Bob Rafelson 1933-2022

An under-recognized New Hollywood titan, he revolutionized the movies.

Bob Rafelson 1933-2022
Doris Thomas/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

For much of this year, starting in January, I exchanged emails with Bob Rafelson about an interview for our shared alma mater’s alumni magazine; the legendary film director was cantankerous, generous, hilarious, but we never seemed to get around to the actual interview. Rafelson, 89, had long absented himself from the film industry and lived on a mountaintop in Aspen, CO, with his wife and two teenage sons; he was hardly a recluse, but he was resistant to sentiment and, aside from a 2019 Esquire feature and some garrulous panel appearances available on YouTube, he kept a low profile.

I could tell he looked forward to reminiscing about his college years, though – we’d previously talked on the phone in 2013, when I was writing a piece about writer-actor Buck Henry, Rafelson’s close friend at Dartmouth and beyond – but ill health and technology combined to keep tabling our conversation. “Having computer confusion.and horrible tooth ache. Bob,” he wrote in one email. Another went on at unpunctuated length: “we might do this on something that I don’t know anything about like face time or I would record some thing or whatever to save you having to come up with me having to come down and do what I know is going to be a lovely interview so we will do this another time just stay in touch with me keep pushing and let me know when you are free to do something like what I’ve described at work by the way I cannot use my fingers to write so I have to dictate and the bitch Siri seems to write what she wants and very little about what I want  thanks Bob Rafelson.”

The impression of a restless, pugnacious mind brought to bay by age and virtual assistants was bleak, but I read all the articles and watched all the YouTube links he sent my way, and I waited. I stopped hearing from him in June. I’d been composing a follow-up email to Rafelson in my head when the news came yesterday that he had died.

Of the great filmmakers and creative forces of the New Hollywood generation, he was, and is, among the trickiest to pin down. A few things are clear. First, without Bob Rafelson, there’d be no Monkees. What seemed like a prefabricated TV response to the Beatles had actually been on Rafelson’s mind since touring Mexico and the southern U.S. in a band during the 1950s, with the success of “A Hard Day’s Night” only providing a commercial window of opportunity. He tells the story in typically roundabout fashion here:

Without Bob Rafelson, no Jack Nicholson. The two met at a Los Angeles arthouse cinema where they were the only two people talking back to the screen. Nicholson was a struggling actor pushing 30, but Rafelson said to his wife, Toby, “I’m going to make him a star,” and he eventually did. First, though, Nicholson wrote the screenplay for the Dadaist Monkees film “Head” (1968), Rafelson’s first feature directorial credit and a movie so named because they wanted their next movie to be promoted as “From the people who gave you ‘Head’.”

Without Bob Rafelson, no “Easy Rider” (1969), the movie that made good on his promise to Nicholson and that demolished the studios’ assumptions that they understood anything about what young audiences wanted to see. Rafelson produced it with his partner Bert Schneider, spending $400,000 in “Monkees” profits and seeing a return of $60 million that made the two temporary kings of Hollywood. “Easy Rider” director-star Dennis Hopper was another member of Rafelson’s anti-establishment crew; the just-published “Everybody Thought We Were Crazy: Dennis Hopper, Brooke Hayward, and 1960s Los Angeles” is a marvelous thumbnail history of the scene.

Without Bob Rafelson, no “The Last Picture Show” (1971), the film he produced with Schneider and third partner Steve Blauner for their new BBS Productions (named for the trio’s first initials). Rafelson had pegged Peter Bogdanovich as a talent to watch after seeing the director’s first film “Targets,” and the project fit his and Schneider’s long-term game plan of changing the movie business not by being the right people to make the movies but by being in a position of power to hire the right people. It made $30 million on a $1.3 million budget and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning two.

The producer decided to hire himself as director, so … without Bob Rafelson, no “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), one of the greatest, smartest, saddest movies ever made in this country and, for my money, one of the three best things Jack Nicholson ever did (the other two being “The Last Detail” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”). It’s about the scion of an upper-class family of classical musicians who has rejected his heritage for the life of an itinerant oil field worker, and it was a deeply personal work for the director, who fled his cultured Manhattan upbringing at 14 and who lent his own wardrobe to his star for the role. “Five Easy Pieces” has three sequences that are as close to the bitter heart of what ailed America in the 1960s as any Bob Dylan lyric from “Highway 61 Revisited”: The infamous diner sequence, with Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea facing down the waitress, a.k.a. Big Mom, over a piece of toast.

Bobby’s final monologue to an incapacitated patriarch.

And the final shot at the gas station, where you don’t know who to cry for – Rayette (Karen Black) for being abandoned by the father of her unborn child or Bobby for belonging everywhere and nowhere.

Without Bob Rafelson, no “Five Easy Pieces” follow-up, The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), less lauded, thematically denser, and just about as good, with an arguably miscast Nicholson, a juicy role for Bruce Dern as his quick-buck brother, and a devastating Ellen Burstyn as an aging mistress.

Without Bob Rafelson, no Arnold Schwarzenegger! “Stay Hungry” (1975) cast Jeff Bridges as a rich kid drawn to the bodybuilding circuit, where he meets, among others a young, charming, ripped Arnold. It was the first glimpse that the world outside the Mr. Universe universe had of the future action star and governor.

Without Bob Rafelson, no Jessica Lange, who he fought to cast in his 1981 remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” when the actress was still considered a model who’d lucked out with a lead in 1976’s “King Kong.” The sex scenes between Lange and Nicholson became notorious – Rafelson once met a Russian Orthodox monk who claimed “Postman” was what drove him to a monastery, and Karina Longworth discusses the movie in the current “Erotic 80s” season of her podcast “You Must Remember This” – but the film’s real legacy is establishing Lange as a serious actress and paving the way for “Frances” (1982), for which she was nominated for a best actress Oscar. (She won best supporting actress that same year for “Tootsie.”)

And then? And then the business changed. It already had by the time of “Postman.” Rafelson said that he took his “Stay Hungry” cast to see “Jaws” in 1975 and told them, “This is the death of the movie you’re in right now.” He wasn’t quite right: Bridges, Schwarzenegger, and co-star Sally Field all continued to prosper and then some. Rafelson fell off the map. He was hired to direct the 1980 Robert Redford prison drama “Brubaker,” spent months doing research, and was fired 10 days into shooting after he punched out a studio executive on the set. Early in his career, Rafelson trashed Lew Wasserman’s office when the MCA/Universal head – pretty much the most powerful person in Hollywood at the time – objected to one of his casting choices. This was not a man who suffered fools or suits gladly. And he ultimately suffered for it, because the suits (and the fools) run the town and always will.

He had a brief comeback with the thriller “Black Widow” in 1987 and continued to work on films of mixed quality up to 2002; the one to see is “Mountains of the Moon” (1990), Rafelson’s drama about 19th-century explorers Richard Frances Burton and John Speke and a project close to the director’s heart since childhood. It is an excellent film – available for a $4 rental on Amazon and Apple – that could stand as a metaphor for the man himself, seeking new frontiers in the hardest, most exciting ways possible and paying the price in betrayal and neglect.

Myself, I don’t have too many regrets in this life, but not getting my act together in time to talk to Bob Rafelson is now one of them. Raise a glass to a protean troublemaker and a great filmmaker, and watch “Five Easy Pieces” tonight.

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