Bob Rafelson, Director of ‘Five Easy Pieces,’ Dies at 89

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 on Saturday at his home in Aspen, Colo. He was 89.

He had lung cancer, his wife, Gabrielle Taurek Rafelson, said in confirming the death.

As a director, Mr. 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 Mr. Nicholson’s position as a Hollywood leading man.

More than a filmmaker, Mr. Rafelson was also a skilled navigator of the rapidly shifting pop-culture and media landscapes of the 1960s. He cocreated the pop group the Monkees for a television series and later featured them in the subversive feature film “Head” (1968), Mr. 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.

Mr. Rafelson and Jack Nicholson on location during the filming of “Five Easy Pieces,” Mr. Rafelson’s best-known film.Credit…Bettmann via Getty Images

Despite producing only 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 on Feb. 21, 1933, in New York City. His father was a hat manufacturer who expected his sons to enter the family business. But Mr. Rafelson found inspiration in his uncle, the screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, who worked with the director Ernst Lubitsch on many films, including “Trouble in Paradise” and “The Shop Around the Corner.”

Rebelling against his comfortable Upper West Side upbringing, Mr. 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 East study philosophy at Dartmouth College, and on graduating was drafted into the Army. He served in Japan, working as a D.J. 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.

Mr. 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 the Hollywood titan Lew Wasserman over a casting choice. Mr. Rafelson knocked everything on Mr. Wasserman’s desk to the floor, and was escorted off the premises.

At Screen Gems, then the television subsidiary of Columbia Pictures, he met Mr. 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.

The promotional poster for the film “Head,” starring the Monkees, a group Mr. Rafelson helped create for a television series.Credit…Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mr. Rafelson and Mr. 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 Mr. Schneider as executive producer, Mr. Rafelson co-wrote the script with Mr. 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 the media guru Marshall McLuhan, “Head” tanked at the box office. But the success of the Monkees allowed BBS to bankroll Mr. Hopper’s “Easy Rider,” in which Mr. 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 Mr. Rafelson’s second feature as director, “Five Easy Pieces,” which had its premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1970. With Mr. 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 Mr. Rafelson, it is perhaps his most personal film.

The themes of “Five Easy Pieces” — American self-invention, the traps of family and class — would recur throughout Mr. Rafelson’s films, including another BBS production, “The King of Marvin Gardens” (1972), a story of two estranged brothers, played by Mr. Nicholson and Bruce Dern, in Atlantic City. Mr. Rafelson’s working relationship with Mr. Nicholson would span four decades.

True to the spirit of the times, BBS functioned as a collective of sorts: Mr. Nicholson, Mr. Dern and Karen Black appeared in multiple BBS films; the cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs shot several of them.

The company also produced Peter Bogdanovich’s “Last Picture Show” (1971), which was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and the first features by Henry Jaglom (“A Safe Place”) and Mr. Nicholson (“Drive, He Said”).

Outside his BBS endeavors, Mr. Rafelson was an uncredited producer on “The Mother and the Whore,” a classic of 1970s French cinema by Jean Eustache.

After winning an Oscar for the Vietnam War documentary “Hearts and Minds” (1974), BBS ceased operations, as Mr. Schneider shifted his focus to political activism and Mr. Rafelson to directing.

Mr. Rafelson during the filming of “Five Easy Pieces.”Credit…Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

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.

Mr. Rafelson’s 1982 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.”

Even by the standards of New Hollywood — a scene dominated by self-styled bad boys and hotheads — Mr. Rafelson had his share of notable blowups.

“I was one of those guys that took on all comers,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1997. Some of his outbursts came with a price; he was fired from the prison drama “Brubaker” a few days into the shoot for getting into a physical altercation with a studio executive.

Mr. 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 Mr. Rafelson’s.

He teamed again with Mr. Nicholson and Ms. Eastman, his co-writer for “Five Easy Pieces,” for the 1992 romantic comedy “Man Trouble.” Mr. Nicholson also appeared in Mr. Rafelson’s1996 heist movie “Blood and Wine.”

In his later years, Mr. 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

Mr. Rafelson’s final film was the 2002 neo-noir “No Good Deed,” based on a Dashiell Hammett short story.

Even after he retired from moviemaking, he was often called upon to reminisce about the mythic days of the New Hollywood. In a 2010 video interview for a DVD box of BBS titles, Mr. Rafelson described BBS as “a company that could go out and say, all right, now let’s get the maddest creatures we can find on the planet.”

He added: “They turned out to be some really first-grade wackos.”

Jack Kadden contributed reporting.

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