A drunken car crash left this artist partially paralyzed — and it may have saved his life

John Callahan, the darkly humorous cartoonist who is the subject of Gus Van Sant’s movie “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” which opens Friday, spent July 22, 1972, on an epic bender that changed his life. The jaunt through Los Angeles took him to a poolside pot party, a succession of bars in the company of an annoying drunk he met at the bash, an over-the-fence sneak-in to Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park and, finally, to a strip club, where Callahan was too drunk to focus on naked girls.

The equally inebriated companion insisted that he was better equipped to drive and got behind the wheel of Callahan’s Volkswagen. Callahan was asleep when the guy mistook a light pole for an exit and drove into it at 90 mph. The driver walked away with barely a scratch.

Callahan, meanwhile, was rushed to Long Beach Memorial Hospital. Just 21 years old and an alcoholic who downed his first drink at the age of 13, he had severed his spinal cord. The doctor told him he was paralyzed. “For how long?” Callahan asked. The doctor replied, “Probably for life.”

In a weird way, the accident proved to be profoundly positive for an underachieving man who had artistic talent but drank too much to capitalize on it. Callahan, born and bred in Oregon, made ends meet as a handyman and could not come to terms with being abandoned by his birth mother. (He was adopted by parents who thought they were infertile but went on to have five biological children.) The man seemed bound for an out-of-it life.

“We would say that the accident saved him,” Tom Callahan, John’s younger brother, told The Post.

“His lifestyle was so self-destructive that if he had not been paralyzed, he would have died [young] from something else.”

Despite being unable to move his arms, Callahan went on to draw provocative, jaggedly spiky cartoons. They were loved by editors and readers of alternative publications, as well as magazines such as Hustler, National Lampoon and Penthouse. Besides a 1989 autobiography, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” (on which the movie is based), 11 collections of his taboo-breaking cartoons were published. His work inspired two animated TV series.

The new biopic stars Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan. Jonah Hill co-stars as the man who helped get Callahan off of booze. Van Sant and his cast researched Callahan heavily — Phoenix got so into his role that he made Van Sant and Hill carry him in his wheelchair up to a second-story shooting location — and all came to love the cartoonist’s rebellious edge.

“The guy was out of his mind; he was just so cool,” Hill said at a screening in Manhattan. “He took great joy from being truly subversive.”

After months of rehab, Callahan moved back to Oregon, went through a string of facilities and finally settled in Portland, where he was minded by government-paid caretakers. Many of them were just as screwed up as Callahan. One would leave him alone with a pitcher of booze, containing a straw for easy sipping and a burning candle to light cigarettes off of. When desperate, Callahan opened bottles of liquor with his teeth, which wound up chipped as a result. He regularly downed a fifth per day.

“His lifestyle was so self-destructive that if he had not been paralyzed, he would have died [young] from something else.”

The cartoonist-to-be hit bottom in June 1978 at age 27. Home alone, recalled brother Tom, “he dropped his bottle of liquor and couldn’t pick it up. He went through all kinds of angry emotions over this, and I think it wore him down to the point where he was experiencing physical withdrawal. But he was so upset with his situation, with being taunted by a bottle, that he knew something was horribly wrong.”

Callahan stopped drinking that day and went on to join Alcoholics Anonymous. An offbeat, charismatic AA leader inspired Callahan to stay straight and applauded his having enrolled at Portland State University, where he majored in English and would earn a BA. In the fall of 1981, for the oldest reason in the world — to make a girl smile — Callahan scribbled a cartoon.

“It wasn’t much of a gag,” he wrote in his autobiography. “A beggar with dark glasses and a white cane and the sign ‘Glasses Too Dark to See Through.’ ”

The modest cartoon — created by holding a pen with both hands and using his upper body to negotiate the actual drawing — led to a snap revelation: Cartooning would be his calling. Callahan hooked up with the Vanguard, the university’s student paper, and began doing the kinds of perverse gags that some people found hilarious and others viewed as unfit for publication, including one that got him pegged as racist and anti-handicapped: a beggar holding out a tin cup with a sign that read, “Please help me. I am blind and black but not musical.”

He turned pro in 1983. “This weird-looking guy rolled through the door to show stuff he was doing for the Vanguard,” said Mark Zusman, editor of Willamette Week, Portland’s alternative newspaper. “He was an equal-opportunity offender and we loved that. We prided ourselves on our investigative reporting, and it created problems. But nobody created more problems for us than John did. We loved the cartoons, we loved the controversy and we loved John.”

For the next 27 years, Callahan would provide the paper with cartoons notable for their dark, twisted humor: a pair of Klansmen commenting on their love of fluffy, fresh-from-the-dryer sheets; a dog with a piece of glass through its body captioned, “How much is that window in the doggie?”; and a grim bartender telling a customer with hooks for hands, “Sorry, Mike, you just can’t hold your liquor.”

Zusman, played in the movie by Van Sant, recalled, “When I would tell John that I lost an advertiser over one of his cartoons, he’d smile. Part of me loved that.”

During the 1990s, Callahan’s work was syndicated in dozens of newspapers across the United States. Book deals rolled in and his life rights were optioned — first by William Hurt, later by Robin Williams. “He was a notorious flirt,” Zusman said. “He was charming and an artist and fun to hang out with.”

Joy Campbell dated Callahan during the ’90s. “It didn’t matter that he was in a wheelchair,” she said, speaking of his appeal. “He was the most interesting person I ever met. We’d go on six- or seven-mile [jaunts through Portland], stopping along the way to eat. Sometimes, I would ride on the back of his wheelchair. We watched ‘Mulholland Drive’ four times. And he was a very sexual person.” (Callahan was supposedly able to achieve some semblance of an erection by having his stomach rubbed.) “John made me realize that, as an able-bodied person, sex is in your mind. It is not necessarily physical, and love is a wonderful thing.”

She was not the only one to be enamored. Callahan took to calling his groupies “gag hags.” A Los Angeles Times article from 1991 details two college-age females visiting his apartment and pretty much worshipping him from the foot of his bed. The writer commented on “strange women” approaching Callahan “when he’s tooling around Portland in his wheelchair.” She chronicled them slipping him phone numbers and mailing him “provocative photographs of themselves.”

Eventually, as 2010 approached, political correctness and tightened belts in publishing both contributed to waning demand for his work. At the same time, due to an infection from a bed sore, his health declined and so did his output. When necessary, Zusman recycled old cartoons.

Hospital visits were fairly routine for Callahan — he had only 40 percent of his lung capacity due to the spot where his spine had been severed. But there was nothing routine about his hospital visit on July 23, 2010. Battling an incurable lung infection, he was given just months to live.

The doctor advised Callahan, 59 at that point, that he would need to stay in bed until his death. “Then I’m done,” Callahan told family members. “What is the sense of going on? I’m ready to die.”

Twenty hours later, Callahan passed away. “He just gave up,” said brother Tom. “It seems amazing that someone can will himself to die. But there is no other explanation.”

Beyond the movie and his books, Callahan’s memory will be preserved via John Callahan Garden, unveiled last October. It is wheelchair-accessible and situated near Portland’s Legacy Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon, where Callahan had been a patient. A couple dozen of his cartoons, printed in baked enamel, are on display.

“The hospital had some editorial control over the cartoons,” said Zusman. “That means his favorites — which caused the most problems for me and are the most controversial — are not in there. I think John would forgive us the sin of not including his most offensive work.”

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