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Tangled history, fresh hopes for ‘Confederacy of Dunces’ adaptation

Will Ferrell was considered for the role of Ignatius J. Reilly.Lisa Maree Williams/getty images

Someone might want to keep an eye on Nick Offerman, who stars as Ignatius J. Reilly in the Huntington Theatre Company's stage adaptation of "A Confederacy of Dunces," John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Offerman is the latest in a long line of larger-than-life comic actors suggested to portray Ignatius, the slovenly cynic whose snobbery is even more off-putting than his distinct lack of hygiene. But there's a fairly incredible history of misfortune attached to the character.

Toole was 31 when he committed suicide in 1969, and it wasn't until after his mother finally got someone with influence — novelist Walker Percy — to read her son's lifework that it was finally published in 1980.


The book's difficulties in Hollywood, despite a succession of filmmakers eager to bring it to the big screen, have been truly uncanny. John Belushi was the first actor cast in the role, but his death by overdose in 1982 came just days before he was scheduled to meet with studio executives. Other comedians floated for the role also died prematurely, including John Candy and Chris Farley. At one point John Waters wanted to make a version starring the drag queen Divine, who died in 1988 at 42.

Thankfully, other actors who have been proposed for the role, among them Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and Zach Galifianakis, are all still with us. But the post-publication saga of "A Confederacy of Dunces" has been every bit as bleak as Ignatius's outlook on life.

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher adapted the novel for the new production, which starts previews Wednesday. He suspects the story's long ordeal in Hollywood has less to do with any kind of "curse" than with the thick tangle of film options and the book's episodic, discursive style, which doesn't lend itself easily to the kind of narrative necessary for a play or a movie.


Toole's darkly comic novel draws an outlandish portrait of an unforgettable character. "Reading it was obviously daunting," Hatcher says. "But some things do pop in a theatrical manner. You have to do some digging to find the play in there."

Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh has long been involved in attempts to film the book, and in 2003, Soderbergh brought a cast including Ferrell, Alan Cumming, and Mos Def to the Nantucket Film Festival for a staged reading of a screenplay. That film, like all the others, has yet to be made. "I'm not prone to superstition," Soderbergh said a few years ago, "but that project has got bad mojo on it."

Apparently Soderbergh hasn't given up, though. The Huntington production is presented in cooperation with a team of developmental partners that includes Soderbergh, John Hardy, and Robert Guza. That team holds the Broadway rights, according to a Huntington spokesperson, and hope this production will have a future life on Broadway, though there are no current plans.

Meanwhile Offerman is "a fine choice" to play Ignatius, according to Cory MacLauchlin, author of a 2013 biography of Toole. The actor, who played the blustery Ron Swanson on TV's "Parks and Recreation," has the right look and bellowing voice, MacLauchlin says. But the role won't be easy.

"It would test any actor," he says. "Ignatius is a character we love to watch fail. How do you do that but still create investment from the audience? He could quickly turn into a clown, and if I was the director, that's the line you can't cross."


As for the elusive "Confederacy of Dunces" movie, it might be best to leave the last word to Ignatius, who would surely want it.

"I refuse to 'look up,' " he says. "Optimism nauseates me."

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.