Easy Rider at 50: how Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s film helped change Hollywood forever

In his later years, Peter Fonda (who died last month) was probably best known as the brother of Jane, or son of 1940s matinee idol Henry. His own acting career had stalled somewhat in the 1980s, while his attempts at direction were considered underwhelming. As a young man, Peter had worked hard to follow in his father’s footsteps, toiling diligently in TV serials until he got a break in the movies.

But there was something simultaneously aloof and wishy-washy about his screen presence, and though he did put in a handful of genuinely fine performances, he was easily miscast. However, Peter Fonda did play a very significant role in Hollywood history – joining forces with that agent of chaos Dennis Hopper to make a film that would open the door to a new generation of young film-makers.

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Released 50 years ago, in the heady summer of 1969, Easy Rider struck a chord with America’s disaffected youth and became a huge hit. It had been made for half of nothing and the big studios duly took note: one route to future financial success might be giving raw young film-makers creative licence. Which was all very well, but Easy Rider had another lesson to teach – never ever work with Dennis Hopper.

Born in Dodge City, Kansas, Hopper grew up fascinated by the outlaws of the old west and came to Hollywood in his late teens in an impressively uncooperative mood. He was a huge fan of James Dean and the ‘method’, and got his break playing small roles in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. He cemented his reputation as a volatile troublemaker on the set of the 1958 western From Hell to Texas, when it took veteran film-maker Henry Hathaway 80 takes to get Hopper to acquiesce to his direction.

For much of the 1960s he was condemned to playing minor villains, until Roger Corman cast him with Peter Fonda in The Trip. Ever after a new market, the wily Corman had just begun making drug and motorbike movies aimed at the growing counterculture that old Hollywood was failing to attract.

Written by a little-known B-movie actor called Jack Nicholson, The Trip starred Fonda as a staid TV commercial director who experiences a wild erotic trip after taking LSD. It was nothing special, but caught the zeitgeist; made for just $100,000, it grossed close to $6m on its original theatrical run. Its success would help Fonda and Hopper get Easy Rider made.

Fonda had become an icon of the counterculture in 1966, when he’d played the ice-cool leader of a hippie motorcycle gang in Corman’s The Wild Angels. One day, while contemplating a photo still of himself and Bruce Dern in the film, he had an idea for a modern western about two bikers who coast around the western United States He called Hopper, and they decided to turn it into a movie together.

Corman was originally going to produce Easy Rider, but pulled out after a meeting with potential backers ended abruptly when Dennis embarked on a foul-mouthed tirade. Fonda himself would end up producing it, with lots of help from Bob Rafelson, who also drummed up backing of around $350,000.

Parts of the film were ad-libbed, but it did have a screenplay, and a relatively conventional structure. And though Fonda and Hopper are now given joint screenplay credits with Terry Southern, Southern always disputed their contribution. It was he who came up with the film’s zingy title, and provided some structural rigour, but in later interviews Hopper would claim to have written the whole thing himself.

“If Den Hopper improvises a dozen lines,” Southern once commented, “and six of them survive the cutting room floor, he’ll put in for screenplay credit”. Hopper was prone to telling tall stories, but his wild imprint would be all over Easy Rider’s direction.

The story was simple: two hippie bikers called Wyatt and Billy smuggle cocaine from Mexico into California, and use the proceeds to fund a road trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Along the way they meet free-lovin’ young women, resourceful prostitutes and an alcoholic lawyer named George before being cornered and killed by some disgruntled southern gentlemen.

It was the film’s style that was interesting: at times trippy and otherworldly, at others more like a documentary than a feature film, it caught almost accidentally the souring mood of the late 1960s, and would be hailed by some as a masterpiece.

I say accidentally because Easy Rider’s shoot was so chaotic, it’s a small wonder it ever got finished. Rip Torn was the original choice to play the drunken lawyer George, but the swaggering Texan had a temper of his own, and he and Hopper were never likely to get along. In fact, their association did not outlast their first casting meeting in a New York restaurant, during which Hopper began ranting about the “rednecks” he’d encountered on scouting trips in the south. Torn took offence, the pair almost came to blows, and the actor huffily withdrew.

So they asked Jack Nicholson to play George instead. His touching and comic performance was one of the highlights of Easy Rider, and made him a star.

During the shoot, Fonda, Nicholson and Hopper lived liked the hippie bikers they portrayed, smoking pot prodigiously and taking off across the southern deserts on a whim. At one point Nicholson remembers waking up one morning at the top of a tree; meanwhile, Hopper was fighting with everyone on the set, and wondering aloud how his career would compare to that of his hero, Orson Welles.

Like a lot of other ‘hip’ projects from the self-absorbed late 1960s, Easy Rider has not dated well, but parts of it have a marvellous freedom, a kind of bracing spontaneity most films never achieve. Addled though he might have been, Hopper did have a daring vision for his film, and was a good enough director to coax some acting out of Fonda.

During a scene in a New Orleans cemetery when Wyatt and Billy pop LSD, Hopper encouraged Fonda to talk to a statue of the Madonna as though it was his own mother, and ask her why she left him. Fonda was understandably reluctant, as his mother had committed suicide when he was 10, but he relented, and proved Hopper’s instinct right.

The first film to show real drugs being ingested, and the first to depict the ‘free love’ and rootless wandering of the counterculture, Easy Rider caught the imagination of the hippie movement just as it was collapsing. Made for less than $400,000, it grossed over $60m, giving the major studios an object lesson that would not be ignored.

Though Easy Rider undeniably eased the passage of new-wave influenced film-makers like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Fonda and Hopper did not benefit from this new craze for low-budget, artsy cinema. Fonda directed a couple of westerns, and embarked on an unlikely career as an action star, but could not match the achievements of his older sister.

Hopper touted Easy Rider as proof of his genius, and began turning up armed at production meetings. Universal gave him a million dollars to shoot a picture called The Last Movie in Peru. He disappeared for a year-and-a-half, and was eventually found in a fortified compound in Taos, New Mexico mega-dosing on cocaine and alcohol as he frantically edited the film. It was panned, and finished him as a director for a decade.

But he always had Easy Rider to trade on. Dennis’s assessments of the film were typically grandiose, and included a strange boast. “The cocaine problem in the US is really because of me,” he declared proudly many years later. “There was no cocaine before Easy Rider on the street. After Easy Rider, it was everywhere.” That’s a sort of legacy, I suppose.

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