On the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking film, which made a star of Jack Nicholson, rekindled the careers of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, and proved again that Terry Southern was the catalyst that made this cinematic experiment work, it is about time credit is given where credit is due.
Fifty years ago this summer, the blockbuster youth-culture-on-acid-and-motorbikes film—was released.
The screenplay for that film was written by Terry Southern, who also put his stamp on the scripts for Dr. Strangelove, Barbarella, and The Cincinnati Kid, among others. Back then, Terry Southern’s profile was high enough to be seen on the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band album (he’s the guy standing behind John Lennon in the sunglasses).
Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, who played the two leads in Easy Rider, Billy and Wyatt, respectively, were given co-writing credits for the screenplay (more on that later). At the time, they were Hollywood lesser lights, at least compared to the veteran screenwriter Southern, whose screenplay for Dr. Strangelove was nominated for an Academy Award (and whose Easy Rider script would be nominated for the same award). It’s true Hopper had had a promising early career, with roles in Giant and Rebel Without a Cause, with James Dean, but he’d squandered that promise by making the wrong enemies in Hollywood, while Fonda was best known for riding a chopper in Roger Corman’s biker flick The Wild Angels and taking acid on camera for The Trip. He was, at the time, on contract with Corman at American International Pictures for one more biker movie.
The resultant film of Easy Rider, directed by Hopper, was made for less than half a million dollars and, to date, has grossed more than $60 million. Terry Southern was paid the princely sum of $3,500 for his work on Easy Rider—he agreed, as a friendly gesture, to take the screenwriting union’s bare minimum, at the time, of $350/week for ten weeks. Southern never received another penny, despite the film’s success—unprecedented for a youth-centric pop culture movie and soundtrack—while Columbia Pictures, Hopper and Fonda and anyone else who owned “points” pocketed the rest.
The money was, of course, a bone of contention for the rest of Terry Southern’s life (he died in 1995 at age 71). But, beyond that, the attempts over the ensuing years, especially by Hopper, to diminish Southern’s role in creating the screenplay have needlessly muddied the waters of countercultural history.
For example, in Hopper’s revisionist history, he has taken full credit for everything related to Easy Rider. Hopper claimed, according to author Peter Biskind, to have spent two solitary weeks writing the Easy Rider script, and unequivocally said, “Terry [Southern] never wrote one fucking word, not one line of dialogue.”
For the record, let’s state up front: Terry Southern wrote a screenplay for Easy Rider. Period. His son, Nile Southern, now the literary executor of the Terry Southern Estate and Literary Trust, has a copy of the original script. [He also has a 20-page addendum that his father wrote, to the Mardi Gras “Brothel Sequence” scene, that was not in the final film]. That screenplay was entered into evidence in a 1996 defamation case, a lawsuit brought against Dennis Hopper by the actor Rip Torn (Torn was awarded $475,000 in compensatory damages; Hopper appealed the verdict and, in 1998, the appellate judge upheld the original verdict and added another $475,000 in punitive damages).
The Torn v. Hopper defamation case bears some relevance to the issue of who wrote Easy Rider, in that it illustrates the manner with which Hopper could play fast and loose with facts. To wit: When Hopper was on the Tonight show in 1994, he bragged to the host, Jay Leno, that Rip Torn had pulled a knife on him and that he (Hopper) had disarmed him during the period of time when Easy Rider was being written (1967-68).
During the course of the Torn v Hopper trial, much discussion ensued about the actual writing of the screenplay of Easy Rider, largely because that project was the reason that Hopper and Torn were even in the same room together for the knife incident. Among the witnesses called to testify was Gail Gerber, Terry Southern’s longtime companion, who was present on the night of the Hopper-Torn knife incident. The original screenplay was entered into evidence by Gail Gerber. When the defense attorney asked Ms. Gerber if the screenplay in question was the “shooting script,” she said, “Yes…This is the script that Terry wrote, the original script.”
When asked if Terry Southern had another version of the screenplay, she said no and agreed that “the first draft became the final draft.”
Furthermore, she added, “…this was the script that people had. Actors were given this script…It was completed in the month that Peter Fonda was staying with us on East 36th Street, and they were working on it with a series of typists.”
When the attorney asked if the Easy Rider script on view at the 1996 Torn v Hopper trial remained unchanged before production on the film began, that is was “completed by Terry Southern with Peter Fonda in attendance about two months before the dinner incident,” Gail Gerber said, “Indeed, and Dennis Hopper came to stay at 36th Street, too. It was quite a zoo. He was there for two weeks frightening the typists.”
