Bob Rafelson, ‘The Monkees’ Co-Creator and ‘Five Easy Pieces’ Director, Dead at 89

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American Movie director Bob Rafelson. - Credit: Doris Thomas/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
American Movie director Bob Rafelson. - Credit: Doris Thomas/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Bob Rafelson, the Oscar-nominated maverick filmmaker who directed Seventies classics like Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens in addition to co-creating The Monkees, has died at the age of 89.

Both The Hollywood Reporter and Variety reported that Rafelson died of natural causes Saturday at his home in Aspen, Colorado.

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A veteran television producer in Hollywood before he was a filmmaker, the New York City-born Rafelson had the idea to make a television show about the fictional pop band in the early Sixties amid the British Invasion; the idea finally came to fruition after the release of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, with Rafelson and his producing partner Bert Schneider putting out a casting call for what would become the Monkees.

Although the series only ran for two seasons, the “band” itself became a hit-making machine with singles like “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer” and “Daydream Believer.” After the sitcom was canceled, the Monkees starred in the 1968 now-cult classic Head, co-written and directed by Rafelson.

“[Head] wasn’t so much about the deconstruction of the Monkees, but it was using the deconstruction of the Monkees as metaphor for the deconstruction of the Hollywood film industry,” the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz told Rolling Stone in 2016. “I think it was restricted to 17 and over. Many of our fans couldn’t even get in. From a commercial perspective, it was totally the wrong movie to make. But we didn’t want to make a 90-minute episode of the Monkees TV show. Also, these were the guys that were going to go off and make Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. They had an opportunity to really stretch here.”

Much to the Monkees’ chagrin — “If I had been living in L.A. and seeing Bob and Bert and all their fucking money, it would have driven me crazy,” Dolenz told Rolling Stone — the earnings that Rafelson and Schneider’s Raybert Productions made off the band wasn’t directed back to the four members; instead, the producers, along with Stephen Blauser, founded BBS Productions, an independent film company focused on the making films – like Head – counter to those being made in Hollywood at the time.

Although BBS Productions was only in business for four years, it made an immeasurable impact on generations of independent filmmakers: After scoring a counterculture hit with Easy Rider, the company gave opportunities to young directors like Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, which was nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture), Henry Jaglom (A Safe Place), and Jack Nicholson, who directed and co-wrote BBS’ 1970 release Drive, He Said.

Rafelson is credited with helping to launch Nicholson’s superstar career, as they worked on seven films together. Nicholson, who at the time was a struggling actor focused on writing and directing, first collaborated with Rafelson on Head, which the pair co-wrote. The following year, Nicholson had his acting breakthrough by sheer luck in 1969’s Easy Rider, produced by Rafelson. 

“Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson thought I was a good actor but had me out with them all the time on locations, primarily to help with production,” Nicholson told Rolling Stone in 1986 of his Easy Rider role.

With Rafelson behind the camera, he cast Nicholson in the starring and star-making role in Five Easy Pieces, which earned Academy Award nominations for both Best Picture and Best Actor. The director and actor would later reunite for 1972’s The King of Marvin Gardens, the 1981 noir The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1992’s Man Trouble and 1996’s Blood and Wine.

In addition to his run of Nicholson films, Rafelson also directed 1976’s Stay Hungry (featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his earliest roles), 1987’s Black Widow, and the music video for Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.” His last feature film as director was 2002’s No Good Deed.

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