(NOTE: This is a true story told to us by those who were the principals of the story. It’s about a legendary film; and was told to us around 10 years ago on the condition we keep it unpublished until the deaths of two out of three of the main people. Not for legal reasons really, but probably from shame of the antics. Most of the names here are not or only barely disguised. There’s no big scandals, major crimes, or anything horrific — just a funny story and trivia about the making and nearly un-making of a film classic.)
Some stories you hear leave you feeling with a sense of wonder, admiration, and empowerment at how others overcome adversity and triumph in the face of incredible odds.
This is not one of those stories.
It was 1968 in Los Angeles and a group of inexperienced, inexplicable, and intoxicated filmmakers were trying to assemble their version of an auteur film — a movie that would be a “love letter dedicated to freedom”. They were failing miserably.
“Man…I was so confused I didn’t know whether to shit, or go blind. So — I closed one eye and farted.”
These are the sage, profound, Yoda-like words of this film’s “father”, star actor, producer, co-writer, and majority owner. His nickname is “The Pete”, as his pals all called him. Probably because it was his name.
His pals, co-stars, and co-filmmakers in this movie included a young, handsome, devilish actor nicknamed “The Irishman”, or Irish for short. His career had just began to bloom, and he’d spent most of it cleaning toilets for Roger Corman; while also writing, acting, and directing without a clue beyond good instincts. In between sweeping floors, he learned how to be an amazing actor.
Pete’s other partner-in-crime on this movie was called “Hoppy”, aka Dennis The Menace. And he certainly was. A nightmare to work with who fancied himself the protégé of James Dean ever since beginning his career co-starring with Dean. “If you could buy Hoppy for what he’s worth and sell him for what he THOUGHT he’s worth? You’d be rich”, is how Pete described Hoppy. On this film, he was the auteur — the visionary director and co-star.
Hoppy also was like the Rooster taking credit for the sun rising. The movie was mostly improvised dialogue, with a legendary satire writer named Terry writing most of the structure. But Hoppy submitted his name as co-writer to the WGA and got credit. He also thought he was the only one who mattered on this film.
The trick to tracking down the truth of this story versus the myth is that so many people have different recollections of the same events. Pete is pretty honest, but he likes to joke and prank so you have to double-check his recollections. Irish is a straight-forward, no bullshit guy but in his advanced age his memory has a few holes in it. Meanwhile, Hoppy still has a penchant for claiming everything great was his idea and bragging a lot.
In 1968, these guys were making the myth. And you have to understand why that myth and legend was so important to a bunch of “hippies” espousing “freedom” and “truth”. A whole new era of young filmmakers had a lot to lose. For the first time, they were taking control of movie making from the big Hollywood studio (and tearing down the studio system). BY that point, this system had been in place for sixty years and treated the talent like cattle; and the businessmen, lawyers, and accountants like kings. This was the chance to change the game.
Guys like Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, and Cimino were proving that the director’s vision demanded power. They were the genius, not the suits. So (ironically) their PR campaign was more important as “indies” and “auteurs” than anything. They all stuck to the narrative. They would spin the proper stories to protect their images far more than the fading golden oldies like MGM, Paramount, WB and Columbia. The dinosaurs were being beaten at their own game by the upstarts: “control the spin”. So no matter what, the making of this movie too must always been seen as an “independent” movie, without the need of the “suits” or “money men” or power brokers. But the truth would be far more different than myth.
When you start a movie without a script, you’re begging for trouble — unless you’re French. This is the wisdom the Irishman shared with me. Making this movie was total chaos, bedlam, and an exercise in futility. “But we didn’t really care — the movie would be MADE in the editing room anyway. Fix it in post!”, roared Irish with a laugh.
They bought several motorcycles and went tear-assing through the Southwest U.S. and the deep South. Filming a true “road movie” and trying to stick to the story best they could. What this meant to Hoppy was getting high on all substances available, and filming it to see what they got. What they got was a lot of money pissed down the drain. The film was budgeted for less than half a million dollars. Even things like hotel bills and food were coming out of Pete’s pocket, on his credit cards. A Diner’s Club card isn’t very rebellious, but it helps.
