Southern Discomfort: Erasing the Real Author of “Easy Rider”

December 20, 2019   •   By Peter L. Winkler

EASY RIDER TURNED 50 earlier this year. Made for only half a million dollars, the little movie that nobody saw coming became a smash hit with the youth market when it premiered on July 14, 1969, earning nearly $20 million in its first year in release and revolutionizing Hollywood’s way of making movies. It made counterculture heroes of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and turned a then-obscure actor named Jack Nicholson into a major star. In the decades following its release, Hopper and, to a lesser extent, Fonda, did much to monopolize credit for creating Easy Rider and diminish the primary role of screenwriter Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove, The Cincinnati Kid, Barbarella), generating an ongoing dispute over who deserves credit for writing it. Southern’s decision to give Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper co-author status was priceless, as the actors became the public faces of Easy Rider. No one would ever think of Easy Rider as a Terry Southern film. Even as Fonda and Hopper ascended, Southern’s career declined and his financial problems mounted. In the flurry of articles celebrating the 50th anniversary of Easy Rider, Southern was barely mentioned, if at all. Given the collaborative nature of feature film production, the assignment of screen credits may not reflect the actual contributions of the creative principals responsible for making a film, often leading to hurt feelings and bruised egos and serious damage to one’s livelihood. It is often necessary, as in the case of Easy Rider, to pore over the archives, examining interviews and memoirs, to discover the truth behind the credits up on the screen.

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Peter Fonda was trying to wind down in his hotel room one evening in late September 1967 after spending the day promoting The Trip (1967) at a movie exhibitor’s conference in Toronto. High on beer and grass, he was staring at one of the publicity stills from The Wild Angels (1966) that he was obligated to autograph for an exhibitor when the idea for Easy Rider suddenly hit him. He phoned Dennis Hopper, who was surprised to hear from him after their most recent argument. Fonda outlined his story to Hopper and invited him to come aboard his project as its director. Hopper’s second-unit direction on The Trip, where Fonda played a disaffected TV director who experiments with LSD, convinced him that Hopper possessed the crazy vision that the film needed.

As Fonda would tell Playboy reporter Lawrence Linderman in 1970:

It was a photograph from The Wild Angels of actor Bruce Dern and me on a chop [motorcycle]. I looked at the photo for a while and then thought what it would look like if, instead of two guys on one cycle, I had each of the guys on a bike. And suddenly I thought, that’s it, that’s the modern Western. Two cats just riding across the country, two loners, not a motorcycle gang, no Hell’s Angels, nothing like that, just those two guys. And maybe they make a big score see, so they have a lot of money. And they’re going to cross the country and retire in Florida. Anyway, they get to Florida, and they’ve got the money, and it’s together, and they’re about to get to the farm or get to the boat when a couple of duck poachers in a truck rip them off ’cause they don’t like the way they look.

Fonda would go on to explain: “We changed a lot of details later, of course, and there was no Captain America or anything else yet.”

Except for the premise of two bikers who make a killing on a dope score and decide to retire, just about everything else Fonda told Linderman that was in his original story, including some dialogue and the shock ending, where the rednecks kill the bikers, were contributed by Terry Southern; in a 50th-anniversary interview Fonda gave the Hollywood Reporter, he doubled down, taking credit for creating the character of George Hanson and the film’s ending as well. “But I thought fuck it’s right because we’ve got all the things backers want,” Fonda told Linderman. “We go for dope, we go for motorcycles, we go riding across the country, we’ll even get some sex here and there — but we can do all these things really honestly. And that’s how Easy Rider got started. I looked at that photograph and went for it.”

Fonda remembers he and Hopper developed a 12-page outline titled The Loners by walking around Fonda’s tennis court, brainstorming, and high-fiving each other when they came up with a good idea. Fonda said that’s when Hopper created the character of George Hanson, the alcoholic Southern lawyer memorably played by Jack Nicholson, and worked out the logistics of the drug sale at the beginning of the film. Hopper concluded that two bikers couldn’t carry enough marijuana to score a big profit. Cocaine, which was much more exotic and expensive, could be carried in sufficient quantities to do the trick.

