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Easy Rider (Columbia 1969, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper)

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“Before 1969, there were no real independent filmmakers in America. Easy Rider changed all that.” Writer/ director/ star Dennis Hopper may be biased, but it’s hard to dispute his claim to Easy Rider’ s role in changing the face of American filmmaking. The film was one of the surprise box office hits of 1969, although what’s even more surprising is that it ever got made.

Hopper and Peter Fonda both had reputations for being difficult to work with (Hopper had once been blacklisted following a fight with director Henry Hathaway) and the film’s simple storyline – two hippies hit the road bound for New Orleans and “freedom” on motorbikes bought from the proceeds of a drug deal – wasn’t exactly commercial. Luckily, they found a fledgling producer, Bert Schneider, willing to fund their movie. Armed with Schneider’s $365,000 and a script developed from Fonda’s original idea (“I was lying on the bed looking at a picture of Marlon Brando in his Wild One get-up. And then it came to me: a modern Western, set on motorbikes”), things began inauspiciously when the crucial Mardi Gras scene had to be shot on 16mm because the film crew weren’t ready. Things didn’t get any easier when the crew hit the road. Fonda, playing Wyatt (aka Captain America), and Hopper, who plays his sidekick, Billy, both fell off their motorbikes several times, with Fonda breaking three ribs at one point.

Despite having a “ruined” movie, Hopper took Easy Rider to the Cannes Festival, where he won the prize for Best Film by a New Director. The film became one of the first to address a new generation of cinema-goers, depicting the flipside of the American dream and the difficulties of pursuing personal freedom. The film also launched the career of Jack Nicholson, hitherto known only as a bit-part player in B-movies. His Southern liberal lawyer character, George Hanson, remains one of the actor’s finest creations, although how he achieved such a memorable performance is yet another of the film’s mysteries. “One night, me and Dennis dropped acid on the tomb of DH Lawrence. We talked about art and friendship and what was going on in society. The next morning, I woke up on top of a 40ft tree. I have no idea how I got up there!”

production details
cast
Peter Fonda as Wyatt
Dennis Hopper as Billy
Antonio Mendoza as Jesus
Phil Spector as Connection
Jack Nicholson as George Hanson
Luke Askew as Stranger on Highway
Karen Black as Karen
Toni Basil as Mary
Mac Mashourian as Bodyguard
Warren Finnerty as Rancher
Tita Colorado as Rancher’s Wife
Luana Anders as Lisa
Sabrina Scharf as Sarah
Sandy Brown Wyeth as Joanne (as Sandy Wyeth)
Robert Walker Jr. as Jack (as Robert Walker)
Robert Ball as Mime #1
Ellie Wood Walker as Mime #3 (as Ellie Walker)
Philip Ettington as Child in Commune (uncredited)
Carmen Phillips as Mime #2

crew
Writers: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Producer: Peter Fonda
Director: Dennis Hopper

USA / Columbia – Pando – Raybert / 94 minutes / 1969 Filmed in Technicolor

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