Cast & Crew
At an airstrip near the California-Mexico border Wyatt and Billy, two motorcyclists, sell a large quantity of cocaine to a pusher who handles the transaction from his chauffered Rolls Royce. Once Wyatt (who is called Captain America because of the stars and stripes on his jacket and bike) has concealed the cash in his cycle's gas tank, the two young men ride off, vaguely intending to reach New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Unwelcome at motels because of their nonconformist appearance, they camp outdoors and smoke marijuana until they fall asleep. After stopping at a ranch where they repair their bikes and join the rancher and his Mexican wife for a meal, they pick up a hitchhiker and accompany him to the commune where he lives. Despite the friendliness of the people working the barren soil and a pleasant swim with two women, Billy becomes impatient to leave, and the two once more take to the road. Upon arriving in a Texas town, where a civic celebration is in progress, Wyatt and Billy join the procession and are jailed for "parading without a permit." Sharing their cell is alcoholic George Hanson, a civil rights lawyer who prefers sleeping off his binges in jail to facing the wrath of his wealthy father, one of the town leaders. A quick camaraderie develops among the three men; George intercedes and prevents jail officials from giving the two traditional haircuts, and he accepts their invitation to ride with them, mainly because he has always wanted to visit the House of Blue Lights in New Orleans. One night while sitting around a fire, George smokes his first joint and joyfully elucidates his theory that creatures from Venus are already living among us. The next day the three travelers stop at a small luncheonette but leave when confronted by open hostility and bigotry. That night they are attacked at their camp site by thugs who pummel George to death and leave Wyatt and Billy badly beaten. Incapable of voicing their feelings, Wyatt and Billy pay tribute to George by riding on to New Orleans and visiting the House of Blue Lights. Finding that neither the prostitutes nor the Mardi Gras festivities can overcome their moroseness, they go to a nearby cemetery to take LSD with two of the prostitutes. When the acid trip turns out to be a bad one that leaves Wyatt and Billy more despondent than before, they take to the highways again. Though Billy suggests they change direction and head for Florida, Wyatt senses the futility of continuing. The next morning they are passed on the road by two men in a pickup truck who decide to scare the two longhairs by pointing a shotgun at them. When Billy responds with a gesture of defiance, one of the men fires a shot that hits him in the stomach. After trying to reassure his dying friend, Wyatt leaps on his cycle to ride off for help, but the truck has turned back, and this time the man with the gun takes deliberate aim and blasts Wyatt and his motorcycle off the road.
Robert Walker [jr.]
George Fowler Jr.
Arnold Hess Jr.
Buddy Causey Jr.
Blase M. Dawson
Paul Guedry Jr.
Elida Ann Hebert
Mary Kaye Hebert
David C. Billodeau
William L. Hayward
Peter Heiser Jr.
Le Roy Robbins
Jaime Robbie Robertson
Larry Jay Wagner
Best Supporting Actor
Best Writing, Screenplay
On the surface, Easy Rider appears to be nothing more than the story of two drug dealers who become rich from a cocaine deal and travel from the California-Mexico border to New Orleans in time to celebrate Mardi Gras. But the film is much more than that and shows a diverse cross section of American culture that encompasses lifestyle experimentation (the hippie commune), intolerance (the hostile locals at a backwater Louisiana diner), and wanderlust (the motorcycle becomes a symbol for freedom). It is the ultimate "road trip" movie and even though it ends in tragedy the movie celebrates the natural beauty of rural America in a startlingly fresh way, juxtaposing the two cyclists against stunning landscapes and ever-changing vistas on their journey.
According to producer Peter Fonda, the idea for Easy Rider came to him during a publicity tour in Toronto where he was promoting Roger Corman's The Trip (1967). While autographing photographs, a still from The Wild Angels (1966) triggered an epiphany. "I understood immediately just what kind of motorcycle, sex, and drug movie I should make next," Fonda wrote in his autobiography. "It would not be about one hundred Hell's angels on their way to a funeral. It would be about the Duke and Jeffrey Hunter looking for Natalie Wood. I would be the Duke and [Dennis] Hopper would be my Ward Bond; America would be our Natalie Wood. And after a long journey to the East across John Ford's America, what would become of us? We would be blasted to bits by narrow-minded, redneck poachers at dawn, just outside of Heaven, Florida, and the bed of their pickup would be full of ducks. I mean really full of ducks."
In his excitement, Fonda called his friend Dennis Hopper in the middle of the night, waking him up to pitch the idea. "You direct, I'll produce, we'll both write and star in it," Fonda announced, and Hopper happily agreed, his mind already racing with ideas. Then Fonda went on location to France to shoot "Metzengerstein," a segment of the three-part fantasy film Spirits of the Dead (1968), directed by Roger Vadim and co-starring his sister Jane. It was during production that he met writer Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove , Candy ), who was visiting Jane and Vadim, and their conversation led to Peter's project. Southern told him "It's the most commercial story I have ever heard. And a real pip of an ending! I'm your man!"
