Bert Schneider: A long, strange trip for ‘Easy Rider’ mastermind
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The last time I saw Bert Schneider he looked terrible. He was seated next to longtime pal Jack Nicholson at a Lakers game. When I pointed him out to my young son, my kid worriedly asked, “Is he sick?” Maybe he was. Even though he was only a few years older than Nicholson, Schneider was stooped and skeletally thin.
We spent a lot of time together in the late 1990s, when I was writing a series of stories about the glory days of New Hollywood. Schneider was already a recluse by then, but thanks to a family connection, he’d reluctantly agreed to meet me at an eatery at the top of Beverly Glen. After dinner, we’d drive over to his home nearby where, fueled by pot and pills, he would hold court till the wee hours, telling me mind-boggling stories — some of them perhaps tall tales — about the days when he had the pop culture zeitgeist in the palm of his hand.
In the late 1960s, Hollywood was a dying planet and the studios were crumbling. So when Schneider ushered “Easy Rider” into theaters in the summer of 1969, breaking box-office records everywhere, the movie business treated him like the new Sun King.
Schneider, who died Monday at age 78, was worthy of the throne. Tall and handsome, savvy and well-connected, he seemed as glamorous as any movie star. Nicholson, who remained a loyal friend till near the bitter end, once told me that he saw Schneider as “Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside.” It was an apt description. While many of Schneider’s biggest hits fed off the youth culture’s spirit of rootlessness and rebellion, he learned the business from his father, Abe, who was Harry Cohn’s right-hand man during the heyday of Columbia Pictures.
Schneider combined cagey deal-making with a great eye for talent. With director Bob Rafelson, Schneider oversaw the creation of “The Monkees” TV show, which not only made a mountain of money, but led to a trippy Monkees movie, 1968’s “Head,” directed by Rafelson and co-written by Nicholson. That gave Schneider enough counterculture credibility and cash to pull off “Easy Rider.” The film’s success led to more hits, notably the Nicholson-starring “Five Easy Pieces” and “The Last Picture Show,” the first big hit for filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich.
All the while, Schneider was partaking in all of the trappings of the counterculture, smoking boatloads of pot and dumping his wife, eventually moving in with actress Candice Bergen. Schneider also became heavily involved in left-wing politics, once walking into the Black Panther headquarters in Oakland and writing them a check for $10,000. By the early 1970s, Panther leader Huey Newton had become a bosom buddy, often staying at Schneider’s digs for weeks at a time. In 1974, Newton, on bail for an assault charge, was accused of killing a 17-year-old prostitute. He jumped bail and hid out with Schneider and his business partner, Steve Blauner.
That’s where my family came in. Schneider’s first wife, Judy, and her family were close friends with my Aunt Blanche. Her son, Artie Ross, had been at UC Berkeley in the ‘60s, when it was ground zero for every youth-culture movement. After he graduated, he went to work for Schneider, doing everything from working on a Charlie Chaplin documentary to helping smuggle Newton out of the country.
Schneider had devised a plan to get Newton to Cuba, where he could seek political asylum. Artie was young and resourceful, but more importantly, he had a trimaran. He sailed it to Miami, where my father found him a quiet marina to have it fitted with a diesel engine and some expensive radar and sonar equipment.
The plan was to sail through the Panama Canal to Mexico, where Artie could pick up Newton after Schneider smuggled him across the border. But when Artie took the boat on a shakedown cruise he ran aground on, of all things, an underwater statue of Jesus in the John Pennekamp State Park in the Florida Keys. With the boat out of commission, Artie was reduced to babysitting Newton in Mexico, until my father, who knew quite a few colorful characters himself, found a boat captain called the Pirate who was willing, for a nice fee, to ferry Newton to Cuba. (He eventually returned to the U.S. and was killed by an Oakland drug dealer.)
It also ended badly for Artie. On the day that “Jaws” opened in the summer of 1975, he died of an overdose from nitrous oxide. Schneider threw a lavish wake at his house, setting up a makeshift shrine to my cousin in his sauna room. It was a fabulous Hollywood party with all of Schneider’s cronies on hand, including Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Roman Polanski.
By the end of the 1970s, Schneider no longer had his finger on the pulse. The studios had regained control. The inmates no longer ran the asylum. The last important film Schneider produced was Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” in 1978. To hear him tell it, his heart wasn’t in it anymore. By the late ‘90s, he was a sad case. I’d see him at parties, toting a plastic baggie full of pharmaceuticals of all stripes and sizes, hanging out with women who weren’t even born when “Easy Rider” was taking the town by storm.
When I once chided him for being a cradle robber, he laughed it off. “So what,” he said. “Doesn’t everybody want to be young again?” It would be easy to say that Schneider “blew it,” as Wyatt tells Billy at the end of “Easy Rider.” But it’s not that simple. In Hollywood, all sorts of people are gifted and self-destructive. Schneider was both. Our obituary says he died of natural causes, but I suspect that’s a polite way of saying that he died from burning the candle at both ends for too long.