Bob Rafelson obituary

Screenwriter, director and co-creator of the Monkees who had a 1970 hit with his film Five Easy Pieces

Alongside the so-called “movie brats” – Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg – who rode the crest of the American new wave in the late 1960s and early 70s, were other figures less readily assimilated into the mainstream. Of these, few were as influential as Bob Rafelson, the writer-producer-director, who has died aged 89 after suffering from lung cancer.

He was characterised by a counter-cultural sensibility and an eye for fruitful collaborations, notably with the actor-writer-director Jack Nicholson and the producer Bert Schneider. He also co-created the Monkees (both the pop group and the hit TV series) and co-founded the influential independent production company and creative collective BBS, which brought together actors and directors including Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich and Dennis Hopper.

Prior to the formation of BBS, Rafelson and Schneider’s producing credits under the banner of their previous outfit, Raybert Productions, included Easy Rider (1969), an early example of the American new wave. Rafelson was one of the people generally acknowledged to have whipped that picture into shape in the editing room.

His own finest movie, Five Easy Pieces (1970), gave Nicholson one of his defining roles. He played Bobby Dupea, the seething anti-hero torn between his working-class life and the privileged middle-class upbringing he has largely rejected. Rafelson was invested deeply in this project and character: he had written several unsatisfactory drafts of the screenplay before handing it over to Carole Eastman, and it is Rafelson’s own black sweater that Nicholson wears on screen.

Five Easy Pieces, starring Jack Nicholson, right, 1970, directed by Bob Rafelson.
Five Easy Pieces, starring Jack Nicholson, right, 1970, directed by Bob Rafelson. Photograph: Columbia/Allstar

“That character [is] somewhat disassociated from his own background and his own family and is escaping from it,” observed Rafelson. “In that sense, I had been trying to escape from my background since I was 14 years old. [Bobby] was this sort of existential hero, dressed in black sweaters, with a little stubble of a beard, longish hair, that I had been and wanted to make a movie about. This character was somebody that I felt that I had met many, many times in my life and that I ought to try to portray.”

He was born in New York. His father manufactured felt used in hat-making; a more significant influence on his life, though, was his cousin Samson Raphaelson, who was a screenwriter for the great comic director Ernst Lubitsch. “Samson took an interest in my work,” Rafelson said. “If he liked a picture, then I was his favourite … But if he didn’t like it, I was a distant cousin. The film he liked the most, if you can believe it, was Head!”

Head was his 1968 directing debut, a psychedelic, postmodernist deconstruction of the pop phenomenon of the Monkees. Co-written with Nicholson, Head broke the fourth wall, married the formerly incompatible sensibilities of bubblegum pop and European arthouse, and may possibly have been taking place entirely on the scalp of the actor Victor Mature. (It was that sort of movie.)

The home life of the young Rafelson (who at that point was still Raphaelson) was comfortably middle-class but not especially happy. “My mother was an alcoholic and I would sit at the dining table and my father didn’t know how to talk to me. The result was that I was off in a rodeo at 14, and soon after that I’d been halfway round the world.” Though expected to follow in the hat-making business, he took on various other jobs in his teenage years, including working on an ocean liner and playing jazz in Mexico; he later credited this itinerant period in his life for spawning the concept and structure of the Monkees’ show.

After attending Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, he was drafted into the army and stationed in Japan, where he became a disc jockey for the far east Network. In the mid-50s he married Toby Carr; they had a son, Peter, and a daughter, Julie. In 1973, Julie died at the age of 10 from injuries sustained when a stove in the family’s home exploded.

Rafelson began working in television writing, producing and story editing in the early 60s. He met Schneider in 1965 when they both worked on the comedy show The Wackiest Ship in the Army, and the pair then formed Raybert. Their idea for a television show about a pop group was accepted enthusiastically by the NBC network; among those who auditioned to be in the Monkees were members of the Lovin’ Spoonful and Buffalo Springfield (though not, contrary to one particularly persistent rumour, Charles Manson).

