LOS ANGELES — In the hours after the death of singer Davy Jones on Feb. 29, Bob Rafelson spoke glowingly about the legacy of the Monkees, both the TV show that 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," he said. "What the Beatles did was to create a kind of permission for any rock 'n' roll to be a popular subject for television."
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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!
"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."
As for how Jones landed 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 Mickey and Mike and Peter," he said, referring to Monkees bandmates Mickey Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork.
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?'"