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The Greatest Countercultural Success Story of All Time

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According to Wikipedia, "Easy Rider is a 1969 American road movie written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern, produced by Fonda and directed by Hopper. . . . The success of Easy Rider helped spark the New Hollywood phase of filmmaking. . . . [and was a] landmark counterculture film, and a 'touchstone for a generation' that 'captured the national imagination."

It was also very successful financially, and made Hopper and Fonda wealthy for life, although neither of them ever made a film even remotely as successful as Rider, or really had much of a cinema career or any sort following their 1969 film's monumental success.

So the film's creators must have forged a lifelong bond?

Not quite, according to Tom Folsom's breezy -- and largely sympathetic -- biography, "Hopper."

Hopper's life was beyond imagination. Actually born in Dodge City in 1936, Hopper's first four film appearances were in Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Giant (1956), and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). Hopper was also a gifted photographer and painter and had a fabulous art collection (one he recreated several times after losing his first collection to his first wife and his second to IRS).

But his next directorial effort following Rider was a monumental failure, and he entered a long-period of drug and alcohol abuse and a disorganized lifestyle that he eventually turned around following his appearance as a drug-addled reporter in Apocalypse Now (1979). Hopper re-emerged sober in Blue Velvet (1986) and went on to make films until he was nearly 70 (he died at age 74) and, perhaps ironically, became an advertising symbol for Americans of his era.

But let's return to his business partners in filming Rider. One (who appeared in the film) was Phil Spector, with whom Hopper fell out. More important were his relationships with his co-auteurs of that film. Peter Fonda wasn't invited to Hopper's funeral in Taos, a typical Hopper showcase event, but flew to be there anyhow. He was turned away at the adobe church door where the service was held.

Hopper always reckoned that Fonda's receipt of 41 percent of "Rider" to his 33 percent was unfair, and eventually, long sober (in 1995), he unsuccessfully sued Fonda to redress the wrong he perceived was done to him.

But that's not the saddest story among the film's creators. Terry Southern got no points in the film, and eventually -- as he came on hard times -- began to write pleading letters to Hopper requesting a single point. Instead, Hopper -- also in the 1990s and long sober -- threatened Southern if he continued to claim a role in writing Rider. Southern died impoverished, collapsing on the steps of Columbia University where he was teaching a screenwriting course. Among his papers found after his death were large segments of the "Rider" screenplay (now available at the New York Public Library).

And, so, the tragic ending of Rider, where its heroes were shot and killed and their bikes burned, was only part of the tragedy behind the movie.