Bert Schneider obituary
In the late 60s and early 70s, youth movies identified with the draft-dodging campus rebels disillusioned by their elders and the war in Vietnam. Among the leading lights that embodied the counterculture were the producer Bert Schneider, who has died aged 78, and the director Bob Rafelson. They came together to form Raybert Productions, and then BBS Productions (with Steve Blauner), which produced several pictures that expressed the zeitgeist, such as Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Drive, He Said (1971) and the Oscar-winning anti-Vietnam war documentary Hearts and Minds (1974).
Schneider was no bandwagon jumper, but a committed leftist, who vigorously opposed the American presence in Vietnam. He was also close to the 1960s political activists Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther party, the African-American radical organisation, and Abbie Hoffman of the Youth International party ("Yippies"). In fact, Schneider helped Newton escape to Cuba to avoid prosecution on murder charges in 1974, and lent support to Hoffman when he went underground after being charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Born in New York City, Schneider was expelled from Cornell University and rejected by the army due to his rebellious attitude. He first went to work for his father, Abraham, chairman of Columbia Pictures, in the company's television subsidiary Screen Gems. However, he left in 1965 to hook up with Rafelson. For their first joint venture, they dreamt up a TV situation comedy about a rock band, inspired by A Hard Day's Night (1964), Richard Lester's Beatles movie.
Schneider put out an audition call for "four insane boys", finally settling on Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork to become the Monkees. Because of Schneider's connections, the show was sold to Screen Gems, and ran from 1966 to 1968, with Rafelson directing six episodes. The Monkees was radical in the sense that the foursome was given an exceptional amount of leeway to improvise. According to Dolenz, "The only time you saw long-haired kids on television was when they were being arrested. And then we come along and all we want to do is have fun and dance and sing and help little old ladies across the road."
The success of the Emmy award-winning show gave Schneider and Rafelson the chance to make a feature film with the Monkees, called Head (1968), a plotless, surrealist romp which has its rich moments such as the group playing dandruff in Victor Mature's hair. The film, directed by Rafelson, bombed, but the success of the TV series provided much of the capital to finance Easy Rider.
One day, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda dropped into the Raybert office to pitch the idea of a movie with motorcycles as the "ultimate freedom machines". Rafelson introduced Hopper to Schneider, saying: "This guy is fucking crazy, but I totally believe in him, and I think he'll make a brilliant film for us." Schneider courageously agreed to finance the film for $360,000 with his own money, despite not having a studio to distribute the movie, and the dicey reputation of Hopper, who was to direct. Schneider even promised not to interfere with the production.
However, there was one issue on which he overruled Hopper. Schneider insisted on casting Jack Nicholson as the soft-spoken, alcoholically befuddled lawyer, against Hopper's initial objections. "Bert insisted that I use him and finally I said, 'Bert, I'll do it for you, but he's gonna ruin my movie,'" Hopper explained later. "Bert wanted Jack because he needed a watchdog to make sure we weren't pissing away all his money." Although the Columbia executives, among them Schneider's father, hated the film, it caught the imagination of the young.
Nicholson starred in Five Easy Pieces (1970), Schneider's third film as executive producer and Rafelson's second feature as director. This picaresque tale of a middle-class dropout reacting against his stifling family had certain resonances for Schneider. Though in no way a film about Vietnam, it is suffused with the troubled self-questioning and self-recrimination which tore the US apart for the period of the war and its aftermath.
Because of the box-office success of Five Easy Pieces, Schneider's company agreed to bankroll Drive, He Said (1970), Nicholson's directorial debut. The rather chaotic counterculture comedy-drama tries too hard to be the statement about America during the Vietnam war, but there are some satirical anti-jock moments. Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971), which lovingly evoked the black and white cinema of the 1940s, was only one of two non-contemporary films that Schneider produced. (The other was Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, 1978.)
Hearts and Minds was among the very few US films of the mid-70s to focus on Vietnam from an anti-war angle. Shot over a period of a year at a cost of about $1m, the theme was illustrated by the military analyst Daniel Ellsworth's remark: "We weren't on the wrong side – we were the wrong side."
At the Oscar ceremony in 1975, the announcement of the film winning best documentary was loudly applauded. But in his acceptance speech, Schneider (who co-produced with the director Peter Davis) caused controversy by reading a congratulatory telegram bearing "greetings of friendship" from the Vietcong delegation to the Paris peace talks.
Bob Hope, one of the four MCs, insisted on the Academy issuing an official disclaimer, which was read by Frank Sinatra. "We are not responsible for any political references made on this programme tonight. And we are sorry they were made." According to Rafelson, Sinatra nearly got into a fight with Schneider back stage.
In contrast, Schneider produced a documentary on Charlie Chaplin called The Gentleman Tramp (1976), during which he got to know Oona O'Neill, Chaplin's widow, and persuaded her to appear in her only acting assignment, in Broken English (1981).
Schneider then retired from the movie business, spending the next three decades fighting political prejudice, and a drug addiction. He was married four times and is survived by a son, Jeffrey, and a daughter, Audrey.
• Berton Schneider, film producer, born 5 May 1933; died 12 December 2011