The motorcycles were being “wrangled” or taken care of by a huge bear of a man. His name was “Dan” and he was a mountain of a man. He was an actor, stuntman, and had lots of low-life contacts. He made sure the bikes were always ready for the shots because they were the big stars of the film. He often had to “wrangle” the stars too.
After one night in a New Orleans whorehouse (because it was part of the film, you see), Irishman awoke alone in a parking lot. He was hungover, confused — and totally naked except for a football helmet and a pair of panties around his neck. He also had a huge pain in his groin area. He looked down ,and discovered why.
There was, attached to his penis — a rather large crawfish with its claws gripping his scepter.
“How do ‘ya get a thing like that to let go without tearing anything off?”, Irish asked me as I sat in shock. “Well I’ll tell ‘ya what ‘ya don’t do kid. You don’t squeeze his head. Because when I squeezed his — he squeezed mine! It bled and it hurt like HELL!”. And in that moment I was told why Irish had a scar on the base of his member. A trivia fact I could happily have gone my entire life without knowing.
Irish was lucky that Big Dan found him in the New Orleans parking lot; nude, bleeding at the crotch, with a pair of hooker’s panties as a bandage. Oh — and don’t forget the football helmet. Luckily they had a medic in the crew so they didn’t need a trip to the hospital. Not this time, anyway.
The entire crew found themselves shooting scenes in rural parts of Louisiana. This included the film’s major climax, and scenes of angry “hillbilly rednecks” (as the film called them) trying to wipe out the hippie bikers. Hoppy knew he could get more realistic performances by making the locals angry. He just knew he’d capture the fire and fury of these rural, backwards, Cajun-bred rednecks. It would be the fuel for the big finale.
Hoppy rolled camera — and began taunting the locals. Calling them names. Hoppy told Big Dan to stay close, in case he had to be protected from angry hillbillies. Hoppy called them every rural slur in the book. Hoppy put down America. Hoppy insulted their mothers, their beliefs, and their way of life. Hoppy even put down their local sports teams.
The locals didn’t care; nor couldn’t have cared less.
No anger. No fury, no fire. “Do you want us to act now? What do you want us to say Mister?” was their reply.
Hoppy made fun of the Confederacy, called them racial slurs and called their women “fat whores”. The local men just laughed. They couldn’t figure what this guy’s problem was. But finally, Big Dan explained to them that they should act mean and angry, and told them what to do. They finally understood, and did it. Even though they thought Hoppy probably needed therapy — “because he was a very angry fella”, some locals told Irish.
The filming continued, with tons of footage of shots that made no sense to the story. It was part of Hoppy’s self-indulgent “genius” work. One of these big scenes was the powerful dramatic, psychedelic shots taking place in a cemetery under the influence of LSD. For full effect, Hoppy made everyone take LSD. And peyote. And mushrooms. And marijuana. And everything else he could come up with. Thankfully for him, some crew didn’t partake so at least somebody knew how to run the camera.
In this big scene, Pete was talking to tombstones. But Hoppy wanted more sex in the movie, so he turned to a female actress who was a dancer. He told her to improvise and go crazy with it. So under the influence, the actress got one of her gal pals (also an actress-dancer) and they began dancing and making out. On real tombstones, in a real cemetery. For nearly a full hour the camera rolled, and the action was explicit. Hoppy wanted more. Thankfully, they ran out of film — or else they’d probably STILL be there to this day with Hoppy telling them to “serve the scene, the power of your emotions!”.
After a long torture of shooting, the filmmakers found themselves in a bad jam.
Pete realized that his credit cards were maxed out, and the movie’s budget was depleted. He informed Hoppy, who offered up bits of philosophy and then went and dropped more acid — in between snorts of powder. Now Pete was getting worried. They were almost at the film’s end. To get this far and have to declare failure was BAD for everybody. They needed a plan. So Pete and Irish reviewed their options.
