Bob Rafelson, the director, producer and screenwriter who brought European sensibility to American cinema with “Five Easy Pieces” in 1970, died Saturday night at his home in Aspen, Colorado. He was 89 years old.
Rafelson’s death was confirmed by his 38-year-old former personal assistant, Jolene Wolff, who worked under Rafelson’s production banner, Marmont Productions. Wolff said Rafelson died peacefully, surrounded by his family.
Rafelson partnered with Bert Schneider, who died in 2011, to form the production company Raybert, which later became BBS. He was a major behind-the-scenes force in the making of films like “Easy Rider” in 1969 and “The Last Picture Show” in 1971.
But Rafelson’s production and direction of “Five Easy Pieces,” a critical success in the United States that garnered an impressive box office overseas, made him a major player among a new generation of film-inspired directors. style of the French New Wave. Director Ingmar Bergman expressed his admiration for Rafelson’s achievement.
Starring Jack Nicholson as Bobby Dupea, “Five Easy Pieces” was a character-driven road movie reflecting Rafelson’s perspective on an outsider in deep, unrevealed pain. In an interview, Rafelson, the son of a hatter and an abusive, alcoholic mother, said that Dupea was a character in need of escape. “I had been trying to escape my past since I was 14,” Rafelson said.
Rafelson’s first three films marked a new depth in American cinema. He looked at dysfunctional families, thwarted ambition and alienation in ‘Five Easy Pieces’, 1972’s ‘The King of Marvin Gardens’ and 1976’s ‘Stay Hungry’.
“Five Easy Pieces,” nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, also heralded Nicholson’s arrival as a major star, earning him his first Best Actor nomination. Rafelson would also work with Nicholson as co-writer or director on such films as 1981’s ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ and 1996’s ‘Blood and Wine’. The actor has said he considers Rafelson to be part of his “surrogate family”.
Ironically, Rafelson’s professional relationship with Nicholson began with much lighter fare. “Head” (1968), which the director co-wrote with Nicholson, featured the Monkees, a rock band modeled after the Beatles. They were fresh off the hit NBC series of the same name created by Rafelson and Schneider. The show ran from 1966 to 1968, winning Rafelson an Emmy for comedy series in 1967.
Although revenue from the series provides funding for “Easy Rider,” Rafelson said he hated what the success of “The Monkees” represented. He called “Head,” his feature debut, a dismissive attempt “to expose the project” for its slick, fashionable superficiality. Rafelson later explained that he tackled so many genres in the film – adventure, western, romance – because “I thought I could never do another picture”.
Robert Rafelson was born in New York. His uncle Samson Raphaelson (“The Shop Around the Corner”) was reportedly Ernst Lubitsch’s favorite screenwriter.
Rafelson studied philosophy at Dartmouth College, where Buck Henry became a close friend. He worked as a disc jockey, edited translations of subtitles for Japanese films, and in 1959 became editor of David Susskind’s “Play of the Week” television series, where he wrote “dialogues extras” for writers like Shakespeare and Ibsen. In 1963, Rafelson was fired after a heated argument with MCA’s Lew Wasserman over the short-lived “Channing” series. Apparently, he was personally escorted off the Universal lot by Wasserman.
Rafelson’s marriage to Toby Carr, the production designer of his early films, ended in divorce. His life was also marked by tragedy when his 10-year-old daughter, Julie, died after a propane stove exploded in her Aspen home in 1973. It “affected everything Bob did after that,” Henry said of his friend.
After the 1970s, Rafelson turned to moody black images. In addition to “Postman” with Nicholson and Jessica Lange, he made “Black Widow” in 1987, with Debra Winger and Theresa Russell. Both films enjoyed healthy box offices in Europe, where Rafelson’s reputation remained in high regard. The 2002 crime thriller ‘No Good Deed’ starred Samuel L. Jackson, Milla Jovovich and Stellan Skarsgard but barely opened in the US
Rafelson received high marks in 1990 for “Mountains of the Moon,” about explorer Sir Richard Burton, but 1992’s “Man Trouble,” which reunited the director with Nicholson and the “Five Easy Pieces” screenwriter. Carole Eastman, and the 1998 HBO TV movie “Poodle Springs,” starring James Caan as Detective Philip Marlowe, did not fare well with audiences or critics.
Rafelson also directed the music video for Lionel Richie’s 1983 hit “All Night Long (All Night),” pairing the infectious pop ballad with a colorful, abstract portrayal of a sunset block party.
With “Five Easy Pieces,” which was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2000, and his work as a producer for BBS, Rafelson will be remembered for spurring the early careers of actors such as Jeff Bridges and Sally Field in “Stay Hungry” and Ellen Burstyn, whom he recommended to Peter Bogdanovich for “The Last Picture Show.”
Reflecting on his own career in a 2004 interview, Rafelson was a philosopher: “If people happen to react to your work while you’re alive, well, you’re very lucky…it gives you permission to keep making movies. But if you don’t get the applause, well, there are other things. I mean, after all, there’s your life to live.
Later in life, Rafelson appeared in the 2010 documentary “America Lost and Found: The BBS Story.”