Fonda went off to the French coastal village of Roscoff in October ’67 to appear with Jane Fonda in the Roger Vadim–directed segment of the film Spirits of the Dead (1968), a trilogy loosely based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Right after visiting the set of Barbarella (1968) in Rome, where he was one of that film’s seven credited screenwriters, Terry Southern dropped by Roscoff to discuss the editing of Barbarella with its star, Jane Fonda, and her husband, Roger Vadim. When Southern asked Peter Fonda what he was up to, he told him about Dennis Hopper and their embryonic film. When he told Southern they were seeking a writer, Southern eagerly offered his services. “Terry, your fee is the same as the budget, man,” Fonda said. “No, no, no,” Southern insisted. “You don’t get it! It’s the most commercial story I have ever heard. And a real pip of an ending! I’m your man!”

In her memoir, Gail Gerber, Southern’s live-in companion from 1965 to his death in 1995, recalled Fonda visiting her and Southern in their New York home on a rainy evening in November 1967 to discuss his project. (In the early ’90s, Southern told his biographer, Lee Hill, that Hopper was also present at this meeting.) “Well, right at the beginning, Dennis and Peter had just this one idea, right?” Southern said.

Listen, this is their contribution to the whole thing. These two guys, Peter and Dennis, at first they were going to be in cars, so they could do stunts in cars. It was going to be called “Barnstormers” or something. This is what they came to me with. So we changed it to motorbikes, but the idea then was that they would score some drugs and — this is when people are just beginning to realize you can make big money in drugs — so they buy some coke in Mexico, sell it, ride their bikes to Florida, buy a boat, and leave the American rat race; sail off into the sunset. The entertainment aspect of the film, presumably, was to be their pilgrimage from Mexico to Key West. That was it.

After Fonda and Hopper discussed their story, Southern swept the air with his hand and told them how good the title Easy Rider would look on a marquee. Fonda later said that Southern’s title was a boon to the film and explained its meaning. “An ‘easy rider’ is the guy who is the prostitute’s boyfriend, her lover,” he said. “He sits at home drinking beer and watching television. When she comes back home, he has sex with her. He’s got the easy ride. She takes care of him.” “They said, ‘We want you to write this, and we’re going to defer any money in exchange for splitting 10 percent three ways,’” Southern recalled. “I wasn’t in a position where I could defer, so they said, ‘You can get $350 a week for ten weeks in lieu of that.’ So I had to do it that way. So I never had a piece of it which turned out to be very lucrative.” Gail Gerber insists that there was a verbal understanding that Southern would receive some share of the film’s profits and serve as an associate producer. Though Southern expressed trepidation over Fonda’s choice of Hopper to direct, he agreed to go ahead with his involvement. Southern’s lack of profit participation would become a sore point with him when he later became desperate for money and may have soured his attitude about having consented to grant Fonda and Hopper shared writing credits on Easy Rider.

Gerber says that Peter Fonda returned after the New Year and stayed with her and Southern for about a month while he and Terry worked in earnest on fleshing out Fonda’s story into a 21-page treatment. Southern would recline on his couch, pencil and legal pad in hand, while Fonda paced the room, exchanging ideas with him. They brought in an experienced typist to transcribe Southern’s pages, which he then worked on into the morning hours.

Hopper joined Southern and Fonda for two weeks, staying with Southern and Gerber. “So we began smoking dope in earnest and having a nonstop story conference,” Southern told interviewer Mike Golden in 1996.

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 that Peter’s commitment was for a motorcycle flick, and we switched over pronto.