Rafelson was one of around 30 young directors working on the series, which relied for its appeal on fast cutting, wacky humour, visual non sequiturs and some of the fizziest pop songs of the 60s. The show was a hit and Rafelson embraced fully the lifestyle that this success made possible. “Bob was a role model for drug-taking and promiscuity,” said an unnamed source in Peter Biskind’s behind-the-scenes book about the period, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

The Monkees in 1967.
The Monkees in 1967. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Around this time, Rafelson met Nicholson at a Hollywood film screening society and asked him to write Head with him. “We did it together in Harry Dean Stanton’s basement, with a psychedelic assist … I decided that we would write something that was more reflective of how I truly felt about the Monkees and, second, how the Monkees felt about their success. So it was a sort of an examination of my relationship to the music business and their relationship to being the pawns of television producers.” Rafelson explained the film’s frantic trawl through different genres by claiming that he felt he would never again be allowed to make anything else.

But to the contrary, he was celebrated and encouraged by Hollywood. After the success of Easy Rider, Raybert (a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures) morphed into BBS with the addition of Schneider’s friend Stephen Blauner. (The company’s name stood for Bert, Bob and Steve.) The first BBS production, Five Easy Pieces, did well financially and critically; it was also in the running for four Academy awards including best picture and, for Nicholson, his first best actor nomination.

Director and actor reteamed for The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), a highly regarded drama about the tortured emotional life of a night-time DJ – an uncharacteristically subdued performance from Nicholson, with the more demonstrative role of his shady brother going to Bruce Dern.

By that time the BBS roster included Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place and Nicholson’s directing debut Drive, He Said (all 1971), though the last two titles did not make money, and BBS would fold in 1973. Rafelson was an enthusiastic supporter of experimental cinema, and was an uncredited producer on Jean Eustache’s 1973 masterpiece La Maman et la Putain (The Mother and the Whore).

Preparations for a film about the African slave trade consumed much of Rafelson’s time in the mid-70s, and he did not direct another film until Stay Hungry (1976), starring Jeff Bridges as a millionaire who tries to buy a gym and develops unexpected friendships with its staff and clientele (including a young Arnold Schwarzenegger). Rafelson and Carr, who by this time had become a respected production designer, separated after Stay Hungry; he later married Gabrielle Taurek, with whom he had two sons.

The director was fired from the Robert Redford prison drama Brubaker after overturning the desk of a 20th Century Fox executive during an argument. He returned in 1981 with a grimy remake of the film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice, for which he hired the playwright David Mamet as screenwriter. Nicholson and Jessica Lange made an electrifying couple and their kitchen-table sex scene became something of a talking point. Rafelson stayed in the thriller genre for Black Widow (1987) starring Debra Winger and Theresa Russell as respectively a justice department agent and the serial killer she is tracking. Mountains of the Moon (1990) dramatised Burton and Speke’s 19th-century search for the source of the Nile. The critic David Thomson saw that movie as symptomatic of “a rebel ahead of the 60s – an adventurer with an aggressive edge” and called it “one of the best films about why people go to wild and crazy places.”

Few of Rafelson’s subsequent movies – including the underwhelming comedy-drama Man Trouble (1992), which reunited him with the Five Easy Pieces team of Eastman and Nicholson – were as interesting. But Blood and Wine (1996), starring Nicholson as a jeweller and Michael Caine as his safecracking pal, had many delectably tart moments, not least the scene in which Nicholson tends to his wife (Judy Davis) in the wreckage of a car crash for the sole purpose of divesting her of a diamond necklace.

For cable television, he made Poodle Springs (1998), a noir thriller starring James Caan. His last film, No Good Deed (2002) starring Samuel L Jackson, did not receive a UK release. For much of his life he lived in Aspen, Colorado, and he died there.

He is survived by Gabrielle, their two sons, EO (Ethan) and Harper, and Peter, from his first marriage.

• Bob Rafelson (Robert Raphaelson), film-maker, born 21 February 1933; died 23 July 2022


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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