“Dude’ means a nice guy, you know? ‘Dude’ means a regular sort of person’” – Wyatt
Cinema’s most countercultural road trip, Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film Easy Rider is a hippie romp that would become part of the fabric of the late 20th-century movement. Chronicling a modern American odyssey, perpetuated by the ideals of the bohemian subculture, Easy Rider is one of the 1960s most iconic films and one that would be celebrated for years to come.
Speaking in an interview in 2019, just shortly before the actor’s death in the same year, lead actor of Easy Rider, Peter Fonda, discussed the film’s pertinent legacy. “People ask me if it’s still relevant,” Fonda said. “And I’ll say, ‘Well, go out and look out your window and tell me we haven’t blown it'”. Continuing, the actor states, “I can just say that I’m still looking for America. That was the thing; a man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere. I’m still looking. I hope I don’t start turning over rocks”.
“If you don’t participate you just sit on the sides and you’re taking up space and wasting oxygen. We have a lot to do. We have a climate to deal with, a country to deal with,” Fonda rightfully noted. Easy Rider was a provocative piece of filmmaking that made way for real-life change, inspiring many to become political and engage with social ideas.
Though behind the scenes of the film, the production proved to be turbulent. Let’s take a look at 10 of the most surprising stories from the making of Easy Rider:
The drugs consumed in the film were real
The use of controlled substances was an integral part of 1960s counterculture, so naturally, it came to be a key feature of Dennis Hopper’s iconic film.
As Peter Fonda recalls, “Everyone had their [medication] of choice on Easy Rider. [Hopper] had his drink, [Nicholson] smoked joints, and the crew dabbled with acid and dope”. In some scenes, the cast can even be seen intoxicated on screen, with Jack Nicholson commenting, “We were all stoned the night we shot the campfire scene… The story about me smoking 155 joints – that’s a little exaggerated. But each time I did a take or an angle, it involved smoking almost an entire joint”.
Its soundtrack was the first of its kind
Orchestral music scores were the usual soundtracks of choice when it came to cinema, though editor Donn Cambern and director Dennis Hopper were feeling revolutionary so added contemporary music to their hours of footage.
As Hopper recalled, “No one had really used found music in a movie before, except to play on radios or when someone was singing in a scene. But I wanted Easy Rider to be kind of a time capsule for that period, so while I was editing the film I would listen to the radio”.
The screenwriter “never wrote one f*cking word” according to Dennis Hopper
Credited as a co-writer on the film Terry Southern signed on to help pen Easy Rider alongside Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. According to Writers Guild rules Southern was credited with writing the film though said that Hopper and Fonda each demanded a writing credit too.
“We were great friends at the time, so I went along with it without much thought. I actually did it out of a sense of camaraderie,” Southern later stated. Though, in a rage of fury, Dennis Hopper would state that “Terry Southern never wrote one f*cking word of Easy Rider. Only the title Easy Rider came from him…I wrote every word of the script. I directed every scene of the film… I made that f*cking movie, period”.
Fonda and Hopper’s appearance put them in danger in America’s deep South
Wyatt and Billy, the film’s two lead characters, experience prejudiced intolerance for their looks wherever they travel across America, though this same bigotry was also experienced by the actors themselves.
Peter Fonda recalls walking outside their Beverly Hills offices dressed in character, noting that, “We were wearing our costumes to break them in, so the two of us were walking around looking like a couple of hippies. When we were on the street, people would run away from us!”.
Hopper also commented that they felt particularly unwelcome in the South, stating, “When we got to New Orleans, it was really dangerous because there were these marines who wanted to take me apart because I had long hair. You’d hear a lot of stories at that time of guys getting cut with razors and things. It was so bad that we skipped going to Texas”.
Arguments over who engineered the film’s motorcycles lasted for years
“I built the motorcycles that I rode and Dennis rode. I bought four of them from Los Angeles Police Department. I love the political incorrectness of that… And five Black guys from Watts helped me build these,” Peter Fonda stated, claiming that the motorcycles were built from his own hand.
Years later, two bike engineers Ben Hardy and designer Clifford “Soney” Vaughs claimed to be the minds behind the iconic two-wheeled vehicles. Hopper would later credit Vaughs for the design of the bikes in a DVD commentary for the film in 2009, though the true definitive story remains a mystery.
A knife incident cost Rip Torn Jack Nicholson’s role
Actor Rip Torn was originally penned in to play the role of George Hanson, a character eventually depicted by Jack Nicholson, with the reason for this switch allegedly being a restaurant fight between Torn and Dennis Hopper.
Allegedly at a dinner in 1967 that included, Torn, Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, the director Hopper claimed Torn pulled a knife on him, however, Torn claims it was Hopper who pulled the knife. Quite why a knife was pulled at all remains a mystery, though when Rip Torn sued Dennis Hopper, blaming the director for the fact he couldn’t find work following his departure from the film.
Witnesses included Terry Southern who sided with Rip Torn, and Dennis Hopper was forced to compensate the actor with close to $1 million.
Pneumonia and several accidents plagued the production
“When you’re riding motorcycles for as long as we were, you’re going to fall off occasionally. I had a couple of spills. [Fonda] had a couple of spills. Someone crashed the camera car. A few cuts, a few bruises. Nobody [passed],” Hopper recalls about the production of the 1969 film.
Whilst Hopper may describe it as “a couple of spills”, the reality was that Peter Fonda found himself admitted to hospital with pneumonia and fractured ribs.
Fonda claimed that, “Riding behind someone [on a motorcycle] is always difficult, and when that front-end got a little squirrely, [Nicholson’s] knees dug straight into my back. He broke three ribs on my left side. I didn’t know until later that evening when I was trying not to exhale some substance”.
The actors lived like the characters and were always ready to improvise
Much of Easy Rider is improvised, with the cast and crew travelling around in a mobile home with two five-ton trucks carrying film equipment, often searching for any location that looked interesting to film in.
As the cinematographer, László Kovács explained, “If I saw something interesting that wasn’t in the plan, we pulled over to the side, which was a signal that we were going to be [filming]. They’d get the bikes ready. Peter and Dennis were always in wardrobe; there was no makeup… I just [captured] what felt right”.
Hopper’s temper offered some on-set challenges
Fueled by alcohol and paranoia, Dennis Hopper’s temper led him to, at one point in the film’s production, stand in a parking lot and scream, “This is my f*cking movie and nobody’s going to take my f*cking movie away from me!”.
It had come after years of being blacklisted by Hollywood studios, such as one incident in 1955 when Hopper met with Columbia Pictures to discuss a possible contract. Though when an executive suggested he take acting classes, Hopper erupted with rage and the actor was subsequently banned from any future pictures.
The production crew forgot to film the films most important scene
Two weeks after the crew had completed filming, they suddenly forgot that they had forgotten to shoot the scene in which Fonda and Hopper’s characters discuss the meaning of their journey. The cast and crew had to subsequently reassemble in the Santa Monica mountains to film the pivotal moment.
Peter Fonda insisted on saying the line “we blew it”, rather than the planned elaborate monologue, with Hopper eventually agreeing to the idea, recognising the merits of the simple, impactful line.