The Insane Boys Blew It

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story

Criterion Collection,
9 DVDs, $124.95
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Everett Collection
Ellen Burstyn and Jack Nicholson in The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972

The death of the old Hollywood studio system can be traced back to a short, single-column advertisement that appeared in The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety on September 8, 1965:

Madness!!
Auditions
Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers
For acting roles in new TV series.
Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17–21.
Want spirited Ben Frank’s-types.
Have courage to work.
Must come down for interview.

Embedded in these lines were code phrases designed to appeal to young men with certain countercultural tendencies. “Insane boys,” for instance, meant “boys who like doing drugs.” “Ben Frank’s” was an all-night diner on the Sunset Strip where musicians would hang out after the clubs had closed and wait for the drugs to wear off. “Have courage to work” meant “Have courage to abstain from drugs while we film the series.” Finally, “Must come down for interview” was not instructing applicants to appear in person; it meant “When you come for the interview, try not to be on drugs.”

The ad was placed by two young television executives: Bert Schneider, whose father Abe was the chairman of Columbia Pictures, and Bob Rafelson. Their idea was to make a television version of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. It would be a goofball sitcom about the misadventures of four mop-headed teens who play in a rock band called the Monkees, which was created for the show. The series ran for two years and was an enormous ratings success. The Monkees sold twenty-three million records in a year, outselling the Rolling Stones and the Beatles during that period. (The songs performed by the “Prefab Four” were in fact written by Carole King, Neil Diamond, and the duo of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.) Rafelson and Schneider, now millionaires, started Raybert, a film production company. Drawing from the Monkees fortune, Raybert financed two films: the first, directed by Rafelson, was a psychedelic movie about the Monkees, called Head. The second was a much lower-budget biker movie, tentatively called The Loners, pitched by two actors, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.

The Monkees were soon mocked for not having played on their own recordings; Head closed in five days. The biker movie, which was ultimately released as Easy Rider, was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where Hopper won the award for best film by a new director. It opened at the Beekman Theater in New York on July 14, 1969, and went on to make more than $19 million at the box office—roughly forty times its budget. The studios had experienced a steady, ten-year decline in revenue, and they were, as Joan Didion wrote in these pages at the time, “narcotized” by Easy Rider‘s success.* Peter Fonda joked that when the film became a hit, Columbia executives stopped shaking their heads in incomprehension, and began nodding their heads in incomprehension. Peter Biskind, in his gossipy, absorbing history of the period, Easy …

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  1. *

    See ” Hollywood: Having Fun,” The New York Review, March 22, 1973.