'Two-Lane Blacktop' Director Monte Hellman Dead at 91

His 1971 film famously starred James Taylor and Dennis Wilson

Photo: Rodrigo Sombra

BY Brock ThiessenPublished Apr 21, 2021

Monte Hellman — the hugely influential director that gave us the classic 1971 Two-Lane Blacktop starring James Taylor and Dennis Wilson — has died. The filmmaker passed away Tuesday (April 20). He was 91.

Hellman died at the Eisenhower Health hospital in Palm Desert following a fall in his home, his daughter Melissa Hellman confirmed to the New York Times.

While Hellman may not be a household name for many movie fans, he left a very lasting mark on the cinematic landscape. His Two-Lane Blacktop, which starred musicians James Taylor and beloved late Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, continues to stand as a true cornerstone in counterculture filmmaking and existentialist road movies.

Two-Lane Blacktop was added to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 2012, and it's also now part of the Criterion Collection.

But Hellman first made his mark working with the legendary Roger Corman, with the director's first feature film being the Corman-produced horror flick Beast from Haunted Cave. Hellman again worked with Corman on 1963's The Terror, which starred both Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson.

Hellman would go on to work with Nicholson on multiple films, with the actor writing several of the movies. These include Flight to Fury (1964), Back Door to Hell (1964), The Shooting (1966) and Ride in the Whirlwind (1966).

Following the success of Two-Lane Blacktop in 1971, Hellman released Cockfighter in 1974, as well as films such as China 9, Liberty 37 (1978) and Iguana (1988), as well as others.

Over the decades, Hellman served as a huge influential forces on many younger filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino. In fact, Hellman was as executive producer Tarantino's classic Reservoir Dogs, as well as received thanks by the director on subsequent films.

As Deadline points out, Hellman once shared his approach to directing actors, saying: "I don't want them to act. They don't have to be the character: they are the character. The character is whoever you cast, that actor becomes the character. That's why casting is the most important job of the director…It's like Clint Eastwood once said, 'How can I tell Morgan Freeman how to act?' So you don't. That's the bottom line."

In addition to filmmaking, Hellman taught filmmaking at USC and the California Institute of the Arts. He is survived by daughter Melissa, son Jared and brother Herb.

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