According to Biskind’s bestselling 1998 chronicle Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Terry Southern was encamped at his 36th Street apartment in New York with Peter Fonda and actor Rip Torn—for whom he created the role of alcoholic ACLU attorney George Hanson—working on the script of Easy Rider. An ornery Hopper flew to New York to “assist” with the writing, moving into the increasingly crowded apartment for two weeks—Fonda and Hopper periodically repaired to another Manhattan apartment owned by Peter Fonda’s father, Henry. At some point during this stay, Hopper threatened Rip Torn with a dinner knife at an Upper East Side restaurant. Torn, a former military cop, easily disarmed Hopper and dropped the knife on the floor. According to Biskind’s account, Torn suggested they go outside to continue the fight. Torn left the table and waited on the sidewalk, but Hopper never joined him. And, of course, Torn never got the role of George Hanson—whether or not that was the result of this altercation is still not fully known.
The silver lining: Jack Nicholson took the role, which launched his Hollywood career.
The initial agreement between Southern, Fonda and Hopper was that they’d split the responsibilities and revenues in equal thirds: Hopper would direct, Fonda would produce, Southern would write. The problem: This was never written down in a signed contract, allowing Hopper to say and do whatever he wanted in the years thereafter.
Nile Southern said, “Terry was an existentialist through and through, believing the only thing that mattered, really, were ‘actions’—and that talk was cheap and often empty and meaningless… the subtext, of course, is that anyone he was involved with he expected to ‘do the right thing’ (action-wise)—especially when handshakes were involved. It’s kind of absurd thinking of an existentialist in Hollywood—where it’s like 99 percent talk and little action—not to speak of the irony that Easy Rider, was supposed to be the prototypical ‘all for one, one for all’ first Indy film blah blah blah. At the same time, and during the tenuous part of getting the movie together and released, Terry was clearly following (if not coining) what became the rallying cry of independent film for the ‘70s ‘ask for just enough so they can make the next film’—he was into that sentiment.”
Terry Southern sat for a deposition in early 1995, to be used the following year in the Torn v Hopper trial [Southern died before the trial began]. In his deposition, Southern said that Hopper approached him to write the screenplay for Easy Rider. He considered Hopper a “social friend” and Torn “a very good friend” [they met in 1965, on the set of The Cincinnati Kid, for which Southern wrote the screenplay].
About his work on the Easy Rider screenplay, Southern said, “It was always a handshake and understanding between three close friends.” Later, he said, “I kept expecting him out of friendship to suddenly notify me that I had this much money coming. And so over the years, I would occasionally plead with [Hopper] to give—cut me in on this. And he didn’t do it.”
Terry Southern described the writing process for Easy Rider in much juicier detail to Creative Screenwriting:
“The precise way it came down was that Dennis and Peter Fonda came to me with an idea. Peter was under contract to A.I.P. for several motorcycle movies, and he still owed them one. Dennis persuaded Peter to let him direct the next one and, under the guise of making an ordinary A.I.P. potboiler, they would make something interesting and worthwhile—which I would write. So they came to my place on 36th Street in New York, with an idea for a story—a sort of hippie/dope caper. Peter was to be the actor/producer, Dennis the actor/director, and a certain yours truly, the writer…
So we began smoking dope in earnest and having a non-stop story conference. The initial idea had to do with a couple of young guys who are fed up with the system, want to make one big score, and split. Use the money to buy a boat in Key West and sail into the sunset was the general notion, and that was slated to be the film’s final poetic sequence. We would occasionally dictate to an elderly woman typist who firmly believed in the arrival and presence everywhere of the inhabitants of Venus, so she would talk about this. Finally, I started taping her and then had her rap about it transcribed—how they were everywhere. Jack Nicholson’s thing was based on that.
During these conferences the hippie/dope caper premise went through quite a few changes. The first notion was that they not be bikers but a duo of daredevil car drivers barnstorming around the U.S. being exploited by a series of unscrupulous promoters until they were finally disgusted enough to quit.
Then one day the dope smoke cleared long enough to remember Peter’s commitment was for a motorcycle flick, and we switched over pronto. It wasn’t until the end that it took on a genuinely artistic dimension—when it suddenly evolved into an indictment of the American redneck, and his hatred and intolerance for anything remotely different from himself—somewhat to the surprise of Den Hopper; ‘You mean kill ‘em both? Hey, man, are you outta your gourd?!’ I think for a minute he was still hoping they would somehow beat the system and sail into the sunset with a lot of loot and freedom. But of course he was hip enough to realize, a minute later, that their death was more or less mandatory.”
