Bob Rafelson, director of ‘Five Easy Pieces,’ dies at 89
By Dennis Lim
Bob Rafelson, an iconoclastic director and producer who was a central figure of the New Hollywood movement that jump-started American cinema in the wake of the 1960s counterculture upheavals, died Saturday at his home in Aspen, Colorado. He was 89.
He had lung cancer, his wife, Gabrielle Taurek Rafelson, said in confirming the death.
As a director, Bob Rafelson was best known for “Five Easy Pieces,” his melancholic 1970 road movie about a classical pianist, played by Jack Nicholson, who spurns the bourgeois life to drift through California working as an oil rigger.
Nominated for four Academy Awards, the film embodied the era’s downbeat, anti-establishment ethos and cemented Nicholson’s position as a Hollywood leading man.
More than a filmmaker, Rafelson was also a skilled navigator of the rapidly shifting pop-culture and media landscapes of the 1960s. For a television series, he co-created the pop group the Monkees and later featured it in the subversive feature film “Head” (1968), Rafelson’s directing debut.
Looking to the cinematic new waves that had galvanized younger filmmakers and audiences in France, Japan and elsewhere, he saw an opportunity for a similar renaissance in the United States, where the old studio system was in disarray.
In 1965, with his friend and business partner Bert Schneider, Rafelson established Raybert, a Los Angeles production house that they envisioned as a breeding ground for up-and-coming risk-takers. “I said to Bert that I felt America had extraordinary talent, but that we lacked the talent to appreciate that talent,” Rafelson told the entertainment site The A.V. Club in 2010.
Raybert became BBS Productions with the addition of another partner, Steve Blauner, and the trio scored an outsize success with Dennis Hopper’s generation-defining “Easy Rider” (1969), which recouped more than 100 times its budget at the box office.
Despite producing eight films in its seven-year existence, BBS was an influential model of artistic and economic independence. A trailblazing company that doubled as a cool-kid clubhouse for what was also called the American New Wave, BBS remains today a romanticized symbol of the freedom once permissible at the edges of Hollywood.
Robert Rafelson was born Feb. 21, 1933, in New York City. His father was a hat manufacturer who expected his sons to enter the family business. But Rafelson found inspiration in his uncle, screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, who worked with director Ernst Lubitsch on many films, including “Trouble in Paradise” and “The Shop Around the Corner.”
Rebelling against his comfortable Upper West Side upbringing, Rafelson left home as a teenager to work at a rodeo in Arizona and to play with a jazz band in Acapulco, Mexico. He returned to the United States to study philosophy at Dartmouth College and on graduation was drafted into the Army. He served in Japan, working as a DJ for the Far East Network of military radio and television stations. He was court-martialed twice, once for striking an officer and once for uttering an obscenity on the air.
Rafelson, an avid moviegoer as a child, had been exposed to foreign films at a young age, and while in Tokyo he worked as a consultant for the Japanese studio Shochiku. Back in New York, he got his start as a story editor on the “Play of the Week” TV anthology series.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1962 with his first wife, Toby Carr, a production designer, he continued to work in television, but the strictures of the format were a poor fit for his ambitions and eclectic tastes.
He lost his job at a television arm of Universal Pictures when he got into an argument with Hollywood titan Lew Wasserman over a casting choice. Rafelson knocked everything on Wasserman’s desk to the floor and was escorted off the premises.
At Screen Gems, then the television subsidiary of Columbia Pictures, he met Schneider, a kindred spirit whose father, Abraham, was a top Columbia executive. The two well-connected young producers sought to capitalize on the success of Beatlemania with a show about an invented pop group. Their ads seeking “4 insane boys, 17-21” yielded the Monkees, and the heartthrobs became bona fide chart-toppers.
While the group continued to record and perform, the series, which aired on NBC and won two Emmy Awards, lasted only two seasons, from 1966 to 1968.
Rafelson and Schneider bid a perverse farewell to the project with the self-reflexive feature “Head,” which expanded on the concept of the band as “a manufactured image with no philosophies,” as the movie’s rewrite of the Monkees’ theme song put it. With Schneider as executive producer, Rafelson co-wrote the script with Nicholson, who was then a B-movie actor as well as the writer of the psychedelic Roger Corman film “The Trip” (1967).
A freewheeling media satire full of visual tricks and topical references to the Vietnam War and media guru Marshall McLuhan, “Head” tanked at the box office. But the success of the Monkees allowed BBS to bankroll Hopper’s “Easy Rider,” in which Hopper and Peter Fonda played road-tripping bikers who, as the tag line put it, “went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.”
“Easy Rider” landed BBS a six-picture deal at Columbia Pictures that gave the partners final cut and a 50-50 split on profits, provided they kept budgets under $1 million. The company set up an office on North La Brea Avenue, and it became “a hangout for a ragtag band of filmmakers and radicals of various stripes,” as Peter Biskind described it in his New Hollywood chronicle “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.”
BBS followed “Easy Rider” with Rafelson’s second feature as director, “Five Easy Pieces,” which had its premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1970. With Nicholson as Bobby, an alienated antihero who flees his patrician clan, along with its famously ambiguous ending, the film came to be enshrined as a touchstone of ’70s American cinema. Written by Carole Eastman from a story by Rafelson, “Five Easy Pieces” is perhaps his most personal film.
Its themes — American self-invention, the traps of family and class — would recur throughout Rafelson’s films, including another BBS production, “The King of Marvin Gardens” (1972), a story of two estranged brothers, played by Nicholson and Bruce Dern, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Rafelson’s working relationship with Nicholson would span four decades.
After winning an Oscar for the Vietnam War documentary “Hearts and Minds” (1974), BBS ceased operations, as Schneider shifted his focus to political activism and Rafelson to directing.
While his later films never matched the acclaim of “Five Easy Pieces,” many of them were instrumental in launching or relaunching acting careers. The cast for his 1976 bodybuilding comedy “Stay Hungry” included Sally Field, then known only as a TV star, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first significant role.
Rafelson’s 1981 remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” — which featured the first screenplay by David Mamet — helped revive Jessica Lange’s career, which was floundering after her panned debut in “King Kong.”
Rafelson worked across a range of genres. His films include the erotic thriller “Black Widow” (1987), with Debra Winger and Theresa Russell, and the old-fashioned adventure epic “Mountains of the Moon” (1990), about the Victorian-era explorer Richard Francis Burton, a childhood hero of Rafelson.
He teamed again with Nicholson and Eastman, his co-writer for “Five Easy Pieces,” for the 1992 romantic comedy “Man Trouble.” Nicholson also appeared in Rafelson’s 1996 heist movie “Blood and Wine.”
In his later years, Rafelson lived full time in Aspen.
Besides his wife, he is survived by a son, Peter, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce; and two sons, E.O. and Harper, from his second. His daughter, Julie, died of injuries from a gas stove explosion in 1973.