Having emerged during Hollywood's new wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s, iconoclastic producer Bert Schneider was responsible for shepherding some of his time's most heralded classics. After partnering with director Bob Rafelson to create the pop culture phenomenon, "The Monkees" (NBC, 1966-68), Schneider entered the film business with The Monkees' disappointing feature debut, "Head" (1968), which marked the beginning of his fruitful collaboration with Jack Nicholson. With his next film, "Easy Rider" (1969), he helped usher in the New Hollywood era with the counterculture classic that was one of the biggest hits of the year while turning Nicholson into a major star. Schneider worked with the actor again on the Academy Award-nominated drama, "Five Easy Pieces" (1970), before producing Peter Bogdanovich's masterpiece "The Last Picture Show" (1971). After bankrolling Nicholson's rather disappointing directing debut, "Drive, He Said" (1972), Schneider won an Oscar for his Vietnam War documentary, "Hearts and Minds" (1974), while managing to cause a bit of controversy while accepting his win. He went on to produce several forgettable movies before working on Terrence Malick's exceptional "Days of Heaven" (1978). Schneider left Hollywood after "Broken English" (1981) to focus on battling political causes and his drug addiction, leaving behind a short, but lasting legacy as one of New Hollywood's great producers.
Born on May 5, 1933 in New York City, Schneider was raised in the suburbs of New Rochelle and later briefly attended Cornell University, only to be kicked out in 1953 due to his rebellious attitude. Luckily, his father Abraham Schneider was the chairman and president of Columbia Pictures, which lead to working for the studio's television division, Screen Gems, in the early 1960s. He quit in 1965 to form Raybert Productions with director Bob Rafelson, with whom he created the pop culture phenomenon, "The Monkees" (NBC, 1966-68), a sitcom about a fictional rock band that spilled over into the recording industry when the members fought to become an actual group that made records and performed live. Thanks to the massive success of both the show and the musical act, Schneider and Rafelson entered the film business as the executive producers of "Head" (1968), a psychedelic adventure starring The Monkees, co-written by actor Jack Nicholson under the influence of LSD. The result was an absurd, plotless stream-of-consciousness comedy that ticked off Monkees fans and failed at the box office, yet acquired a cult following years later.
Undeterred by "Head," Schneider and Rafelson produced the landmark road movie, "Easy Rider" (1969), which starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as two hippies who traverse the American landscape on their custom motorcycles after scoring with a major cocaine sale. Along the way, they pick up a drunken ACLU lawyer (Nicholson) after a night in jail, only to encounter the harsh reality of losing their idealism amidst trying to achieve the American Dream. Hailed as a masterpiece in avant-garde filmmaking, "Easy Rider" was a box office smash and heralded the golden age of New Hollywood alongside "Bonnie & Clyde" (1967) and "The Graduate" (1967), while turning the unknown Nicholson into a bona fide star. From there, Schneider produced the Rafelson-directed drama, "Five Easy Pieces" (1970), which starred Nicholson as a disaffected oil rig worker who reluctantly returns home to his more cultured hometown, only to find both worlds in conflict with each other. The moody drama solidified Nicholson's standing as a rising star, while it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. The following year, he produced Nicholson's directorial debut, "Drive, He Said" (1971), a rather confusing and downbeat look about a basketball star (William Tepper) whose antics in the bedroom finally catch up to him.
Working this time with director Peter Bogdanovich, Schneider executive produced another New Hollywood masterpiece, "The Last Picture Show" (1971), a coming of age drama set in a small Texas town during the early 1950s that focused on two football stars (Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms) forced to re-examine their futures when the town's movie theater closes down. Shot in stark black and white, "The Last Picture Show" was hailed by critics and earned eight Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. After executive producing the forgettable experimental psychodrama "A Safe Place" (1971), starring Nicholson and Tuesday Weld, Schneider turned to documentaries with "Hearts and Minds" (1974), a searing chronicle of the Vietnam War that juxtaposed the striking images from the war with the often ignorant words of American politicians and military leaders. The film drew polarized critical reviews for its one-sided point of view, but that did not stop it from winning Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. He caused a bit of a stir by reading a congratulatory telegram from the Vietcong delegation at the Paris peace talks, which forced host Bob Hope to issue a disclaimer read by Frank Sinatra, who allegedly nearly came to blows with Schneider back stage.
Schneider went on to produce the cheap action flick "White Line Fever" (1975) and the made-for-TV documentary, "The Gentleman Tramp" (1976), which strung together clips from the career of silent movie star Charlie Chaplin. Following the moody Vietnam drama, "Tracks" (1976), starring Dennis Hopper, Schneider produced one last great film, "Days of Heaven" (1978), Terrence Malick's spectacular rural period drama about a lonely wheat harvester (Richard Gere), whose life becomes intertwined with three itinerant workers from Chicago. Schneider called it a career after producing "Broken English" (1981), a rather dated romantic drama about a white woman (Beverly Roberts) who runs afoul of her friends and family after marrying a black man (Jacques Martial). Tired of working in Hollywood, he went on to spend the next 30 years of his life battling various political causes as well as his own personal demons in the form of long-standing substance abuse. Off the radar for a period of time, he emerged to partake in the documentary, "Hey, Hey, We're the Monkees" (1997), and was allegedly the model for Peter Fonda's character, Terry Valentine, in Steven Soderbergh's crime thriller, "The Limey" (1999). Schneider married four times and saw his Beverly Hills home burn to the ground in 2007. Following years of declining health, he died of natural causes on Dec. 12, 2011 at 78 years old.
By Shawn Dwyer