“Dennis would rant and rave, using a lot of four-letter words, and the typist would break into tears and run sobbing out into the night,” Gerber recalled. “Terry would have to call the typing pool the next day and get another typist.” Gerber recalled that it was Southern who suggested changing the drug that bikers Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) sell from marijuana, which would be too bulky to profit from in the small quantity the bikers could carry, to cocaine. Southern said that he created the character of George Hanson with Fonda and Hopper’s approval, and serendipity provided the campfire scene where he tells Billy and Wyatt about UFOs and space aliens. When Fonda, Hopper, and Southern took a break from work, one of their typists regaled them with monologues about how Venusians in various guises lived among humans to surveil them and avert a nuclear holocaust. Peter Fonda claimed that Hopper introduced Hanson’s dialogue about UFOs and aliens on April 4, 1968, the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, inspired by a book on UFOs that he was engrossed in at the time. Southern devised the ending where Wyatt and Billy are killed. “It wasn’t until the end,” Southern recalled,

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 that is remotely different from himself — somewhat to the surprise of Den Hopper. And when Dennis Hopper read it he said, “Are you kidding? Are you going to kill off both of them?”

So I said, “Well, that’s the only way it can be, because otherwise we’re not saying anything, it’s just a little odyssey by a couple of irresponsible hippies. So they’ve got to serve some purpose, make some point.” I think for a minute he was still hoping they would somehow beat the system. Sail into the sunset with a lot of loot and freedom. But of course, he was hip enough to realize, a minute later, that it [their death] was more or less mandatory.

As a parting gesture of their great friendship, Southern presented bound copies of his treatment to Fonda and Hopper, who returned to Hollywood to seek financing for the film.

Fonda and Hopper approached American International Pictures (AIP) for funding, since Fonda owed them the remaining film on a three-picture contract. AIP was skittish about the story’s unsensational depiction of hard drugs and was worried about how much responsibility Hopper could handle. As Jack Nicholson said, “You know Dennis, you don’t exactly just turn over some money to him and say, ‘No problem, you know what I mean?’” AIP decided that they could seize the film if Hopper ran three days over schedule. Fonda couldn’t accept AIP’s restrictions and knew that he and Hopper would have to look elsewhere to find financing for their film.

The duo found a more receptive audience with Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, the founders of Raybert, the company that produced the hit TV show The Monkees. Roger Corman, who was set to executive produce the film for AIP, claims that Fonda had a back-channel deal with Jack Nicholson. If Nicholson could sell Rafelson and Schneider on the film, he’d get to play the part of George Hanson. “But Jack Nicholson was the one who put the deal together, he went in and told them there was no way they could lose money on a motorbike picture,” Hopper said. Schneider took a chance on Easy Rider because his father was the head of Columbia Pictures, guaranteeing the film a studio release. Southern accompanied Fonda, Hopper, and a scratch crew to New Orleans for six days to film Fonda and Hopper’s characters cavorting during Mardi Gras.

Fonda and Hopper returned to New York in early March to meet with Terry Southern to complete Easy Rider’s screenplay. “The three of us sat on a couch in Terry’s small office,” Fonda recalled in his memoir. “We would all discuss a scene, then Hopper would dictate it to Terry’s secretary, starting at the beginning and working our way through the story.” And this is probably the genesis of his notion that he alone had written the screenplay. “After this collaboration,” Fonda recalled, “the script still had to be put into a real screenplay structure with exterior (EXT), interior (INT), and other shooting directions inserted.”

Peter Fonda contacted Southern after he and Hopper had seen a couple of screenings of Easy Rider prior to its release. Southern recalls:

I received this phone call from Peter saying, “Well, we’ve got this print. I think we’ve got a nice little picture here. Dennis and I want to get our names on the writing credits, but in order to do that, you’ll have to notify the Writers Guild to say that it’s all right.” […] Now, whenever a director or producer wants a share of the screenplay credit, it automatically goes to arbitration, unless the writer — that is, the real writer — specifies otherwise, which is what I would always do. In other words I would give them the credit, which they could not possibly have gotten by any other means.

