Obituary: Bob Rafelson

Director who caught the anti-hero zeitgeist and set the benchmark for Hollywood cool


Patrick Bergin, Iain Glen, Richard E. Grant, Fiona Shaw, Peter Vaughan, John Savident

He was a leading figure in the American new wave of directors of the late 1960s and early 1970s who were credited with creating the “New Hollywood”.

With such films as Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson, who has died aged 89, was part of a creative and innovative movement that helped transform American cinema by ushering in an anti-establishment ethos. It bridged the gap between the dying studio system of the mostly Jewish Hollywood moguls, and the new counterculture.

An enthusiastic drug taker himself, his iconoclastic films Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider and The King of Marvin Gardens often featured drug culture.

He regularly collaborated with Jack Nicholson, helping to cement the actor’s position as a Hollywood star, making films that influenced a younger generation of directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson.

With his Jewish friend Bert Schneider, Rafelson developed the original concept for The Monkees, a fictional rock band closely modelled on The Beatles that formed the basis of the 1966 television sitcom and series of albums. Both were mega-popular. One of its members was the Jewish musician and actor Peter Tork.

The profits enabled Rafelson to experiment with subversive far-out, plotless and trippy movies, inspired by a potent blend of drugs, the counterculture and European arthouse cinema. He collaborated with Nicholson to make Head, a 1968 film starring The Monkees.

Despite the movie being a failure, Rafelson had found his metier. Teaming up again with Schneider and his childhood friend Steve Blauner, Rafelson set up BBS Productions, a new studio to produce Dennis Hopper’s 1969 classic Easy Rider, about two bikers who “went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere”.

The following year, Rafelson co-wrote and directed another road movie, Five Easy Pieces. It starred Nicholson as a cultured piano player who drops out and opts for a blue-collar lifestyle. It was nominated for four Oscars and fortified Nicholson’s reputation.

In 1971, Rafelson produced Jewish director Peter Bogdanovich’s coming-of-age movie The Last Picture Show.

He directed Nicholson again in The King of Marvin Gardens in 1972.
Rafelson continued to direct into his later decades, including a 1981 remake of the noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. His final feature-film directing credit was the 2002 neo-noir thriller No Good Deed, based on a Dashiell Hammett short story and starring Samuel L. Jackson.

Robert Jay Rafelson was the son of Marjorie Blumenfeld and Sydney Rafelson. A hat ribbon manufacturer, Sydney expected his sons to enter the family business but Rafelson was more inspired by his relative, the screenwriter and playwright Samson Raphaelson, who wrote nine films for director Ernst Lubitsch, including Trouble in Paradise and The Shop around the Corner.

He also penned The Jazz Singer, about a cantor’s son who rejects his tradition to become a crooner, which would later form the basis of the first-ever movie with diegetic sound but was also criticised for its troubling representations of race.

“Samson took an interest in my work,” Rafelson said.

“If he liked a picture, then I was his favourite nephew. But if he didn’t like it, I was a distant cousin!”

Rafelson had a comfortable Upper-West Side upbringing but he was too much of a rebel to suffer its confines. He attended the Trinity-Pawling School as a boarder, graduating in 1950 and opted for such pursuits as riding in a rodeo in Arizona, being a deckhand on an ocean liner, and drumming in a jazz band in Acapulco.

After studying philosophy at Dartmouth College, Rafelson was drafted into the US Army and stationed in Japan, where he worked as a DJ for the Far East Network of military radio and television stations.

He was court-martialled for hitting an officer and another time for swearing during a live broadcast.

An avid moviegoer as a child, already familiar with foreign films, Rafelson pursued his interest, translating Japanese films and advising the Shochiku Film Company.

On returning to the US, he began working in television, first in New York and then in Los Angeles, but he found its formulaic nature too restrictive for his free spirit. He was fired from at least one job for a physical confrontation with a studio

But it was there that he met kindred spirit Schneider to form BBS, which set the benchmark for Hollywood cool, attracting radicals and filmmakers.

With their alienated antiheroes, tapping into the zeitgeist, its films, such as The Last Picture Show and the Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds (1974), became touchstones of 1970s American cinema.

While his later films, which spanned a range of genres, never reached the same heights, they boosted many acting careers including those of Sally Field, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jessica Lange. The Postman Always Rings Twice was the first screenplay by Jewish playwright David Mamet.

Rafelson married his high-school sweetheart Toby Carr in 1955. As Toby Rafelson, she became a production designer on many films, including her husband’s Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens and Stay Hungry.

The couple had two children: Peter, born in 1960, and Julie, in 1962. Julie died when a propane stove exploded in the family’s home in August 1973. Rafelson and Toby divorced in 1999. Rafelson married Gabrielle Taurek and the couple had two sons, E.O. and Harper.

Rafelson died from lung cancer at his home in Aspen, Colorado. He is survived by his wife, Gabrielle Taurek Rafelson, and his three sons, Peter, E.O. and Harper.

Bob Rafelson: born February 21, 1933.
Died July
23, 2022

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