Monte Hellman, the film director who earned a cult following with movies like Two-Lane Blacktop and Ride in the Whirlwind, died Tuesday at Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Springs, California, after a fall in his home. His daughter, Melissa Hellman, confirmed his death to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 91.
Hellman was well regarded for his genre films, such as his 1964 war drama Back Door to Hell, 1966’s pair of Westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (both starring Jack Nicholson), and the acclaimed road movie Two-Lane Blacktop starring James Taylor and Dennis Wilson.
Born in New York City in 1932, Hellman relocated to Los Angeles with his family when he was five years old, and later got his start in the film and television business as an editor’s apprentice at ABC. He made his directorial debut with the 1959 horror film Beast from Haunted Cave, produced by Roger Corman, who also championed the early works of Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard. Corman and Hellman would keep up a professional relationship for the next 15 years.
Hellman’s next two films, Flight to Fury and Back Door to Hell, were shot back-to-back in the Philippines in 1964, featuring Jack Nicholson in two of his earliest starring roles. Nicholson penned the script for Flight to Fury, and he would maintain a heavy creative role on Hellman’s pair of Westerns, co-producing The Shooting and writing the screenplay for Ride in the Whirlwind.
His next project, Two-Lane Highway, starred Wilson and Taylor as street racers and was earmarked to be the next Easy Rider, but did not receive immediate critical acclaim when it first opened in 1971. “Nobody will ever know if the movie would have been successful, because its life was cut off even before it had a chance to breathe, really,” Hellman said in 2011 while discussing a film executive who he says refused to promote it. It subsequently went on to be a beloved cult film and frequently appears on any “Best road movies” list. In 2012, the film was admitted to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Hellman’s later works include Cockfighter (1974) and China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), both starring Warren Oates, as well as the slasher sequel Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989). In 2010, he independently released the noir romance Road to Nowhere — his most personal film, according to Variety — with jury member Quentin Tarantino calling the director as “a great cinematic artist and a minimalist poet.”
In addition to his feature films, Hellman also contributed segments to the 2006 horror anthology Trapped Ashes and the 2013 documentary Venice 70: Future Reloaded. He is credited as a dialogue director on Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a second-unit worker on RoboCop, and an editor on several films including Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite. Hellman was also an executive producer on one of Tarantino’s early successes, Reservoir Dogs.
“My primary role was to raise the money, which I did,” he told Flashback Files in 2011. “My secondary role was to guarantee that Quentin Tarantino would perform, which was not a problem because he knew exactly what he wanted to do. If I found that he was making tiny mistakes I would let him know. And he would always say: well, that was my intent.” [Laughs]
Throughout his career, Hellman maintained humility when discussing his work. “It’s interesting because anyone who is honest will tell you that at the time, no one knew that what they were doing was anything special,” Hellman told writer Jessica Hundley in 2011 looking back on his career. “I just made the movies that I could with the opportunities I was given. There was a certain amount of necessity that resulted in invention, but other than that, we were just doing the best with what we had.
“It’s been a real pain in the ass sometimes,” he added. “But you keep going, even when you know how hard it can be. You keep going, because, let’s face it, there’s nothing else like it.”