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Bob Rafelson, 'Five Easy Pieces' director and 'The Monkees' co-creator, has died

American film director, writer and producer Bob Rafelson, pictured in this 1981 photo, died at his home in Aspen, Colo., on Saturday. He was 89.
AP
American film director, writer and producer Bob Rafelson, pictured in this 1981 photo, died at his home in Aspen, Colo., on Saturday. He was 89.

Updated July 25, 2022 at 4:19 PM ET

Bob Rafelson, the maverick producer/writer/director who rode the counterculture groundswell of the 1960s and '70s as deftly as anyone in Hollywood, died on Saturday at his home in Aspen, Colo. He was 89.

He spent his career upending conventions, though his breakthrough project didn't suggest he'd do that. When your showbiz calling-card is that you helped invent a TV boy-band to spoof the Beatles, nobody expects you to turn around and pioneer a whole new filmmaking style.

Still, it was his success as co-creator of The Monkees that helped bankroll the production company that made him a central figure of what was known as the American New Wave.

In just a few years, Rafelson's company produced Dennis Hopper's groundbreaking Easy Rider, Peter Bogdanovich's black and white masterwork The Last Picture Show, the Oscar-winning Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds, and Rafelson's own road-trip film, Five Easy Pieces, probably best known for a scene in which Jack Nicholson finds a complicated work-around for a roadside diner's no-substitutions policy.

Though that widely imitated scene is comic, Five Easy Pieces is something of a tragicomedy – the story of a once-brilliant classical pianist who's been knocking around as a rough-mannered oil-rigger, but is caught up short by the news that his father is dying. The film, for which Rafelson came up with the story, is subtle and thoughtful, with something of Chekhov to it. And it brought out a vulnerability in Nicholson that feels, in retrospect, like a revelation.

Five Easy Pieces was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Actor for Nicholson, and best picture and screenplay for Rafelson. And it served as a model for the sort of independent, introspective films these two men would specialize in — six in all, including a remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on the noir novel by James M. Caine. In Postman, Rafelson teamed his leading man with Jessica Lange, who was having trouble getting substantial roles after her debut in the remake of King Kong. Also on the set was a young first-time screenwriter named David Mamet.

Though the film was reasonably well received, Rafelson's career, by that time, was mostly in the rear-view mirror. Postman was the last film he produced, and though he continued writing and directing for two more decades, none of his later projects connected with audiences as his early work had.

Still, as a nurturer of indie talent, and a producer who turned the actors and writers he worked with into stars, his influence has long outlived his presence on Hollywood backlots.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.