Film producer Bert Schneider, a force behind such notable films from the late 1960s and ’70s as “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Last Picture Show” and “Days of Heaven” and brought “The Monkees” to TV, died Monday of natural causes in Los Angeles. He was 78.
Schneider also earned a best documentary Oscar for producing “Hearts and Minds” (1974), about the causes and effects of the Vietnam War.
In his book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” Peter Biskind called Schneider “the eminence grise of the American New Wave.”
Raised in New Rochelle, N.Y., Berton Schneider was the son of Columbia Pictures president Abraham Schneider but had a rebellious streak that saw him expelled from Cornell U. in the early ’50s.Bert Schneider started his entertainment career in the early 1960s at Screen Gems, Columbia’s TV division. He and director Bob Rafelson teamed to form Raybert Prods. in 1965 and brought “The Monkees” to NBC the next year.
The pair shared an Emmy for the sitcom about a fictional rock band in 1967 and then brought the band to the bigscreen the following year in the counterculture, stream-of-consciousness film “Head,” penned by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, directed by Rafelson and exec produced by Schneider. Though the anarchic film was not a success at the time with either conventional fans of the Monkees or arthouse audiences, it later gained a cult following and some critical appreciation. Money from the success of the Monkees (related merchandise generated sales of $20 million or so in 1966) enabled Schneider’s further cinematic explorations.
Schneider paid $350,000 for the rights to the biker pic that would become “Easy Rider,” a significant box office hit in 1969 that helped usher in the era now known as New Hollywood. Schneider took the project in hand and made sure editing was completed (supervised by Henry Jaglom and Nicholson rather than director Dennis Hopper), ensuring the film could be released.
In “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” Biskind quotes Brooke Hayward, Hopper’s first wife, as saying, “Bert was the heroic savior of that movie. Without him, there would never have been an ‘Easy Rider.'”
Next came the Rafelson-directed “Five Easy Pieces,” starring Nicholson, in 1970. The Rafelson-helmed pic made Nicholson a major player as an actor and earned four Oscar noms, including a best pic mention.
With the addition of partner Steve Blauner, Schneider and Rafelson’s company became BBS Prods. (for Bert, Bob and Steve). They turned out Peter Bogdanovich’s seminal “The Last Picture Show” (1971) as well as Nicholson’s directing debut, “Drive, He Said”; Henry Jaglom’s first film, “A Safe Place”; and the Peter Davis docu “Hearts and Minds.”
In his Oscar acceptance speech Schneider read a “message of peace” to the American people from the North Vietnamese delegation to the peace talks then under way in Paris, angering many members of the Motion Picture Academy establishment.
Schneider also produced Richard Patterson’s Charlie Chaplin docu “The Gentleman Tramp.” As a member of the Academy’s board of governors, he was instrumental in the Academy’s decision to bestow a lifetime achievement award on Chaplin and organized his return to the U.S. to receive it.
He also exec produced Jaglom’s “Tracks” and Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (1978).
Schneider’s last producing credit came on the little-seen 1981 Michie Gleason film “Broken English.”
Peter Fonda based his character in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Limey,” record producer Terry Valentine, partly on Schneider.
In 2010 the Criterion Collection put out the seven-film DVD box set “America Lost and Found: The BBS Story,” including “Head,” “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces.”
Schneider was deeply involved in progressive causes and gave financial and public support to groups such as the Black Panther Party. He was a founding board member of Medical Aid to El Salvador.
Schneider remained close to Nicholson over the years, even staying at his house for long periods.
Schneider’s late brothers Stanley and Harold were also associated with Columbia Pictures, with the former serving as president of the studio.
Survivors include daughter Audrey Simon and son Jeffrey Schneider, as well as four grandchildren.
Donations may made be made to the Abbie Hoffman Activist Foundation, P.O. Box 908, New York, NY 10156.