With Southern on board to help fashion and write the screenplay, Fonda returned to Los Angeles where Hopper had been developing story ideas and gotten a commitment from Rip Torn to play a pivotal role in the film, an alcoholic Texas lawyer the two bikers meet in jail. A recording session was soon set up by Southern, Hopper described the story in detail and the tape was transcribed and edited down to a twenty-one page treatment.
Fonda and Hopper initially pitched the project to American International Pictures with Roger Corman as executive producer but the studio responded with too many restrictions and changes for their liking. Instead, Fonda decided to attempt another project in the interim, a political fantasy entitled The Queen, which he, Hopper, and poet-playwright Michael McClure presented to director/producer Bob Rafelson, who had a creative partnership with Bert Schneider entitled Raybert Productions. The two producers, who became wealthy off their hit TV series The Monkees, passed on The Queen but inquired about Fonda's undeveloped motorcycle film. Before Fonda and Hopper left the office they had a production deal with a set budget but a limited time to shoot it since Mardi Gras was fast approaching and figured prominently in their movie.
Fonda and Hopper quickly pulled a film crew together and along with two actresses, Karen Black and dancer/choreographer Toni Basil playing prostitutes, traveled to New Orleans to shoot the first footage of Easy Rider. It was a chaotic and undisciplined shoot not helped by the easy availability of drugs and alcohol during filming. Hopper, in particular, grew increasingly paranoid and controlling, screaming at one point, "This is my f*cking movie, and nobody is going to take it away from me!" He even got into a brawl with Barry Feinstein, the main cinematographer, over filming some neon lights in the rain and in the shuffle Hopper broke a guitar over Barry and threw a TV set at him. As a result, Laszlo Kovacs became the head cinematographer on the movie.
Hopper's manic behavior began to put a strain on his relationship with Fonda who felt particularly manipulated by him while filming the LSD freakout scene in the New Orleans cemetery. "Dennis asked me to get up on a statue and ask my mother why she abandoned me by suicide. I told him that simply because he had personal knowledge of my family's darkness-at-the-break-of-noon, he didn't have the right to make me take it so public....Dennis told me I had to speak to her. I kept insisting it didn't fit, that it was wrong, that it wasn't fair of him to ask me to do it. I finally demanded that he give me one good reason to do it. "'Cause I'm the director! he shouted, wiping the tears from his cheeks."
After the New Orleans filming was finished the company returned to Los Angeles and Hopper completed the casting process, hiring familiar character actors such as Luke Askew (Cool Hand Luke , The Green Berets ) and Warren Finnerty (The Pawnbroker ) and fellow players from AIP and other exploitation films - Luana Anders (The Trip), Robert Walker, Jr. (The Savage Seven ), Sabrina Scharf (Hell's Angels on Wheels ). Hopper also replaced Rip Torn (who either refused to do the role for scale or had a falling out with Hopper, according to varying sources) with Jack Nicholson in the role of George Hanson. Hopper wanted to hire an actor from Texas at first but Fonda convinced him that Nicholson would inhabit the role completely. And of course, George Hanson turns out to be the most completely developed and memorable character in Easy Rider. Nicholson embroidered his role with little touches that brought George to life such as the ni-ck, ni-ck, ni-ck gesture he displays after taking a swig of booze; that was stolen from a friend of his who was nicknamed Reddog.
Nicholson later confessed in an interview in Time magazine that the cast had smoked 155 joints while filming the scenes around the campfire. "Each time I did a take or angle," Nicholson told Playboy magazine afterward, "it involved smoking almost an entire joint...Now, the main portion of this sequence is the transition from not being stoned to being stoned. So that after the first take or two the acting job becomes reversed. Instead of being straight and having to act stoned at the end, I'm not stoned at the beginning and having to act straight - and then gradually let myself return to where I was - which was very stoned. It was an unusual reverse acting problem. And Dennis was hysterical off-camera most of the time this was happening; in fact, some of the things that you see in the film - like my looking away and trying to keep myself from breaking up - were caused by my looking at Dennis off-camera over in the bushes, totally freaked out of his bird, laughing his head off while I'm in there trying to do my Lyndon Johnson and keep everything together."
After filming was completed on Easy Rider, Hopper worked for twenty-two weeks on editing the footage down from a four hour version to two hours and forty five minutes. Then editor Donn Cambern, working with Fonda and the executive producers, over Hopper's objections, reduced the film to its current 95 minute running time which was the version that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Hopper received the "Best First Work" award at Cannes and the wildly enthusiastic reception the film received there set the tone for the movie's reception in the U.S.
