'Easy Rider' at 50: How the MPAA's anti-sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll plea inspired Peter Fonda to craft biker classic

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Peter Fonda knows the precise moment he dreamt up the idea for Easy Rider, the groundbreaking biker drama that helped rev up an American filmmaking movement when it was released in theaters 50 years ago on July 14, 1969.

The actor, now 79, was attending a film exhibition convention in Canada on Sept. 26, 1967 to promote his new LSD-fueled Roger Corman-Jack Nicholson film The TripJack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) who was quickly developing a reputation as "morals watchdog" as the content of films was becoming edgier in the late-'60s, issued a plea to those in attendance.

"And he got up there, and he said, 'My friends, and you are my friends,' and I thought, 'That's so far out.' And he said it twice, as if we didn't hear it the first time," Fonda told Yahoo Entertainment during a 2013 Role Recall interview. "And like a TV evangelist he says, 'It's time we stopped making movies about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll and more movies like Doctor Dolittle,' but he's looking right at me."

The family-friendly musical Doctor Dolittle starring Rex Harrison received a mixed reception and underwhelming box-office receipts upon its December 1967 release, but after heavily lobbying from 20th Century Fox, still received nine Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture), winning two (Best Special Effects and Best Original Song for “Talk to the Animals”).

At the time, though, the mention of Dolittle, and Valenti's apparent condemnation, sparked something in the rebellious Fonda.

Later that day, when Fonda was at an autograph booth, he was handed a photograph from The Trip to sign. The image depicted him and co-star Bruce Dern riding a Harley in pure silhouette on the Venice Beach bike path. "We were so small and fully backlit and looked like we were riding in the sand," said Fonda. "And I looked at the photograph, and I thought, 'That's it! It's not about 100 Hells Angels going to a Hells Angels funeral, it's two guys riding across John Ford's West. No! They're going east. Oh, that's perfect. A journey to the east. An homage to Hermann Hesse. Fantastic. I love that story.' And I began, and within four hours, I had the whole story, basically."

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in 'Easy Rider' (Columbia Pictures)
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in 'Easy Rider' (Columbia Pictures)
 
Actor Peter Fonda poses for a portrait on a replica of the "Captain America" bike in Glendale, California October 23, 2009. Fonda was promoting the recent release on blu-ray disk of the 1969 movie "Easy Rider" on its 40th anniversary. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES ENTERTAINMENT)
 
Actor Peter Fonda poses for a portrait on a replica of the "Captain America" bike in Glendale, California October 23, 2009. Fonda was promoting the recent release on blu-ray disk of the 1969 movie "Easy Rider" on its 40th anniversary. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES ENTERTAINMENT)
 

The resulting film, whose screenplay was ultimately co-written by Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern and directed by Hopper, followed two cocaine-smuggling, motorcycle-riding hippies (Fonda's Wyatt and Hopper's Billy) on a sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll-filled and ultimately tragic odyssey across the American South. Adding to the potent mix was a star-making performance by a young Jack Nicholson and a seminal soundtrack filled with classic cuts from the Byrds, the Band, Jimi Hendrix Experience and Steppenwolf.

In other words, it couldn't be more different than the "enchantments" of the animal-whispering Doctor Dolittle.

Easy Rider, which grossed $60 million on a shoestring budget of $400,000, would ultimately be credited with helping bring the counterculture movement of the late-'60s into the mainstream, and kickstarting a new golden era of American filmmaking throughout the 1970s that saw other anti-establishment filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman flourish.

"So Jack Valenti took me to Easy Rider," Fonda laughed. "How 'bout that?"

—Additional reporting from Adam Pockross

Easy Rider will return to the big screen in select theaters on Sunday, July 14, and Wednesday, July 17. See Fathom Events for more information.

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