flanked by white-clad orderlies, the leather-jacketed McMurphy is led into the hospital and introduced to his new acquaintances.

The “action back” gives McMurphy a greater range of arm motion, whether he’s playing basketball or scaling fences on the basketball court. This “bi-swing” system consists of long pleats behind each arm, running down from the shoulder seams to the half-belt that extends across the entire back waist. A departure from traditional A-2 styling, this pleated, half-belted back is more consistent with the back of the fur-collared M-422A and AN-J-3 flight jackets authorized for Army and Navy pilots during World War II.

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

McMurphy enlists some help from Chief (Will Sampson), who supplements his own hospital garb with a distressed khaki M1941 field jacket.

  • Cockpit USA Vintage Roughneck Oil Driller Jacket Z21F008 in brown goatskin (Cockpit USA)
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The Chambray Work Shirt

Dating back to plain-woven “cambric” linen developed in 16th century France, the dense yet light-wearing chambray cloth has earned its centuries-long reputation as a durable and comfortable fabric for workwear as immortalized by the shirts authorized as part of a U.S. Navy working uniform in the early 20th century that established blue warp and white weft as the quintessential chambray shirt look.

McMurphy regularly wears a chambray shirt constructed with a vivid warp that presents an overall sky-blue finish. The layout echoes the classic naval work shirt pattern, with a point collar invariably worn open at the neck, a narrow placket, two button-through chest pockets, and long sleeves that fasten through a single button on each cuff. In both its military and civilian configurations, blue chambray shirts are typically detailed either with blue or white buttons; McMurphy’s shirt has been detailed with the latter, echoing the white contrast threading on the seams, edges, and buttonholes.

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

McMurphy’s charms are lost on the nursing staff, particularly when he refuses to take the medication they’re issuing him.

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The Olive T-Shirt

McMurphy’s base layer is a simple olive-colored cotton crew-neck short-sleeved T-shirt. Like much of the rest of his wardrobe, the shirt may not have any specific military heritage but its earthy color suggests the Army’s standardized shades of olive green.

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

McMurphy compensates for the T-shirt’s lack of a pocket by rolling his Marlboros into his right sleeve.

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  • Runabout Simple Tee in moss cotton (Runabout Goods)

The Jeans

Blue jeans transformed from the domain of cowboys and laborers into a symbol of sartorial defiance around the time James Dean first hung his thumb into the pockets of Lee Riders on the set of Rebel Without a Cause.

McMurphy struts the grounds of the Oregon State Hospital in his Levi’s 501 Original Fit button-fly jeans, constructed from a medium-dark indigo stonewash denim. 501s had followed a long journey to catch up with Mac by the early ’60s, having evolved from the cinch-backed “riveted waist overalls” of the turn-of-the-century to their modernized postwar configuration of belt loops and five pockets that set the standard countless denim manufacturers have followed since. Little by little, Levi’s 501s took their current form with the gradual replacement of the rear cinch and suspender buttons with belt loops, the addition of a second back pocket, and the signature red tab sewn along the edge of the right-back pocket beginning in 1936.

(BFI had identified McMurphy’s specific 501s as the boxier, loose-fitting 1955 cut, but I suspect these may just be the darker indigo-dyed pair worn here by Nicholson’s stuntman—Alan Gibbs, perhaps?—as he leaps the barbed-wire fence to bus his fellow patients to a fishing expedition.)

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Chief gives Mac a lift over the fence, flashing the signature Levi’s leather back patch, branded red tab, and arcuate back-pocket stitching on Mac’s 501 jeans.

  • Levi's 501 Original Fit jeans in dark stonewash denim (Levi's)
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Boots and Socks

Given the mental health aspects of his evaluation, it makes sense that Mac wouldn’t be wearing a belt—though that may have also been a personal style choice—though his boot laces might have created a problem.

McMurphy wears Red Wing work boots, crafted on the company’s No. 23 last with full-grain leather uppers tanned to a shade of cognac-brown that Red Wing now calls “oro-legacy”. “The commanding style was originally built as a hunting boot when it debuted in 1952, and its comfort and toughness quickly made it a favorite at job sites,” the company explains of the style still produced at their Red Wing, Minnesota plant 70 years after it was introduced as the Irish Setter model, inspired by the russet-leathered uppers that resemble the trusty gundogs of the same name. In the decades since, Red Wing has reintroduced this much-imitated style as the model 877.

The uppers are constructed with a moc-toe box—so named for its resemblance to moccasins—with ten sets of eyelets, derby-laced with tan-and-gold woven Taslan laces up the 8″ shaft that extends to mid-calf, with a pull tab looped on the back that further differentiates these taller boots from the shorter Red Wing 875 molded on the same last. These boots are constructed on the trusted Goodyear welt process, with Red Wing’s signature zig-zagged “Traction Trad” off-white rubber outsoles.

“A template for work boots, this 1930s style also built on a kind of Americana – a blue-collar chic, arguably originating with Levi’s 501 jeans, that appreciated the authenticity and hard-wearing qualities of products build for a purpose: for mining, chopping wood, stoking a steam engine, driving big trucks,” wrote Josh Sims of Red Wing work boots in Icons of Men’s Style, suggesting their appeal to a guy like Randle P. McMurphy.