Southern would say elsewhere,

Neither of them are writers. They can’t even write a fucking letter. It wasn’t fair, but it didn’t matter to me at the time because I was ultra secure. I had Candy [a novel co-written with Mason Hoffenberg] and Dr. Strangelove [1964]. I said sure that’s fine. I didn’t mind. Anyway, we were great friends at the time, so I went along with it without much thought. So I actually did it out of a sense of camaraderie, said that they could use it, and would help them out. Hopper’s always been extremely insecure, and I gave him credit because I wanted to pull him out.

It was a decision Southern would come to regret.

Dennis Hopper would later insist that he and he alone wrote the screenplay for Easy Rider. “Terry Southern never wrote one fucking word of Easy Rider,” Hopper told journalist Lynn Barber in 2001. “Only the title Easy Rider came from him. He broke his hip. He couldn’t write. I used his office, and I dictated the whole fucking thing in ten days.”

“Terry never broke his hip — where does Dennis come up with this stuff?” Gail Gerber wrote, decrying Hopper’s continued “delusional outrageous ranting.”

In his memoir, Peter Fonda fumed over Hopper’s tendency to take credit for anything notable that he participated in.

Give me a fucking break, Dennis. Twenty-seven years later, Dennis still believed that he and he alone wrote the screenplay for Easy Rider. One can imagine the love-hate relationship I’ve had with him all this time. Of course he wasn’t the sole writer of the screenplay to Easy Rider. Of course he still thinks he was.

“If Den Hopper improvises a dozen lines, and six of them survive the cutting-room floor, he’ll put in for a screenplay credit,” Southern told interviewer Mike Golden.

That’s the name of the game of a certain Den Hopper. It would be almost impossible to exaggerate his contribution to [Easy Rider] — but, by George, he manages to do it every time. […] 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.

Bad feelings play an additional role in parsing the validity of each account; Southern voiced his damning opinions of them years after his involvement in the film, after Hopper ignored the financially strapped Southern’s pleas for one percentage point of the film’s profits, and after Fonda attempted to bribe an ill, needy Southern to erase his credit on the film to make way for a sequel. Southern told Gail Gerber that they were motivated by “vicious greed.”

“Terry loved collaborating with other people,” Gerber wrote, recalling the days when Fonda, Hopper, and Southern swapped ideas in his apartment:

He always felt that two heads were better than one when creating a story or screenplay. Terry was really in his element sharing concepts with Peter and Dennis. He just loved to work in this free-for-all fashion with people yelling out story ideas while nestled on the sofa. He jotted down the better ones in pencil on his yellow legal pad. Peter once remarked that Terry agreed to work on Easy Rider on a handshake, “just for the sake of having the freedom to play with an idea that appealed to his individual nature.” This statement is oh-so-true.

Giving Fonda and Hopper writing credits implying their contributions were equal to his may have been unfair, but a story credit recognizing the contributions they made during the six weeks they collaborated with Southern might have been deserved, especially given his unconventional view of the process of assigning credit.

“Through a really monstro and misguided sense of generosity,” Southern said in 1972,

it seems I invariably tend to offer sharing the screenplay-credit with almost anyone who happens to be around. You see, theoretically I believe a film should have a single credit — “A Film By…” and then simply list, alphabetically, the creative people involved. Unfortunately, the Dickensian structure of the filmmaking labor organizations doesn’t yet provide that possibility, so we are still faced with this primitive and irrelevant attempt to break it down into categories — like who’s responsible for what — whereas in any really good film these things are bound to overlap [emphasis added].           

“After the movie became an enormous success, lots of people got compensated,” Easy Rider’s Associate Producer Bill Hayward told The New Yorker’s Mark Singer in 1998.

Bert Schneider gave little pieces of it to Jack Nicholson, to his secretary, the editor, the assistant editor. All these people got tastes, and the only person who didn’t get a taste was Terry Southern. He deserved it before all these other people. I always thought this thing never would have got written without him.

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Peter L. Winkler is the author of Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel (Barricade Books, 2011) and the editor of The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best (Chicago Review Press, 2016).