Many of the scenes were improvised during the shooting, Southern admits, but he added, “The improvisation was always within the framework of the obligations of the scene—a scene which already existed.”
The film was shot, rough edits were made and shown to test audiences.
Terry Southern continued, “After they had seen a couple of screenings of it on the coast, I got a call from Peter. He said that he and Dennis liked the film so much they wanted to be in on the screenplay credits. Well, one of them was the producer and the other was the director so there was no way the Writers Guild was going to allow them to take a screenplay credit unless I insisted…Anyway, 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. They said they could use it, and it would help them out, so I just went along. [Hopper’s] always been extremely insecure, and I gave him credit because I wanted to pull him out. In Interview he pretty much claimed credit for the whole script. I called him, and I called the woman who interviewed him. He said he didn’t remember saying it. Then I heard he said it somewhere else.”
Nile Southern is more of a realist about this in 2019. An author and filmmaker himself, he is working on a documentary about his father, tentatively called Dad Strangelove (www.dadstrangelove.com). He has mended fences with Peter Fonda in recent years. He also knows that his father brought some of this on himself.
“Obviously no one else was following Terry’s romantic existential/indy creed in Hollywood,” he says. “But then again, Terry was a ‘big boy,’ as the saying goes, he just had no real interest in advocating for himself or even looking at contracts… Doubly ironic as the period during Easy Rider’s great success would be the most financially dire for Terry… a downer lead-in to an era that for him at least, royally sucked.”
Gail Gerber concurs with this account in her testimony at the Torn v Hopper defamation trial in 1996. When asked by the defense attorney if she had any idea why Hopper’s name was credited as one of the script writers, she said, “I am afraid Terry was a pushover…but I am afraid Terry was a lifelong pushover. He wanted to make his friends happy. …He loved to collaborate, Your Honor. He loved to collaborate.”
Despite his latter-day megalomania, Hopper was singing a different tune in 1969, in a lengthy interview he gave to L.M. Kit Carson, printed in Evergreen Review, after one of the initial press screenings of Easy Rider in New York. Here are two excerpts from that interview:
Q: At what point did Terry Southern come into it?
Dennis Hopper: Terry Southern was an old friend of mine. I asked if we could use his name to get money; then, would he help us with it. He said, ‘Sure, I like the idea.’ So we got some cameras and people together, ran down and shot Mardi Gras first; then began the rest of the movie a month later.
Q: And this Mardi Gras footage convinced Columbia to give you the money for the movie?
Dennis Hopper: No, we had the money before. Got the money from a very complete story outline which we had dialogues with a tape recorder, Then after Mardi Gras, I drove back across country to California from new Orleans, spotting locations for the other sequences along the way. Then I came to New York. Peter was here with Terry, and we sat down and wrote the script in two weeks because I needed at least a week and a half to complete casting. Then we started shooting.”
We sat down and wrote the script. We includes Terry Southern. This seems indisputable.
By saying this, Hopper does not diminish his own and Fonda’s roles in shaping the film. Why, then, did Hopper become so adamant and cutthroat when it came time to credit Terry Southern, the “old friend” who loaned him the credibility to get this film off the ground? It just does not make sense.
In a letter to Hopper in September 1970—reprinted in Yours In Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry Southern (2015)—Southern explains to Hopper how cash-strapped he is (“I’m in a terrible bind—completely strapped, an inch, maybe less, from disasterville”). He cites their “solid ancient friendship” and the runaway success of the film, then asks “could you please put a single point of its action my way?”
Torn told Biskind, “I’ve never understood why it was necessary to attempt to destroy a man that only helped the project. Terry died penniless. Let’s give the guy his due.”
Dennis Hopper died in 2010. Gail Gerber died in 2014. Fonda is still alive, as is Torn. In recent years, Fonda has been more generous in his remarks than Hopper ever was, telling The A.V. Club, “[Terry Southern] gave us dark humor and a literary panache that Dennis and I did not have. Having him with us as a writer on the script put it above periscope depth.”
Terry Southern’s writing, including and beyond Easy Rider, has never lost its punch, or its relevance.
For example, in a writer roundtable event in 2018, screenwriter and director Paul Schrader was asked how he would write a script about Donald Trump. He begged off, likening the effort to “choosing to live in a polluted space or drink polluted water.” He then said, “I’m old enough to remember when Terry Southern was thought to be implausible. And now we’re living in Terry Southern’s world.”