1968: When ‘Easy Rider’ rode into New Orleans
When Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda rolled into New Orleans with a small film crew around Mardi Gras 1968, they went largely unnoticed. That was partly because they were dressed in the hippie style common at the time, so they fit right in among the French Quarter’s Carnival crazies. Mostly, though, it was because their guerrilla production didn’t bother getting permission to film anywhere. They just showed up, filmed, then split. A little more than a year later, their independent gem “Easy Rider” — directed by Hopper on a production budget of $360,000, and starring him, Fonda and Jack Nicholson — was impossible not to miss. “Easy Rider” would become a counterculture classic, earning an estimated $60 million at the box office, good enough to make it the third highest-grossing film of 1969, behind only “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and best-picture Oscar winner “Midnight Cowboy.”
In 1998, “Easy Rider” was added to the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” film. More importantly, it inspired a generation of filmmakers intrigued by Hopper’s filmmaking style. Along with “Bonnie & Clyde,” “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy,” it marked a shift from classical filmmaking standards and helped usher in the New Hollywood era, which emphasized authenticity and realism over the overproduced staginess of the previous era.
- Among the film’s most famous scenes is one shot at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 — without permission — in which Hopper and Fonda’s character drop acid with a pair of prostitutes played by Toni Basil and Karen Black. In it, Fonda’s tearful character famously, and scandalously, ends up in the arms of a statue atop the Italian Benevolent Society tomb.
- To inspire Fonda in that scene, Hopper instructed him to talk to the statue as if it was his mother, who committed suicide when Fonda was 10 years old.
- A bit of New Orleans history can be glimpsed just before and during the cemetery scene: construction of Interstate 10 along North Claiborne Avenue. That elevated stretch of highway is blamed for destroying what was once a thriving business corridor for black New Orleans.
- Before arriving in New Orleans, Fonda and Hopper’s characters receive a business card from co-star Jack Nicholson for a brothel called “Madame Tinkertoy’s House of Blue Lights,” said to be located at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets. That establishment is pure fiction.
- In addition to the French Quarter scenes and cemetery scene, Louisiana locales used in the film include a diner near Morganza and a stretch of Louisiana 105 outside Krotz Springs. The film also shot in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
- The prop marijuana used by the actors during filming? It was the real thing, Fonda has said.
- The dialogue was mostly improvised and earned Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern a shared Oscar nomination for best screenplay. Additionally, Nicholson would earn a nomination for best supporting actor.
- In addition to operating on a shoestring, the production was also famously rancorous. At one point, Hopper is said to have gotten into a physical confrontation with cinematographer Barry Feinstein, hitting him with a guitar and throwing a TV set at him, according to TCM. Feinstein would be replaced on the film by the esteemed Laszlo Kovacs.
- In 2012, director Dustin Rikert shot a sequel titled “Easy Rider: The Ride Back,” although it featured none of the cast or production crew of the original. It was not well-received.
New Orleans’ involvement in what is considered an American cinema classic stands as an early feather in the cap in what would become a bustling production town. Granted, the view of Southern culture displayed in “Easy Rider” is jaundiced, to the say the least. (In real life, Hopper’s distaste for “rednecks” prompted the Texas-born actor Rip Torn, who was originally was cast in the Jack Nicholson role, to bolt the production.) Hopper’s view of the Crescent City, however, was dramatically different. The goal of the main characters in his film, which served as an elegy to squandered 1960s ideals, was to get to New Orleans at Carnival time, which is held up as a sort of end-of-the-rainbow utopia. While it didn’t work out so well for Hopper and Fonda’s characters after they leave the city near the film’s end, New Orleans itself comes off as vibrant and alive, an oasis of freedom in a messed-up world — which is something most locals should both appreciate and understand.