By Laurence Lerman / New York City
In a roadside diner, a young customer, Jack Nicholson, wants a side order of wheat toast to go with his omelette. When the humorless waitress turns down his simple request—“No substitutions,” she grunts—Jack calmly tries to persuade her to accommodate him.
“What do you mean, you don’t make side orders of toast?,” he asks. “You make sandwiches, don’t you? You’ve got bread? And a toaster of some kind?
It all comes to a boil pretty quickly after that, with Nicholson then ordering a plain omelette and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast—no mayonnaise, no butter, not lettuce.
“Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich and you haven’t broken any rules,” he reasons.
“You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
“I want you to hold it between your knees,” he wise asses, using his forearm to angrily sweep everything off the table onto the waitress’s waiting apron.
That scene of anti-establishment alienation is one of the highlights of the moody 1970 drama Five Easy Pieces, co-written and directed by Bob Rafelson.
Rafelson died on Saturday, July 24, from lung cancer at his home in Aspen, Colo. He was 89.
With such films as the Academy Award-nominated Five Easy Pieces and its 1972 companion piece The King of Marvin Gardens (also starring Nicholson along with Bruce Dern and Ellen Burstyn), Rafelson distinguished himself as one of the leading filmmakers of the New Hollywood movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies.
But it wasn’t just his directing that earned him that status. In 1965, New York City-born Rafelson partnered with his friend Bert Schneider to form Raybert, a Los Angeles production house that the two imagined as a training ground for contemporary, up-and-coming directors—filmmakers for the counter-cultural era, as it were. One of Raybert’s first projects was for the small screen, though, inspired by Rafelson’s idea for a TV show about a rock’n’roll group (a pre-Beatles idea, he long claimed). The band he and Schneider created for TV was The Monkees and their eponymous series ran from 1966 to 1968, winning three Emmy Awards along the way.
With the addition of a third partner, Steve Blauner, a few years later, the company became known as BBS Productions and soon cranked out a few of the most renowned independent films of the era, including the Dennis Hopper-directed smash Easy Rider (1969), Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), Nicholson’s Drive, He Said (1971) and Rafelson’s own two efforts.
BBS produced only eight films over its seven-year run, but it was the company’s very existence that proved to be an influential model for a rising industry of independent producers and production houses. Of its three founders, only Rafelson continued to regularly produce and direct movies in the decades following the shuttering of BBS in 1972. Schneider died in 2011 and Blauner in 2015.
Though none of them embodied the rebellious, anti-authoritarian ethos of the BBS era, Rafelson’s directorial efforts, a number of which he-co-wrote, frequently focused on individualistic, combative protagonists. Among them were a scheming Theresa Russell, who married wealthy men before murdering them, and Debra Winger as a Justice Department agent obsessed with bringing her down in the suspenser Black Widow (1987); and embattled African explorers Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke (Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen) in the biographical Mountains of the Moon (1990). One of my favorites is the 1996 crime drama Blood and Wine, which finds philandering wine merchant Jack Nicholson and his sickly, safecracking partner Michael Caine teaming up for an ill-fated jewel heist.
Though he wasn’t an actor, Rafelson’s steely blue-eyed visage and grumbly voice made an impression upon me the few times he did pop up on the screen, often uncredited, in a handful of films (his own and others).
He made one such appearance in Mike Figgis’s 1995 tragic drama Leaving Las Vegas.
It’s during a scene where suicidal alcoholic Nicolas Cage has an ugly exchange of words with his prostitute companion Elisabeth Shue at a mall eatery, prompting him to rise from the table and head for the exit.
“Maybe you should wait,” says a man near the cashier, Rafelson, as he blocks Cage’s way.
“You can tell—she really wants you to,” replies Rafelson with an earnest nod, before he quietly walks off in Cage’s place.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.