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'RIDER' IN A STORM

BIKER HIPPIES BROUGHT TALES FROM THE ’60S SUBCULTURE TO THE BIG SCREEN 24 YEARS AGO

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It was groovy, the counterculture grapevine said, and mind-blowing, and far out. For once, hippie hype was right on. When the biker-trip opus Easy Rider opened in New York on July 14, 1969, disaffected youth finally had a film to match their music. The movie’s advertising said its two bikers ”went looking for America,” but young people quickly found the film’s slightly paranoid message: Middle America is out of gas-and out to get you. Producer, cowriter, and star Peter Fonda, now 53, says the movie wouldn’t exist were it not for a rebuke from morals watchdog Jack Valenti (then, as now, the head of the MPAA), who approached him at a confab where Fonda was promoting his 1967 head film, The Trip. ”We have to stop making movies about motorcycles, sex, and drugs,” Fonda remembers Valenti saying, ”and start making more movies like Dr. Dolittle.” In response, Fonda conceived the biker scenario that night, lining up pal Dennis Hopper to costar and direct. Henry Fonda, for one, didn’t dig the finished film, which tracks two druggies on an odyssey from California through the Southwest to New Orleans. ”Dad said, ‘It’s pretty thin, son. I just don’t think people will follow it,”’ recalls Peter. ”Columbia didn’t know what to make of it, either.” That all changed when the movie opened. Easy Rider became an instant symbol of ’60s weltschmerz and a whipping boy for the Establishment. (Vice President Spiro Agnew denounced the filmmakers for ”playing right into the hands of the drug culture.”) Easy Rider’s most enduring effect, however, may have been launching the career of Jack Nicholson, who stole the film as a juicehead lawyer who gets turned on to grass. The movie eventually grossed over $50 million-a nice return on a $340,000 budget. Talk of a sequel has been around for a good decade. Hopper has said he would direct the film, but Fonda scoffs at the idea. ”That would denigrate it,” he says. ”Easy Rider II: The Next Generation? People who want to do that are out of their minds. The critics are gonna whack their pee-pees off.”

TIME CAPSULE July 14, 1969 Transistor radios blared the No. 1 single, ”In the Year 2525,” by Zager & Evans. Disney’s The Love Bug peeled out at theaters while beachgoers devoured Jacqueline Susann’s The Love Machine, and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In ruled the TV ratings.

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