Unlike previous films about the counterculture that were dismissed or ignored by the mainstream critical establishment, Easy Rider enjoyed widespread praise. Howard Smith of The Village Voice wrote, "Terry Southern wrote the script which will do for Fonda what none of his other roles did. That is, make him an enormous hero-star. He comes off like a combination of Clint Eastwood and James Dean. Hopper....somehow got his head together enough to pull off one of the most powerful movies I have ever seen." Archer Winsten in the New York Post said, "Individual scenes are so well and truly made that they remain in the mind like your own experience....It's happening. It's not a movie." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times noted, "From its deceptively amusing beginnings to its swift and terrible end, Easy Rider is an astonishing work of art and an overpowering motion picture experience." Almost everyone seemed to concur since the movie went on to become the fourth most profitable movie of the year - falling in line behind Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Love Bug and Midnight Cowboy - and it even received two Oscar® nominations, one for Jack Nicholson (Best Supporting Actor) and one for the screenplay by Terry Southern, Fonda and Hopper.
Most importantly, Easy Rider represented a crossroads in the film industry, one where the old Hollywood system had become stagnant while young filmmakers were revitalizing the medium with fresh, creative ideas that were having a real impact on the culture and their generation. The movie was responsible for launching Jack Nicholson's career at a time when he was about to give up acting for producing. And it certainly enabled Fonda and Hopper to pursue their own separate visions on film while maintaining creative control.
Unfortunately, the tensions that arose between Fonda and Hopper during the making of Easy Rider erupted into an ongoing dispute over the "authorship" of the movie with Hopper claiming solo credit for the story idea and script in a lawsuit. Hopper, in turn, was later sued by Rip Torn for spreading lies about a physical confrontation the two had in a public restaurant, which may have been the reason Torn was replaced by Jack Nicholson in the film. None of this matters much to fans of the movie who return to it repeatedly for its iconic soundtrack featuring songs by Steppenwolf, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix and others, the innovative, freewheeling cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs, Nicholson's scene-stealing performance and the movie's fresh take on two young nonconformists looking for the real America.
"There are so many people around the world who come up to me and tell me that Easy Rider changed their lives," Peter Fonda wrote in his autobiography. "Most of the long-distance riders I meet tell me that I started the whole thing. I didn't start it at all. I just put it on film."
Producer: Peter Fonda
Director: Dennis Hopper
Screenplay: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Art Direction: Jerry Kay
Film Editing: Donn Cambern
Cast: Wyatt (Peter Fonda), Billy (Dennis Hopper), Connection (Phil Spector), Bodyguard (Mac Mashourian), Rancher (Warren Finnerty), Rancher's wife (Tita Colorado), George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), Karen (Karen Black).
by Jeff Stafford
Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir by Peter Fonda
Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson by Patrick McGilligan
The Fondas: The Films and Careers of Henry, Jane & Peter Fonda by John Shipman Springer
The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits by Susan Sackett
The Making of Easy Rider featurette on the 35th Anniversary Deluxe DVD Edition
I'm hip about time.- Captain America
This used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it.- George Hanson
Here's the first of the day, fellas! To old D.H. Lawrence.- George Hanson
Neh! Neh! Neh! Fuh! Fuh! Fuh! Indians.- George Hanson
Lord have mercy! Is that what that is?- George Hanson
The governor of Louisiana gave me this. Madame Tinkertoy's House of Blue Lights, corner of Bourbon and Toulouse, New Orleans, Louisiana. Now, this is supposed to be the finest whorehouse in the south. These ain't no pork chops! These are U.S. PRIME!- George Hanson
Rip Torn was originally cast in the role of George Hanson.
The Captain America jacket was designed by Peter Fonda and made by "two little old ladies" in Los Angeles. It was later sold at a charity auction.
According to Peter Fonda, four police bikes were customized for the film. One was burned during filming, and the other three were stolen before filming was completed.
Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson were actually smoking marijuana on camera.
The final campfire scene was left out of the original shooting schedule and was shot after both motorcycles had been stolen.
Filmed on location between California and New Orleans, Louisiana. The LSD sequence was shot in 16mm.
Winner of Best First Film Prize at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival.
Released in United States Summer July 14, 1969
Re-released in United States July 15, 1994
Re-released in United States July 22, 1994
Released in United States 1996
Released in United States 1999
Feature directorial debut for Dennis Hopper.
Released in USA on video.
Selected in 1998 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
The film's "LSD sequence" was shot in 16mm.
Released in United States Summer July 14, 1969
Re-released in United States July 15, 1994 (Los Angeles)
Re-released in United States July 22, 1994 (New York City)
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Out of the Seventies: Hollywood's New Wave 1969-1975" May 31 - July 25, 1996.)
Released in United States 1999 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Columbia 75" November 19 - January 13, 1999.)