Many film fans remember Easy Rider for its extravagant use of choppers, illicit substances, and rock 'n' roll. Behind the scenes of Easy Rider, however, heated feuds ruined relationships and created a dark backstory for one of the best movies of all time. Often credited as one of the forerunners to the American counterculture film movement that began in the late 1960s, the movie made history by including contemporary songs on the soundtrack and displaying real substance use on screen.
The film launched Jack Nicholson's career, aided Peter Fonda's, and brought artistic credit to Dennis Hopper, who's always good for a wild story. Thought to be the very first American independent film, Easy Rider certainly earned its place in film history - what went on behind the scenes, though, makes its creation a truly amazing feat.
Making the film Easy Rider called for a lot of traveling, as its leads - two hippies affectionately named after Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp - cowboy their way across the country on motorcycles. They smoked, wore their hair long, and sought to beat the system to finally live life on their own terms. While the substance usage on screen occasionally caused problems off screen, things like accidents, inflated egos, and flaring tempers also caused turmoil. Conflicts between actors grew so large, irreparable rifts formed in tandem with several lawsuits. Like the tragic end of Billy and Wyatt, the men behind the film nearly took their classic masterpiece down in flames.
Hopper Made Fonda Use His Mother's Passing As Inspiration
One of the film's most memorable scenes involved Hopper and Fonda retreating to a cemetery in New Orleans with two escorts to drop acid. Without filming permits, Hopper, the other actors, and a small crew entered St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. A massive statue atop the Italian Benevolent Society tomb inspired Hopper.
He instructed Fonda to climb up and begin speaking to it. Hopper said, "Oh man, you gotta get up to the statue now. I want you to get up there and ask your old lady why she copped out on you."
Fonda's mother ended her own life when her son was 10 years old. Fonda refused this inspiration, saying he didn't want to substitute his own troubles for those of his character. Hopper insisted, however, claiming no one would understand the line's context.
Fonda replied, "Everybody will know, man! They all know what happened!" Despite his reservation, Fonda eventually complied, and the scene became one of the movie's most powerful.
Motorcycle Accidents, Fractured Ribs, And Pneumonia Plagued Production
Hopper recalled in 2016, "When you're riding motorcycles for as long as we were, you're going to fall off occasionally. I had a couple of spills. [Fonda] had a couple of spills. Someone crashed the camera car. A few cuts, a few bruises. Nobody [passed]."
Fonda was, however, admitted to a hospital for pnuemonia and fractured ribs. He claimed, "Riding behind someone [on a motorcycle] is always difficult, and when that front-end got a little squirrely, [Nicholson's] knees dug straight into my back. He broke three ribs on my left side. I didn't know until later that evening when I was trying not to exhale some substance."
The Production Forgot To Film One Of The Movie's Most Pivotal Scenes
Nearly two weeks after the crew finished filming, they realized they forgot to shoot the crucial ending scene in which Hopper and Fonda's characters discuss the meaning of their journey. After reassembling the crew and finding a filming spot in the Santa Monica mountains, Fonda and Hopper argued over the best dialogue to sum up their film's message.
Fonda recalled, "[Hopper] and I were arguing in this motor home. He wanted me to say all this stuff about how we blew our inheritance, we messed up our heritage... We were elevating the level of our conversation." Fonda insisted he simply mumble the line, "We blew it," instead of delivering a long sermon about what they did wrong.
Hopper agreed to film one take of Fonda's idea, and he immediately recognized its merits. When people later questioned what the line really meant, Fonda said he liked to tell them, "Look out the window. If you don't think we've blown it, you've got to take it a closer look."
Fonda And Hopper's Hippie Appearance Put Them In Peril
Fonda and Hopper occasionally encountered the very intolerance they attempted to capture in the film. Fonda recalled walking around in costume outside their Beverly Hills offices: "We were wearing our costumes to break them in, so the two of us were walking around looking like a couple of hippies. When we were on the street, people would run away from us!"
Hopper also found his appearance to be unwelcome in Southern areas, especially New Orleans. He said:
When we got to New Orleans, it was really dangerous because there were these marines who wanted to take me apart because I had long hair. You'd hear a lot of stories at that time of guys getting cut with razors and things. It was so bad that we skipped going to Texas.