They decided that they could piece together the funds for post-production once they got back home to Los Angeles. Financing would be easier once they could show footage. But they had a bigger, immediate problem: they had only a few days to make payroll and cover the cost of packing all the equipment, crew, and cast back to California. They needed instant money and they were dead broke.
Pete says that if they had called or wired their production partners back home — they could get more money. But they’d be forced to surrender more share of the movie’s profits and more control. That production company (and it’s partners) were already wanting control. But Pete and Hoppy had “final cut” right now and they had to keep it to make the movie like they desired. Otherwise? The production company would lend up turning their hippie-freedom road movie into a bad episode of “The Monkees” or something. Not an option.
Pete turned to a guy he knew on the East Coast. He knew some people in Louisiana, specifically in Metairie — outside of New Orleans, where a short Italian man carried a lot of weight. His name was Carlos Marcello. Lucky for Pete, they were fans of his family and happy to find a creative way out of this jam. It turned out that Big Dan knew some similar guys around Opelousas, Louisiana in a similar line of work. And when Marcello sent his guys to visit Pete and Hoppy — it turned out to be the exact same guys Dan knew.
The next day, the entire crew awoke to discover the motorcycles were “missing”. They had been “stolen”. Oh, darn. But at least it meant they had less items to ship back home. It also meant they could file a claim with the insurance company for the stolen bikes, complete with police report and everything.
In a convenient twist, the amount the bikes were insured for — was just a little bit more than the loan Pete had taken out from the loan sharks (compliments of the little Italian). So when the insurance check came, Pete made sure to repay the loan. When one door opens…
Meanwhile, Big Dan was angry that he and others were not being paid for their full work. Hoppy decided to deduct intoxicating substances from their payroll. SO Big Dan decided to collect all of the leftover parts of the bikes and keep them. After all, he would get SOMETHING out of it. In the film’s finale, the main motorcycle is crashed and burned. It was one of three bikes named “Captain” that Pete used in the film. The crashed Captain bike was all that was left (after the others were “stolen”). So Dan kept the burned out parts and re-built them into the only surviving “authentic” Captain bike from the movie.
Or so he assumed, anyway.
When they all had their big wrap party to celebrate the end of shooting, they discovered they needed to shoot one more “camping” scene. But they had no motorcycles anymore. They’d all been stolen or destroyed. So they filmed the scene without any bikes in the shots. Luckily, it was easy — and they called it a night. The shooting was over, finally.
One big problem loomed: how in the hell were they going to afford post production?
Hoppy decided to stay in bed for two days, tripping, and let Pete figure it out. If Pete went to the producers? They’d pay for it but throw them off their own picture. If Pete went pan-handling for loans, word would get out that their much-heralded film was “in trouble”. They’d be pariahs and spell disaster for distribution. He needed a fix quick.
Naturally, Pete turned to a lady for help. (Don’t they all?).
This young lady was a famous singer, songwriter, and was moving into being an actress. She was in a musical group that was among the biggest in the country. Huge. They were the kings/queens of the Hollywood scene. She was on the outs with her on-off-again hubby, and had been having an affair with Hoppy on the sly for the past year. Her name was Michi.
When Pete told Michi of their jam, she could not believe how stupid they were. But she knew the movie would be good; it would be important to the new freedom of their era; and it would be profitable if it was finished properly. She was a shrewd lady with a keen mind for business, and had paid attention to many in the music biz who made fortunes. She told Pete she would get his money, but she wanted to be partners. She presented a contract that gave her a “senior partnership” position of first-dollar gross revenues from the movie. A nice percentage, but she wouldn’t demand any control or “final cut”. No press and no gossip. They could take it or leave it.
