Bob Rafelson, co-creator of The Monkees and key Hollywood new wave director, dies at 89 Movie

Bob Rafelson, a co-creator of The Monkees who became an influential figure in the New Hollywood era of the 1970s, has died. He was 89 years old. Rafelson died at his home in Aspen on Saturday night surrounded by his family, his wife Gabrielle Taurek Rafelson said.

Rafelson, along with the late Bert Schneider, was responsible for co-creating the fictional pop music group and television series The Monkees, which earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1967.

But Rafelson was perhaps best known for his work during the New Hollywood era, in which a classic studio system gave way to a range of rebellious young voices and fresh cinematic styles, helping to attract talent such as Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg.

Jessica Lange, left, and Jack Nicholson in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Photo: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Rafelson directed and co-wrote “Five Easy Pieces,” about an upper-class pianist yearning for a working-class 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 earned Rafelson two Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Screenplay in 1971.

Alongside Bert Schneider, Rafelson also produced seminal New Hollywood classics such as Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. Coppola once called him “one of the most important film artists of his time”.

The Monkees in 1967.
The Monkees in 1967. Photo: Archive Michael Ochs/Getty Images

Born in New York City, Rafelson was a distant relative of The Jazz Singer screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, who he says took an interest in his work. It was also in Dartmouth that he befriended legendary screenwriter Buck Henry. While serving in the US Army in Japan, he developed an interest in Japanese cinema and the films of Yasujiro Ozu, particularly Tokyo Story.

After college, Rafelson married his high school sweetheart Toby Carr, who worked as a production designer on his films and others. He started out in the entertainment business in television, writing for shows such as The Witness and The Greatest Show on Earth.

But The Monkees was his first big hit. The idea for The Monkees, he said, predates The Beatles and their comedy A Hard Day’s Night, but it captured the moment well when it premiered on NBC in 1966. It ran for two years and enabled Rafelson to direct it himself. The Monkees appeared in his directorial debut, Head, which would be the first of many collaborations with Nicholson. “I might have thought I started his career,” Nicholson told Esquire in 2019, “but I think he started my career.”

Karen Black and Jack Nicholson
Karen Black, left, and Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces. Photo: Columbia/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Rafelson was most proud of directing the 1990 film Mountains of the Moon, a biographical film that told the story of two explorers, Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, as they searched for the source of the Nile said Taurek Rafelson.

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 at the age of 10.

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