A prospective randomized study was conducted to determine the relative effectiveness, toxicity and tolerance of methotrexate (MTX) versus cisplatin (DDP) in patients with recurrent head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Forty-four patients were randomized to receive either MTX, 40 mg escalated to 60 mg/m2 IV push weekly, or DDP, 50 mg/m2 6 hour infusion days 1 and 8 every 4 weeks. All patients had objectively measurable disease and a performance status greater than 60% (Karnofsky scale). All had been treated with surgery and/or radiotherapy. No patients had prior chemotherapy. Prior treatment, performance status, and site of primary disease were comparable in both groups. Complete and partial objective responses were achieved in 23.5% of the MTX group and 28.6% of the DDP group (P = 0.51). Median duration of response was 84 days in the MTX group and 92 days in the DDP group. Median survival of patients was 6.1 months with MTX and 6.3 months with DDP. Mucositis was noted in 38% of patients in the MTX group (P = 0.001) compared to none in the DDP group. Vomiting occurred in 87% of patients in the DDP group (P less than .0001) compared to 10% of patients in the MTX group. This study demonstrates that in the treatment of recurrent head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, MTX and DDP are equally effective, although MTX appears to be better tolerated.