‘Easy Rider’: 1969 in Hollywood, Part II
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There was nothing like the summer of 1969 in Hollywood, which is why I’m running a series of posts looking back at one of the most tumultuous and influential years in pop culture, based on a cache of interviews I did 10 years ago for The Times’ Sunday Calendar section. In just one month’s time, from late June to late July in 1969, if you were living in Los Angeles, you could have gone to the openings of three unforgettable, groundbreaking films: Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’; Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’; and John Schlesinger’s ‘Midnight Cowboy’, which opened at the Village in Westwood exactly 40 years ago this Saturday.
But the movie that really transformed Hollywood was ‘Easy Rider,’ which featured the drug-filled escapades of a trio of counter-culture vagabonds, played by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. They all became instant stars, none bigger than Nicholson, who turned his relatively small part as a boozy lawyer into the launching pad for an incredible career.
The movie, which cost next to nothing -- roughly $360,000 -- was a gigantic hit at a time when the big studios were either being sold or were falling apart. Directed by Hopper, who had been in so many scrapes at studios that he was virtually unemployable, the picture ended up making more than $20 million, a king’s ransom at the time, especially compared to the amount of money studios were losing with ill-conceived turkeys such as ‘Dr. Dolittle’ and ‘Krakatoa, East of Java.’
Made by Raybert Productions, a maverick company headed by Bert Schneider -- whose partner, Bob Rafelson, went on to direct Nicholson in ‘Five Easy Pieces’ for the company -- ‘Easy Rider’ persuaded the desperate studio chiefs to rush out a host of low-budget hippie-dippy imitations, most of which never made a dime. I’d be lying if I said the film has aged well, especially compared to some of the other classics from 1969, notably ‘The Wild Bunch,’ ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’ But its success inspired a whole generation of gifted young filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, John Milius, Brian De Palma and Terrence Malick, to name but a few.
In Hollywood in 1969, the generation gap was like a huge chasm -- you were either part of the problem or part of the solution. ‘There was no middle ground. There was this huge consciousness gap between the studios and the young filmmakers,’ recalls director Henry Jaglom, who helped Hopper and Nicholson edit ‘Easy Rider’ on the Columbia lot, where Schneider’s father, Abe, ran the studio. ‘When we’d go eat in the executive dining room, it was like the 1950s. Until the movie came out, they thought we were all a bunch of strange weirdos. And then suddenly when it made all this money, the studio guys started wearing Nehru jackets and beads and became very friendly, asking all of us what kind of movies we wanted to make.’
Just how impossible was Dennis Hopper? Why didn’t he want to cast Jack Nicholson in the film? Who did the most drugs? Keep reading:
Bill Hayward, producer of ‘Easy Rider’: If you see anybody in the movie smoking marijuana, it’s not a prop. I saw cocaine for the first time in my life during post-production on that movie. But when Hopper went down to shoot the Mardi Gras scene in New Orleans, he wouldn’t let anybody bring any drugs. He was scared that we’d all get thrown in jail.
Dennis Hopper, director: Peter Fonda had the wrong month for Mardi Gras, so we had only two weeks to prepare. I had no script, so I got five friends to go down there with 16-millimeter cameras -- of course, only one guy actually stayed -- and we made it up as we went along.
Hayward: Dennis was incredibly difficult, tactless and mad as a hatter. For years, I had the tape that the crew recorded of him down in New Orleans, throwing a tantrum, just going on for hours, ranting and raving. He kept shooting film, he would shoot hours and hours of the white line on the road under the motorcycles.
Hopper: I was in my tyrant phrase. I came out of working with screamers like John Ford and Henry Hathaway. Whether I was paranoid or not, I was the only one who knew how to make the movie. Peter and Bill wanted to replace me -- that’s why they played that tape of me ranting and raving for Bert [Schneider] and Bob [Rafelson]. But Bert said, ‘I’m sticking with him.’ He didn’t back down because a bunch of debutantes were worried about me.
Bob Rafelson: For months and months, Dennis kept screening his four-hour version of the film. He invited his friends and their friends and anyone else they knew, and they’d get stoned and pile into a theater we rented on the Columbia lot. I got worried that by the time it came out, everybody who could smoke a joint in L.A. would’ve already seen the movie.
Henry Jaglom: Bert liked the editing I’d done on a eight-millimeter movie he’d seen, so he hired me to help edit ‘Easy Rider.’ Everyone was smoking a lot of dope in those days, so everything went on too long. So Bert got Dennis to go off to Taos, [New Mexico], and then he assigned Jack Nicholson and me adjoining editing rooms, and Jack took the movie from the rear and I took it from the front and we spent eight weeks cutting this four-hour film down to 95 minutes.
Rafelson: When we screened the finished film at Columbia, 50 executives were in the screening room. And they all walked out. There was only guy left at the end of the picture. The studio thought we’d gone off the deep end. It was only after we took it to Cannes and it was a sensation that they wanted to release the film.
Bert Schneider: After the screening, I remember riding in the elevator with my father and my brother, Stanley, who was an executive at Columbia. And my father said, ‘Who got us into this mess?’ And Stanley, who’d been our biggest supporter, said, ‘I did.’ My father hated the movie so much he forbid my mother from seeing it.
Hopper: The movie made Nicholson a star, but I didn’t see him in my movie. I wanted Jack Starrett, who was an old drinking buddy of mine from Texas. But Bert insisted that I use him. And finally I said, ‘Bert, I’ll do it for you, but he’s gonna ruin the movie.’ Bert wanted Jack because he needed a watchdog to make sure we weren’t pissing away all his money.
Schneider: Maybe a week before the film opened, I was walking down Park Avenue and there was this foxy girl on a bicycle. And I didn’t know if I was waiting for the light to change or if I was hitting on her, but I started to tell her about this new movie and she went nuts -- she knew all about it, all her friends knew all about it. And I got these big-time goose bumps because I thought if this 16-year-old girl knows about our movie, and we haven’t even started our ad campaign yet, then we must really have something.
PREVIOUSLY: FLASHBACK FRIDAY: 1969 IN HOLLYWOOD