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Mac’s Red Wing boots would be a more protective footwear than Taber’s ragged slippers when faced with such calamities as a lit cigarette smoldering from one’s trouser cuff.

The high shafts of his boots that rise under the bottoms of his jeans and scrubs tend to cover McMurphy’s socks, though his hosiery get some screen-time during the unfortunate context of Mac’s first electroshock therapy treatment as the orderlies pull off his Red Wings to reveal gray ribbed woolen boot socks with a pair of scarlet red banded stripes around the top, differing from the plain white crew socks that nurse Pilbow (Mimi Sarkisian) had inventoried among Mac’s belongings during his intake.

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

“There, uh, might be a little fluid in them boots, you know what I mean, boys?”

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Everything Else

Though Mac refuses to conform, he does occasionally dress in the simple off-white cotton scrubs he’s been issued by the hospital, but always layered over one or both of his personal shirts.

Named for their medical associations of doctors and nurses “scrubbing in” before an operation, scrubs were popularized around the 1940s and were initially a sterilized white in color. Inexpensive to produce and simple to wear, these shapeless garments would have also been ideal for the Oregon State Hospital to issue to their roster of psychiatric patients, especially as some may have struggled with more complex clothing.

The two-piece sets have a pullover V-neck short-sleeved top with a left breast pocket stenciled “Markness Community Hospital & Medical Center” in black; an outline over the right-breast suggests another pocket on the inside that would present similarly, should the top be worn reversed. The simple flat front pants have an elastic waistband that appears to be fastened with a white drawstring, with a left-side pocket and the bottoms self-cuffed.

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Even McMurphy looks bored as Charlie Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) kicks off The Great Cigarette Rebellion of 1963.

A brief scene on the basketball court offers the closest thing to the whale-illustrated black satin shorts Chief described in the novel. Mac dresses for the game by pulling over his jeans a pair of elastic-waisted olive-green satin polyester shorts, illustrated on the seat with two black animals—perhaps meant to be whales, as suggested by the sea-foam waves—evidently kissing, their lips locking directly over Mac’s fourth point of contact, cascading a series of pink hearts following a northern trail up his gluteal cleft. The sides are striped in white, with our hero’s initials “RPM” arranged diagonally over the left thigh.

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

An athletic respite.

A production still suggests that scenes may have been filed featuring McMurphy wearing these shorts as underwear, with only his woolen beanie and leather jacket, though this hadn’t made it to the production.

Other style highlights among McMurphy’s fellow patients include Chief’s distressed khaki M1941 field jacket and Converse sneakers, Harding’s plaid loafer jacket, Taber’s olive Army mechanic’s sweater, and Frederickson’s Levi’s Type I trucker jacket.

All prices and availability mentioned above are current as of April 22, 2022.

What to Imbibe

Randle P. McMurphy commemorates what he hopes would be his final night at the hospital with a pre-Christmas party full of holiday spirit—er, spirits—smuggled in by his girlfriend Candy (Marya Small) and her floozy friend Rose (Louisa Moritz), who manage to bring in Jim Beam bourbon, J&B blended Scotch whisky, Smirnoff vodka, Bacardi rum, and Olympia beer, adding up to an ultimately tastier variety than the novel’s described combination of vodka, port wine, and cough syrup, which Chief likens to “a taste like a kid’s drink but a punch like the cactus apple wine we used to get in The Dalles, cold and soothing on the throat and hot and furious once it got down.”

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The gregarious night guard Turkle (Scatman Crothers) dooms himself by allowing his neglect to be purchased by a few drinks and minutes with Rose, though it would hardly be Scatman’s most disastrous interaction with Jack.

Of this variety, Mac seems to partake the most from pulling shots of the golden Bacardi straight from the bottle, though this indulgence—combined with the fateful decision to provide the shy Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) an uninterrupted tryst with Candy—proves to be his undoing.

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

How to Get the Look

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Randle P. McMurphy visually establishes himself as a scrappy, hardy everyman in his durable blend of military heritage pieces and classic workwear, built on the sturdy foundation of a chambray work shirt, olive T-shirt, jeans, and Red Wing boots and further anchored by a broken-in leather flight jacket and woolen watch cap.

  • Brown leather zip-up flight jacket with shirt-style collar, patch pockets (with snap-down flaps), ribbed-knit cuffs and hem, and half-belted “action back” with side pleats
  • Sky-blue chambray cotton long-sleeve work shirt with point collar, narrow placket, two button-through chest pockets, and button cuffs
  • Olive-green cotton crew-neck short-sleeve T-shirt
  • Medium-dark indigo blue stonewash denim Levi’s 501 Original Fit button-fly jeans
  • Cognac-brown oiled leather Red Wing 877 moc-toe derby-laced 8″ work boots with off-white rubber outsoles
  • Gray ribbed wool boot socks with scarlet-red banded stripes
  • Navy ribbed wool cuffed “beanie” watch cap

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie and Ken Kesey’s source novel.

The Quote

But I tried, didn’t I? Goddamnit, at least I did that.

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