Inspired by A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Rafelson and Bert Schneider – his partner in the independent production company Raybert – began kicking around the idea of a TV show about a band “more interested in having fun than making a living”. 437 hopefuls responded to a Variety ad seeking “4 insane boys, [aged] 17-21”; the successful applicants – Jones, Nesmith, Dolenz and Tork – were dispatched on a six-week improv course.
The show’s goofily knowing house style didn’t arrive instantly: a pilot polled direly in testing. Yet elevated by solid-gold songwriting and Rafelson’s editorial finesse, the prefab four soon topped TV and pop charts. Two Emmy-winning seasons later, all parties signed off with Head (1968), a full-length farewell/comedown featuring a heavy psychedelic influence – Rafelson’s co-writer was drug-savvy pal Jack Nicholson – and cameos from Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa and Dennis Hopper.
Nobody knew what to make of it. Rafelson shrugged “I thought I would never get to make another movie, so I might as well make fifty to start out with and put them all in the same feature.” Sheer audacity left it a cult film in waiting, but upon release it seemed to shake off its own target audience. “[It was] so audacious”, Rafelson later mused, “that nobody saw the f**king thing.”
Raybert became BBS with the addition of new partner Steve Blauner, and nudged back into the black thanks to Hopper’s pet project Easy Rider (1969), the lowish-budget state-of-the-nation sensation that changed the movie business overnight. With studios now aggressively pursuing everything youth, Rafelson was tempted into directing once more.
Five Easy Pieces was founded on a semi-autobiographical narrative – fleshed out by screenwriter Carole Eastman – about a gifted pianist (Nicholson) who goes on the run from conventional society, telling onlookers “I move around a lot. Not because I’m looking for anything really, but to get away from things that go bad if I stay.” Influenced by what he’d seen on his own travels, Rafelson demonstrated a new way of looking at the American landscape, as equally inviting and alienating.
The film moved critics and audiences alike; it earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Screenplay, while Nicholson – hitherto a toothsome B-movie cad – found himself nominated for Best Actor. As the latter later admitted: “I may have thought I started [Bob’s] career, but I think he started my career.”
The King of Marvin Gardens leaned even further into introspection, with its tale of a depressive DJ (Nicholson) guilted by his unreliable brother (Bruce Dern) into backing a doomed casino venture. The muted responses matched the movie – Roger Ebert called it “original, individual and often frustrating” – although the performers drew praise, and the film endures, both as a record of its moment and of a pre-corporate Atlantic City.
After bankrolling several other successes – including The Last Picture Show (1971) and the Oscar-winning Vietnam doc Hearts and Minds (1974) – BBS folded in 1973, just before the space for non-studio fare narrowed decisively. Upon watching Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), Rafelson turned to the stars of his shaggily amiable bodybuilding caper Stay Hungry (1976), telling them: “This is the death of the movie you’re in right now”. He was right, and several difficult years followed.
After straying repeatedly, Rafelson divorced his high-school sweetheart (and regular production designer) Toby Carr in 1977. Hired to direct prison drama Brubaker (1980), he was fired just days into shooting after scuffling with producer Richard Berger. Rafelson called this period “the most painful experience of my life”. Suddenly on the wrong side of the studio gates, he wound up finishing a French porn film for ready money.
It was Nicholson who retrieved him, soliciting Rafelson to oversee his next vehicle, a David Mamet-penned update of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981). Critics were sniffy, yet audiences were more responsive, lured by X-rated sex scenes and (unfounded) did-they-or-didn’t-they muckraking: the film made a respectable $44m, kickstarting a run of studio-backed erotic thrillers.
After a cast screening, Nicholson embraced the wild-maned Rafelson and declared: “Curly, this picture is going to get me laid for the next ten years.” Yet the film’s best review came years later from a Russian Orthodox monk Rafelson encountered on his travels, who insisted Postman was “one of the best dirty movies I’ve ever seen… [It’s what] drove me to the monastery.”
Robert Jay Rafelson was born on February 21, 1933, to an alcoholic mother and a hat manufacturer on New York’s Upper East Side who wanted his son to follow him into the family business. Yet young Bob felt closer to his uncle Samson Raphaelson, screenwriter of Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Suspicion (1941). (The older Rafelson joked that if his uncle liked one of his films, “then I was his favourite nephew. But if he didn’t like it, I was a distant cousin.")
He left home at fourteen, working as a rodeo rider, a deckhand, and a jazz musician. He studied philosophy at Dartmouth College, then completed his military service in Japan, where he helped the Shochiku studio translate films into English: “I’d have to watch an Ozu movie over and over again – say, Tokyo Story (1953) – and I was hypnotised by the stillness of his frames, his sureness of composition.”
He enrolled at Banaras Hindu University to study Hindi, but never showed up for classes. Instead, Rafelson returned to New York, serving as story editor on the TV anthology series Play of the Week (1959-60). He moved to L.A. in 1962, but his pre-Monkees TV career stalled after a violent row with Universal chief Lew Wassermann over a casting matter (“We weren’t on the same page”).
Rafelson returned to pop in 1984, directing Lionel Richie’s buoying “All Night Long” video. Yet elsewhere he appeared stifled by American media’s newly glossy repackaging. Ebert found Rafelson’s erotic thriller Black Widow (1987) “an interesting movie struggling to escape from a fatal overload of commercial considerations”.
Mountains of the Moon (1990) was more to critics’ liking: a stirring, big-picture portrait of Rafelson’s childhood hero, the adventurer Richard Francis Burton. Yet something so adult was doomed against Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; the film recouped but $4m of its $18m budget. Man Trouble (1992), a retrograde sex comedy pairing Nicholson with Ellen Barkin, helped nobody’s cause.
Thereafter, Rafelson retreated to safe, familiar ground, reteaming with Nicholson on the solid thriller Blood and Wine (1996) and handing James Caan a decent late role as an aging Philip Marlowe in the HBO telemovie Poodle Springs (1998). His final film, the Dashiell Hammett-derived neo-noir No Good Deed (2002), went direct-to-DVD in the UK.
He settled by his beloved Rocky Mountains, but never lost his yen for travel. In a 1990 interview, he reflected on how that impacted his career: “No-one knows where I am. I do have certain misgivings about travelling so much. Let’s face it — I’m not prolific. But I’m not sure there’s such a great virtue in being busy all the time. I like being idle, idle in the sense that I can be curious and go off in different directions.”
He is survived by his second wife, Gabrielle Taurak, whom he married in 1999, and by three sons, one from his first marriage and two from his second. (His daughter Julie died following a gas stove explosion in 1973.)
Bob Rafelson, born February 21, 1933, died July 23, 2022.