Hollywood Flashback: 'Easy Rider' Was Filmed Guerrilla-Style at 1969 Mardi Gras

© 1969, renewed 1997 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
Dennis Hopper, singer-actress Toni Basil (who went on to record the 1981 hit single "Mickey") and Peter Fonda at New Orleans' Mardi Gras in 'Easy Rider.'

The annual New Orleans event, held this year on March 5, was used as a backdrop for the 50-year-old film as producer-star Peter Fonda reveals a plan to save money on extras by filming during the festivities and notes that they had to "scramble" when they realized they originally had the date wrong.

While the annual New Orleans Mardi Gras, held this year on March 5, has served as a backdrop for films as varied as 1953's Abbott and Costello Go to Mars and the 1999 Ashley Judd vehicle Double Jeopardy, its use in 1969's Easy Rider has become the stuff of legend.

The Dennis Hopper-directed film — which turns 50 this year — has a plot centering on two hippies with a tendency toward metaphysical musings. (The Hollywood Reporter loved Rider but called producer-star Peter Fonda's performance "a bit too Jesus-y here and there.") The duo use the profits from a successful cocaine deal (the dealer was played by record producer Phil Spector, who was convicted of murder in 2009) to finance a motorcycle ride toward New Orleans.

Fonda, now 78, tells THR he decided on the Mardi Gras locale because "we'd have 100,000 people or more in costumes on the streets, and we wouldn't have to pay them." Rider became the year's third-highest-grossing movie (the $365,000 production budget, or $2.5 million in today's dollars, had a worldwide gross of $60 million — or $412 million currently). Though the stars' onscreen drug use added to Rider's authenticity, the partying took a toll.

For example, they had budgeted $40,000 to shoot the New Orleans scenes first, but Fonda was a month off on the Mardi Gras date. He says, "We did scramble but got there in time for the big parade." One key scene was shot in the city's landmark St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and, to speed things along, no one asked the Archdiocese of New Orleans' permission. Since the scene involved Fonda acting as if he were on LSD while with two prostitutes (played by Karen Black and Toni Basil), then climbing into the lap of the goddess sculpture atop the Italian Benevolent Society's tomb and acting out his trauma over his actual mother's suicide, this didn't go over well with the ecclesiastical authorities.

Filming is no longer permitted in Cemetery No. 1.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.