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Bob Rafelson, ‘Five Easy Pieces’ Director and Frequent Jack Nicholson Collaborator, Dead at 89

Rafelson was also known as a co-creator of "The Monkees."

Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson

Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson

Courtesy Everett Collection

Bob Rafelson, the writer, director, and producer who helped launch Jack Nicholson’s career while quietly working on some of the most influential films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, has died at the age of 89, his ex-wife Gabrielle Taurek confirmed.

Rafelson was best known for writing and directing “Five Easy Pieces” in 1970, which earned him critical acclaim and two Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. He also produced “Easy Rider” and “The Last Picture Show,” directed the “All Night Long” music video for Lionel Richie, and co-created “The Monkees.”

Born in New York City in 1933, Rafelson studied at Dartmouth College and was later stationed in Japan while serving in the U.S. Army. While there he found work as a translator of Japanese films, a job that led him to fall in love with the works of Yasujiro Ozu.

“I’d have to watch an Ozu movie over and over again — say, ‘Tokyo Story’ — and I was hypnotized by the stillness of his frames, his sureness of composition,” Rafelson later said. “So I suppose my own aesthetic evolved from looking at certain kinds of pictures — Bergman and Ozu and John Ford, if you will.”

Upon returning to America he found work as a television producer, eventually co-creating “The Monkees” with Bert Schneider. He came up with the idea after seeing “A Hard Day’s Night” and realizing that the adventures of a young rock band could generate endless stories for a television show. After advertising their open casting calls in newspapers, Rafelson and Schneider selected Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, and Peter Tork to be in the fictional band.

“The Monkees” ran from 1966-1968, generating plenty of hit radio singles in the process. In 1968, Rafelson decided it was time to take them to the big screen, and made his directorial debut on the Monkees movie “Head.” The surreal film was poorly received upon its initial release, but was notable for being the first collaboration between Rafelson and Jack Nicholson. They wrote the screenplay together, which led to Rafelson helping Nicholson produce another screenplay he wrote: “Easy Rider.”

“Easy Rider,” which was produced through Rafelson’s production company, became a counterculture classic and made stars out of Nicholson and his co-star and director Dennis Hopper. Rafelson then capitalized on Nicholson’s newfound fame by writing and directing “Five Easy Pieces.” The film, which stars Nicholson as an isolated oil rig worker who once demonstrated serious talent as a pianist, is an essential work of the New Hollywood movement and was critical to establishing Nicholson’s onscreen persona.

The filmmaker followed that by helping launch the career of another Hollywood rebel: Peter Bogdanovich. He produced “The Last Picture Show,” which earned Bogdanovich two Oscar nominations and established him as a filmmaker to watch.

Rafelson continued to collaborate with Nicholson, directing him in films such as “The King of Marvin Gardens” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” His final film as a director was the 2002 thriller “No Good Deed.”

Rafelson is survived by his sons Gabrielle, Ethan and Harper; his daughter-in-law Karen; and a nephew.

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