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Bob Rafelson, 'Five Easy Pieces' director, has died at age 89

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Filmmaker Bob Rafelson, who directed "Five Easy Pieces" and who wrote or produced some of the most influential films of the 1970s, has died. He was 89. Critic Bob Mondello offers this remembrance.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When your showbiz calling card is that you helped invent a TV boy band to spoof The Beatles...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MONKEES")

THE MONKEES: (Singing) Hey. Hey. We're The Monkeys.

MONDELLO: ...Nobody expects you to write a counterculture groundswell as deftly as Bob Rafelson did. But his success with "The Monkees" is what helped bankroll the production company that made him a central figure of what was known as the American new wave. In just a few years, Rafelson's company produced Dennis Hopper's groundbreaking "Easy Rider," Peter Bogdanovich's black-and-white masterwork, "The Last Picture Show," the Oscar-winning Vietnam documentary "Hearts And Minds" and Rafelson's own road trip film, "Five Easy Pieces," probably best known for a scene in which Jack Nicholson encounters a roadside diner's no substitutions policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIVE EASY PIECES")

JACK NICHOLSON: (As Robert Eroica Dupea) I'd like a plain omelet, no potatoes on the plate, a cup of coffee and a side order of wheat toast.

LORNA THAYER: (As waitress) I'm sorry. We don't have any side orders of toast.

NICHOLSON: (As Robert Eroica Dupea) What do you mean you don't make side orders of toast? You make sandwiches, don't you?

MONDELLO: The scene lasts longer than I can play here but is worth seeking out online. "Five Easy Pieces" was actually a tragic comedy, subtle and thoughtful, with something of Chekhov to it. It was nominated for four Oscars, including best actor for Nicholson and best picture and screenplay for Rafelson. And it served as a model for the sort of independent, introspective films these two men would specialize in, six in all, including a remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice," in which Rafelson teamed his leading man with Jessica Lange...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE")

JESSICA LANGE: (As Cora Papadakis) It's just you and me.

MONDELLO: ...And a young first-time screenwriter...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE")

NICHOLSON: (As Frank Chambers) What are you talking about?

MONDELLO: ...Named David Mamet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE")

LANGE: (As Cora Papadakis) I'm getting tired of what's right and wrong.

NICHOLSON: (As Frank Chambers) They hang people for that, Cora.

MONDELLO: Bob Rafelson, a nurturer of indie talent who turned the actors and writers he worked with into stars. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXIS FFRENCH'S "BLUEBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.