Army Vet Bob Rafelson Created The Monkees, Then Revolutionized Hollywood

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Bob Rafelson
Director Bob Rafelson on the set of "Mountains of the Moon." (Carolco Pictures)

Army veteran Bob Rafelson was an iconoclastic producer and director who made a fortune in television with his manufactured pop group The Monkees and went on to found the studio that would make such iconic movies as "Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces," "The Last Picture Show," "Stay Hungry" and the Oscar-winning Vietnam War documentary "Hearts and Minds." He died July 23, 2022, at age 89.

Rafelson grew up in New York City but left home to work at a rodeo in Arizona and play in a jazz band in Acapulco, Mexico, before attending Dartmouth College. After graduation in the early '50s, he was drafted into the Army and served in Japan, working as a disc jockey for the Far East Network of military radio and television stations. The New York Times reports that he was court-martialed twice, once for striking an officer and once for cursing on the air.

After his military service, Rafelson ended up in Hollywood working in various writing and producing roles. His first big break came when he created the hit television series "The Monkees," a show about a made-up band inspired by the Beatles. It turned out that the young actors cast in the show, one of whom was Air Force veteran Mike Nesmith, had musical ambitions of their own, and a show that could have been just a cynical knockoff ended up giving music fans one of the most beloved groups of the era.

Related: Air Force Vet Michael Nesmith Was More Than Just a Monkee

Rafelson made the jump to movies when he directed and co-wrote (with Jack Nicholson) The Monkees' 1968 feature film "Head," a psychedelic trip of a film made after NBC had canceled the television show.

Rafelson was a partner in BBS Productions alongside Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner. The company next made Dennis Hopper's massive 1969 hit "Easy Rider," which credited Peter Fonda as sole producer even though Rafelson worked on the picture. BBS was a nontraditional production company, and its team worked on multiple projects at once without a lot of concern for traditional film credits.

Next came "Five Easy Pieces," which starred Nicholson as a rich kid who drops out of society to work on California oil rigs. Rafelson produced, directed and came up with the story idea. The movie was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Nicholson, Best Supporting Actress for Karen Black and Best Original Screenplay for Rafelson and writer Carole Eastman. Black won the Golden Globe for her performance.

BBS then made "The Last Picture Show" with Peter Bogdanovich and Polly Platt. That hit was nominated for eight Oscars, with Ben Johnson winning Best Supporting Actor and Cloris Leachman winning the Best Supporting Actress award. Once again, Rafelson worked behind the scenes as an uncredited producer in support of first-timer Stephen J. Friedman.

He was also the uncredited producer for the controversial 1974 Vietnam War documentary "Hearts and Minds," which won his credited partner Schneider an Oscar for Best Documentary. The film was controversial at the time for the equal weight it gave to Vietnamese perspectives on the conflict, but it's since been named to the National Film Registry for its historical significance.

Rafelson then directed "Stay Hungry," a 1976 crime movie set in the world of bodybuilding starring Jeff Bridges, Sally Field and a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut - Male.

After a mixed reception to his 1981 remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" starring Nicholson and Jessica Lange and based on the novel by World War I veteran James M. Cain, Rafelson became a director-for-hire, making Lionel Richie's music video for the No. 1 hit "All Night Long (All Night)" in 1983 and movies like 1987's "Black Widow" with Debra Winger and Theresa Russell, 1990's "Mountains of the Moon," 1992's "Man Trouble" with Nicholson and Ellen Barkin, 1996's "Blood and Wine" with Nicholson and Michael Caine, and the 1998 HBO movie "Poodle Springs" with James Caan. Rafelson retired to Aspen, Colorado, around the turn of the century and lived out his last two decades in the mountains.

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