The charismatic leader of the Hells Angels was an integral part of Hollywood’s 1960s B-Grade movie scene.
Not forgotten | Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger
In the mid-1960s, Sonny Barger’s name started appearing in biker film credits as ‘technical adviser’ and by the end of the decade he had a starring role in one of the most successful films of the genre, Hells Angels ’69.
His international best-selling biography Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger, reveals a sign-on payment of $US5000 for his role as technical adviser. This was the equivalent of a year’s salary. Not bad for a 30-year-old former stevedore-turned-machinist from the tough Oaklands docks of San Francisco.
The first major B-Grade movie Barger advised on was Hells Angels on Wheels, released in 1967. However his first involvement with Hollywood came a year earlier when he sued director Roger Corman for using his club’s insignia without permission in the 1966 movie Wild Angels. That netted the club $US10k.
Wild Angels starred Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. At that time Sinatra was an underperforming nightclub singer whose management thought the role would toughen up her public image. Soon after she combined with gravel-voiced Lee Hazelwood to create one of the 60s most famous singing duos.
Barger had little regard for Fonda, describing him and author Hunter S Thompson as having attended the same school: “Chickenshit High”. Thompson’s best-selling expose of the biker lifestyle, Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, came out around the same time as Wild Angels. Thompson became a sort of Angels’ groupie during his research, later saying he felt he was being “absorbed” into the biker lifestyle.
By this time, the Hells Angels were firmly embedded in California’s counterculture. They had even started an enduring relationship with the band Grateful Dead. Many hippies in the San Francisco area considered them folk-hero and allies in their battle against middle-class bourgeois values.
As the 1960s progressed that battle became real, with authorities teargassing and shooting students protesting against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Meanwhile the dark underbelly of the counterculture movement was exposed in 1969 with the Charles Manson sect’s slaughter of actress Sharon Tate and the Angels involvement in a fatal stabbing at the Rolling Stones’ chaotic Altamont Speedway concert (jury verdict: self defence).
Several biker films Barger was involved with launched the superstar careers of actors, directors and cinematographers. Fonda’s co-stars in the seminal 1969 biker road-trip movie Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper (also director), had roles in earlier biker movies Barger was involved with. Easy Rider’s spectacular cinematography, where the camera zooms out from the motorcycles to take in a panoramic landscape, was the ground-breaking work of Laszio Kovaks. He started developing this style half a decade earlier with Hells Angels on Wheels.
The high point of Barger’s movie career was Hells Angels ’69. He had a major speaking role, along with fellow club members Tramp and Skip. Barger actually built a bike especially for the movie, a 1200cc Shovelhead chopper he called Sweet Cocaine.
The movie poster of Barger reclining on this stripped-down Hog, in scuffed Western riding boots and dusty leathers, is an iconic image of a 1960s biker. Barger described the film as “the only movie that captured the rough-and-tumble of the club”. He went on to say: “During the 1960s we really did our own thing. We put the peace and love vibe of the time together with the thrill of our own private counterculture, and it worked.”
The good times couldn’t last and in the early 1970s law enforcement agencies combined to reign in outlaw motorcycle clubs. In 1973 Barger became America’s second-most famous Folsom State Prison inmate after cult leader Charles Manson. Sentenced to “10 years to life” for possession of firearms and drugs, Barger was released in 1977 after a worldwide publicity campaign that had ‘Free Sonny Barger’ bumper stickers as its calling card. Bands such as the Grateful Dead were involved, with ‘Free Sonny Barger’ fundraising booths at their concerts to help pay a high-profile legal team.
In 1982 Barger faced his biggest personal challenge when doctors removed his vocal cords to rid him of throat cancer. This left him with a hole in his throat which he had to manipulate to speak in a hoarse whisper. One journalist described that fact that people had to bend down to hear him “reinforced his image as a leather-clad Godfather”.
In recent years Barger was sought out again by Hollywood heavyweights, making guest appearances in the hit biker television drama Sons of Anarchy. The public face of the world’s most famous outlaw motorcycle club, Barger leveraged exposure through the film industry to make the Hells Angels both an emblem of California’s youth rebellion in the 1960s and a global phenomenon.
Barger lost his battle with cancer on 29 June, 2022. He was 83.