In late 1968-early 1969, Michi walked into her house in Laurel Canyon and delivered $1.2 million to Pete and Hoppy to cover post production for their movie. It would also cover music licensing costs, and pay off what the production needed to make prints and get it to distributors. Though legend has it the movie was made for half-million, they don’t count the money Michi delivered. But she sure did.
Michi knew only one man who could help her get that kind of money that fast, with no fanfare. She turned to a Hollywood fixer; a lawyer known for his ties to labor unions and the mob and the government. He was a fixture at the studios and had pals who were corporate CEOs. The Lawyer could do “anything”.
The lawyer brought Michi to a meeting in an office with no sign and no name on the door. When he told her who she’d be talking to, she got so nervous she threw up in a potted plant in the lobby.
Up in the office, was a “suit”. A business manager for a wealthy investor. The man at the desk sat there, with a big speakerphone on the desk. The man in the suit was a functionary of the “big boss” who talked to the suits by way of that speakerphone. In fact, the suits never even saw the big boss, because he was living elsewhere. They just served as proxies for him.
That day, the Lawyer and Michi sat down with the “suit” man, and the speakerphone came to life. It was a gruff, southern accent that was very straight-forward and all business. Very direct, and very to-the-point. The man on the phone heard the “pitch” from Michi and the Lawyer. The voice of the big boss liked the Lawyer, clearly because of his help with past labor disputes. Now when the Lawyer told the big boss that it was a good deal being offered, the big boss agreed. (Over the phone box).
Music songwriting royalties are like an annuity for the writer. Like if your rich Uncle Herman died — or you hit the lottery. You would get a payment every month, year, or whatever. In this case, these royalties came in every six months. So if you went and took out a loan to hire Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch to play your birthday? You would sign over those payments to them to service your loan debt. That’s basically what Michi was doing. (Without the Funky Bunch part).
Michi agreed to sign over the royalties from her songwriting for her band, which would serve as payments to service the debt of the loan. Every six months, her royalty revenues would go to the big boss (rather, his shell company), until such time as the loan principal and interest were paid back. This was Michi’s main source of income, but she believed this movie would be big. It was a ballsy gamble for a “little lady” (her own words).
Even though Michi never saw or personally met the big boss man on the phone, she talked to him and he seemed very professional and very polite. Very “direct” she said, and admitted he had no clue who she and her band were. But he trusted the word of the Lawyer, the fixer. After all — both the Big Boss and the Lawyer were two of the biggest men calling the shots in Las Vegas. And with that, they all came to terms; and the “suit” proxy man agreed to have the papers and check ready the very next day. With a nudge from the Lawyer, Michi left the office in a daze.
That was the day Michi took out a personal loan for over a million bucks from Howard Hughes.
Although the producers were amazed that Pete and Hoppy came up with the funds to finish the film, they were losing their minds dealing with Hoppy. The final nail came when Hoppy turned in his “director’s vision”. His cut of the movie, which was FOUR HOURS LONG! They were freaking out.
The producers and Pete decided to convince Hoppy to take a “vacation” to his home in New Mexico. They told him they didn’t want him to get lost, just to get some rest. He refused. Pete begged Michi to help, and she agreed to distract Hoppy and drag his ass to New Mexico — and far from the editing rooms in Hollywood. There, the producers hired filmmaker Henry Jaglom to try and cut the movie into a decent film. A film with coherence that was NOT four hours long!
Michi said Hoppy spent day after day in Taos sulking, tripping balls on coke and acid, and painting. Finally, Pete called and said they’d finished it — including putting in the music and all the rock songs they’d licensed…with her money.
When Hoppy saw it, he had a hissy fit. But after calming down, and the Irishman threatening to punch his nose into silly putty for ruining his first big break — Hoppy settled down. He agreed that Jaglom’s cut was a good movie and true to their “ethos”.
Everyone was relieved.
The TWO HOURS of unused scenes and footage was “trashed” and everybody told Hoppy it was tossed in the garbage and burned. Why? In truth, because they didn’t want him to try and do another cut of it. “Just let it go, man”, said Pete.
