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The ''Easy Rider'' controversy

The ”Easy Rider” controversy — Producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson are suing over missing footage

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Doom-ridden, drugged-out Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper’s 1969 directorial debut, tracked the trek of two hipster bikers as they searched the country for… well, America. Starring an impassive Peter Fonda as Hopper’s hog-pal, the consummate hippie road movie launched the career of costar Jack Nicholson, has grossed about $70 million to date on a $450,000 investment, and gave the counterculture its first real voice in American filmmaking.

Now its producers, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson (director of Five Easy Pieces, the upcoming Man Trouble), are suing Columbia Pictures. At issue is missing footage that the producers left in Columbia’s care after trimming the rough cut from three hours to a taut 94 minutes. With the negatives missing and some of the prints damaged, the producers are charging Columbia with negligence (the trial is scheduled to begin June 1 in Los Angeles) and are offering a $10,000 reward for the lost negatives.

What’s the fuss? The producers are hoping to release a director’s cut, more than two hours long, for home video, cable, and possible theatrical release. (The video version went on sale in the mid-’80s.) In addition, the outtakes are key to a proposed 1994 sequel, tentatively titled Easy Rider — The New Generation, which producer Howard Zuker (Hearts and Minds) plans to announce at Cannes this week.

The squabble began two years ago when Schneider asked for the Easy Rider negatives back and was told by Columbia that they had been lost. Since then Columbia (which won’t comment on the case) has located at least five hours’ worth of positive prints in its underground storage vault in Kansas. While Schneider says that Columbia has told him that 20 percent of the prints have been badly water-damaged, it’s hoped that most of them can be used to make colorized videotape for the director’s cut. And without negatives, no new prints can be made.

”Clearly the filmmakers should have the negatives,” says director Henry Jaglom (Eating), a member of Easy Rider‘s original editing collective. ”There would be things you’d be amazed to see in the outtakes.” Some of the unseen footage includes:

* Helicopters and police chasing Hopper and Fonda over mountains and across the Mexican border.
* The road trip out of L.A. edited to the full length of Steppenwolf’s ’60s classic, ”Born to Be Wild,” with billboards along the way offering wry commentary.
* Ten additional minutes for the volatile café scene in Louisiana where Nicholson deftly keeps the peace.
*Extended versions of all the campfire scenes, including the enigmatic finale in which Fonda tells Hopper, ”We blew it, Billy.”

If Schneider and Rafelson do gain control of the outtakes, they may create a cottage industry beyond the director’s cut: a making-of-Easy Rider documentary, a ”blooper” reel (one can only imagine), and a video of the stars vrooming over the landscape to new tunes. In what might be the ultimate mindblower to Easy Rider‘s straightened-up director, Hopper, Zuker says he’d like to use outtakes from the acid-trip graveyard scene in which a Hopper-entangled Karen Black cries out, ”Oh God, please help me to conceive a child,” as a jumping-off point for the sequel. ”We would love Dennis to play his own father, as the grandfather who explains everything,” says Zuker. Like Fonda and Nicholson, Hopper declined to comment.