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.
In 1967, writer Terry Southern signed on to help write Easy Rider at the behest of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, the film's instigators. The final film credited Southern for the screenplay due to Writers Guild rules, but Southern claimed Hopper and Fonda also demanded writing credit.
Southern conceded, later saying, "We were great friends at the time, so I went along with it without much thought. I actually did it out of a sense of camaraderie."
Eventually, however, Hopper and Fonda began fighting over who deserved credit for the film. "Terry Southern never wrote one f*cking word of Easy Rider. Only the title Easy Rider came from him," noted Hopper. "I wrote every word of the script. I directed every scene of the film... I made that f*cking movie, period."
Fonda said Hopper wanted him to sign a statement claiming he took no part in writing the script. In 1992, Hopper sued Fonda for full writing credit and claimed Fonda gypped him out of the film's earnings. The feud continued for years, and the two men never repaired their relationship before Hopper passed in 2010. Fonda was banned from attending his funeral.
Though several stories have circulated concerning Jack Nicholson's casting in a role originally meant for Rip Torn, the most popular of these involves a supposed restaurant fight between Torn and Dennis Hopper. At a 1967 dinner that included Torn, Hopper, Peter Fonda, and writer Terry Southern, Hopper claimed Torn pulled a knife on him, costing Torn his role in the movie.
Torn, however, claimed these events were reversed and that Hopper was the one to pull the knife. Torn claimed Hopper "jumped back and knocked [Fonda] on the floor, and [Torn] said, 'There goes the job."'
Torn maintained Hopper's claim impacted his career, even all the way into the 1990s. When Hopper unearthed the story again on a late-night talk show, Torn decided to sue. His defamation suit blamed Hopper's story for the fact Torn couldn't find work during a hiatus of The Larry Sanders Show, costing Torn $260,000. Witnesses, including Southern, sided with Torn's story, and a judge forced Hopper to compensate him close to $1 million.
Because the film focused on 1960s counterculture, illicit substances became an integral aspect of the movie, both on and off screen. Fonda remembered, "Everyone had their [medication] of choice on Easy Rider. [Hopper] had his drink, [Nicholson] smoked joints, and the crew dabbled with acid and dope."
In some cases, this usage actually appeared on screen, though Fonda noted the film never actually names the substance they smoke as cannabis. According to Jack Nicholson:
We were all stoned the night we shot the campfire scene... The story about me smoking 155 joints - that's a little exaggerated. But each time I did a take or an angle, it involved smoking almost an entire joint. After the first take or two, the acting job became reversed. Instead of being straight and having to act stoned at the end, I was now stoned at the beginning and having to act straight.
Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider agreed to produce Easy Rider using money they'd earned from creating The Monkees. They first gave Fonda and Hopper $40,000 to film some initial footage at Mardi Gras in New Orleans before the script was finished. Rafelson and Schneider agreed that, if they liked what they saw, they would fund the rest of the film.
Unfortunately, Fonda miscalculated the date of Mardi Gras, leaving the cast and crew only two weeks to prepare. The crew arrived in New Orleans unannounced, obtained no filming permits, captured their footage, and left.
According to cinematographer László Kovács, "[Hopper] rented 10 Bolex 16mm cameras. He gave them to the actors and asked them to shoot street scenes with color positive film. It doesn’t match the rest of the footage, but it's Mardi Gras and kind of psychedelic, so no one notices."