They took the movie to Cannes, and got distribution from Columbia Pictures and all over the globe. It was a MASSIVE smash hit. It became a myth, and Hoppy took credit for all of it. He and Pete nearly brawled many times over it, but wanted to keep a united front to keep the myth alive. It made tons of money.
In less than a year, Michi and the Lawyer returned to the office of Hughes’ business. There, she happily presented them a check for the entire $1.4 million they agreed to. Hughes earned an extra $200,000 on his investment in a year. Not bad for a supposedly crazy invalid. When Howard was on the phone, he told her she had “credit with him as long as she wants it” which made her very happy. She never had to use the offer though. She got back her royalties, which combined with her percentage of the movie’s profits — provided her with a very comfortable income for life.
Michi would eventually marry Hoppy. When he realized how much of the movie she owned, he called her: “the luckiest twat on two legs”.
Their marriage lasted a week.
The dancer and her gal pal who filmed the LSD nude orgy in the cemetery sure were glad when the final cut of the movie deleted that entire episode. Only small portions of the cemetery scenes remained, and only the dancer/actress (and not her gal pal) ended up in the movie. That dancer/actress went on to be a singer and have her own global smash years later with “Mickey” as the song. Her name is Toni Basil. Her gal pal? Was award-winning actress Teri Garr.
The bike wrangler on the movie, Big Dan, went on to become an actor of his own style. He became the star known to audiences of a generation as “Grizzly Adams”. Dan Haggerty also got in trouble with selling cocaine, and shady business deals with shady people. He also made a replica or two of the famous Captain motorcycle. After all, it was the closest to a real one that could be claimed. He wound up selling it at auction for $1.3 million and ended up in a flurry of lawsuits over what is authentic and what is not.
The movie itself has enter history as a legendary film. There is a mythical quality about the quest for freedom and the open road. It has also become one of the most profitable independent movies ever made. The budget was $400,000 (with an extra $1.2 million for post-production). At last count, it has earned over $60 million at the box office, PLUS more than another $100 million in video, DVD, television, soundtrack splits, and other ancillary markets…all since 1969.
The missing footage from the cutting room floor has been called “lost” by the filmmakers and historians. It has taken on a myth of its own, with many dying to see that an entire second film could be edited together from the missing footage. Maybe it is not missing after all? Maybe Michi took the film herself, to keep Hoppy from making another cut — and partly to protect her investment. Legend has it that it is sitting in a film rental vault even to this day, in the name of Michi. She’ll only smile and claim ignorance of the matter, but some say they have seen the film personally. That it is not “lost” — only on “vacation”.
Michi, (or “Auntie Michelle” to many), went on to marry many other men — but still kept her ex hubby’s last name…Phillips. She went on to a great second career as an actress, and very smart business-person. She still sings and is still very active in music; in social functions; and garden clubs with other ladies of her era.
The Irishman, aka Jack, went on to become the biggest movie star in the world and one of the best actors to ever live. When you see that mega-watt smile in that early movie of his? You can see a real room-rocker coming to life. Hoppy cleaned up his act, finally, and went on to become an amazing actor, director, and not a (half) bad human being either. I enjoyed knowing the always-talented Mr. Hopper for years. Pete or Peter, is a guy who I became “kinda fond-a”, and he grew into an award-winning actor who never tired of telling his tales.
No word ever surfaced about the fate of the “stolen” motorcycles, either. Legend has it they were stripped for parts. But rumors abound that some Italian guys ended up with them, and one of the bikes in particular impressed a relative of his. A legend says that relative still has it, today, THE original authentic, intact Captain America chopper from the movie. Today it would be worth millions. Allegedly.
That movie, of course, was called “Easy Rider”. Today, Hoppy is long gone; even Pete has passed on; and old “Irish” is struggling with dementia. But some things never die, including freedom, the power of the open road…and the myths.
Some legends will never die.
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