LOS ANGELES — In the hours after the death on Wednesday of singer Davy Jones, Bob Rafelson spoke glowingly on Wednesday about the legacy of the Monkees, both the TV show he and partner Bert Schneider created in 1966, and the real-life group that emerged from the Hollywood sound stages for which it was assembled.
“Davy Jones deserves a lot of credit, let me tell you,” Rafelson, 79, said from his home outside Aspen, Colo. “He may not have lived as long as we wanted him to, but he survived about seven lifetimes, including being perhaps the biggest rock star of his time.”
Rafelson corrected the oft-reported assumption that “The Monkees,” focusing on the antics of four likable rock musicians, was inspired by the Beatles’ hit film “A Hard Day’s Night.”
“This was a show I had written six years before the Beatles existed, and the pilot was based on my own life as an itinerant musician when I was 17 years old,” Rafelson said. “What the Beatles did was to create a kind of permission for any rock ‘n’ roll to be a popular subject for television.”
In auditioning 437 actors and musicians for the four spots in the band, Rafelson said there had been no prerequisite that any of them would be British.
“It was his talent and his incredible charm” that landed Jones the role as the group’s heartthrob. “He went through the same audition process many of the others did, and that meant about 15 screen tests. David made that cut and, of course, survived after that as well.”
It did help, however, that Jones had begun developing a public profile before the show started shooting. “David was one of the few anybody recognized,” Rafelson said. “Somebody in the family of one of the producers had seen him perform as the Artful Dodger” in the early 1960s Broadway production of the musical “Oliver!”
Even though a real band, the Lovin’ Spoonful, was among those that showed up to the auditions, Rafelson said that musical credibility wasn’t the only factor.
“We were much more interested in putting the band together according to what we thought would make a good television group,” he said. “Just because somebody had a hit record out doesn’t mean they’re going to be either a good TV actor or that they would blend well on the screen. We quickly got past that idea. But we were flattered that people who had such extraordinary reputations as the Spoonful wanted to do the show.”
As for what landed Jones one of the four spots in the group, Rafelson said, “Davy was sort of a legit showbiz guy more than he was a rock ‘n’ roll kind of singer. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to switch, both in terms of the performance as an actor and the sensibility needed as a singer — or even if he would truly want to. He had his thing going as a Broadway and London stage performer.
“But as soon as we started working together, everything changed. I just thought he would blend well with Micky and Mike and Peter,” he added, referring to Monkees bandmates Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork.
“David had certain qualities just sitting in a room that I was interested in,” he said. “He was witty, his goals in life were not to be a show-business star. He was a jockey at this point, and he returned to being a jockey before he resumed his show business career. That interested me.”
Rafelson also directed and co-produced the Monkees’ 1968 film, “Head,” his first movie. It was a commercial failure and maligned by many who saw it originally, but years later it began garnering a new appreciation for its surrealistic style and anti-corporate attitude.
“It was outside of its time,” Rafelson said with a laugh. “I just showed it for the first time in a very long time, in Boston, and the picture is now being fanatically re-reviewed. Everybody wants their first-born to succeed, and of all my pictures, I think that’s the one that was the most neglected until the box set” that includes the film, he said, a reference to “America Lost and Found: The BBS Story,” released in 2010.
“In some ways, my attitude was always very paternalistic toward the Monkees,” he said. “Davy got tired of being called of a band created by the establishment, which is indeed the subject of ‘Head’: what it was like to be used and misused, to be cavalierly treated. That’s why I made the movie.
“So I always had this paternalistic attitude about the Monkees and their having been my creation,” Rafelson said. “At the same time, I felt very fraternal about them because of the similarity of our ages. We used to hang out quite a bit together socially. When the Monkees were done — after we were done with ‘Head,’ and after some of them decided to break up — we continued to see one another.”
Today, Rafelson said, many people don’t realize how big the Monkees phenomenon was.
“This was a massive thing,” he said. “They sold something like 23 million records in 1966 — and that was more than the Beatles, more than the (Rolling) Stones that year. They had more No. 1 hits. I tell this to people now, and they say ‘What are you talking about?’ But (‘The Monkees’) was hugely rewarding and I take great pride in it.”