Born in 1929 in Chile to Russian-Jewish immigrants who owned a dry-goods store, Alejandro Jodorowsky seems an unlikely candidate to become one of the godfathers of the American midnight-movie scene. But essentially every turn in his career has been unlikely, a career that has found Jodorowsky taking on the roles of director, screenwriter, author, actor, cartoonist, editor, artist, composer, mime, guru, mystic, and tireless self-promoter. A famed raconteur, it's occasionally difficult to sort the facts of Jodorowsky's early life from the myth. Entering the theater at an early age, Jodorowsky eventually enrolled at the University of Santiago, where he developed an interest in puppetry and mime. After creating a theater company that, at its height, employed 60 people, Jodorowsky departed for Paris, breaking with his parents and, according to Jodorowsky, throwing his address book in the sea.
Once in Paris he began a lengthy collaboration with Marcel Marceau, collaborating on some of his most famous mimeograms. He also worked both in mainstream theater (directing Maurice Chevalier's comeback) and offbeat productions. For the next few years, Jodorowsky would alternate between working in Mexico City and in Paris, developing his interest in the avant-garde and staging the playwrights who would be major influences on his film career, including Samuel Beckett, Ionesco, and August Strindberg, and the surrealists. Of special importance would be Theater of Cruelty champion Antonin Artaud and Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal, with whom he launched the Panic Movement (from the god Pan) in conjunction with artist Roland Topor. By the mid-'60s, the Panic Movement began yielding full-fledged "ephemeras" or "happenings," theatrical events designed to be shocking. One four-hour ephemera starred a leather-clad Jodorowsky and featured the slaughter of geese, naked women covered in honey, a crucified chicken, the staged murder of a rabbi, a giant vagina, the throwing of live turtles into the audience, and canned apricots. This privileging of the provocative above all other qualities would prove to be a sign of things to come in Jodorowsky's early film career.