Bob Rafelson, an influential figure in the New Hollywood era of the 1970s who was nominated for two Oscars for Five Easy Pieces, has died. He was 89.
Rafelson died at his home in Aspen Saturday night surrounded by his family, said his wife, Gabrielle Taurek Rafelson.
Rafelson was responsible for co-creating the fictional pop music group and television series The Monkees alongside the late Bert Schneider, which won him an Emmy for outstanding comedy series in 1967.
But he was perhaps best known for his work during the New Hollywood era, which saw a classical studio system giving way to a batch of rebellious young voices and fresh filmmaking styles, and helped usher in talents like Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg.
Rafelson directed and co-wrote Five Easy Pieces, about an upper-class pianist who yearns for a more blue-collar life, and The King of Marvin Gardens, about a depressed late-night-radio talk show host. Both films starred Jack Nicholson and explored themes of the American dream gone haywire. Five Easy Pieces got Rafelson two Oscar nominations in 1971, for best picture and screenplay.
He also produced seminal New Hollywood classics including Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider.
Coppola once called him “one of the most important cinematic artists of his era” and his fans include Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson.
Rafelson was born in New York City and was a distant relative of The Jazz Singer screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, who he said took an interest in his work. At Dartmouth he also became friends with legendary screenwriter Buck Henry.
He developed an interest in Japanese cinema and the films of Yasujiro Ozu, especially Tokyo Story, while serving in the U.S. Army in Japan.
After college, Rafelson married his high school sweetheart, who would work as a production designer on his films and others. He got his start in the entertainment business in television, writing for shows like The Witness and The Greatest Show on Earth.
But The Monkees was his first big success. The idea for The Monkees, he said, predated The Beatles and the musical comedy A Hard Day’s Night, but it hit the moment well when it premiered on NBC in 1966. It ran for two years and allowed Rafelson to take a stab at directing himself.
The Monkees also appeared in his feature directorial debut, Head, which would be the first of many collaborations with Nicholson.
“I may have thought I started his career,” Nicholson told Esquire in 2019, “but I think he started my career.”
Rafelson was proudest of the 1990 film he directed, Mountains of the Moon, a biographical movie that told the story of two explorers, Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, as they searched for the source of the Nile, his wife said.
Rafelson's own adventures to places like Morocco, India, southeast Asia, Mexico and Guatemala influenced his work, she said.
“He loved nothing more than disappearing into strange pockets of the world,” Taurek Rafelson said.
Rafelson left Hollywood two decades ago to focus on raising two sons with Taurek Rafelson, Ethan and Harper, in Aspen. He and his first wife, Toby Rafelson, also had two children, Peter, and Julie, who died in 1973 when she was 10 years old.
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