Return to Zabriskie Point: The Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin Story

Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin

Zabriskie Point.
A remote and barren blister of land on the American desert.
As isolated as the face of the moon.
Zabriskie Point.

Where a boy and a girl meet….and touch….and blow their minds!

Heavy….isn’t it? Those were the powerful words which advertised Zabriskie Point, famed film maker Michelangelo Antonioni’s look at America. Released in 1970 under a mushroom cloud of protest, controversy and fascination, Zabriskie Point was the story of a college drop out named Mark who walks into a student protest, allegedly shoots a cop, steals a plane and flies out to the desert where he meets an anthropology student/temp secretary named Daria. Mark and Daria go to Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, run around the desert having pointless dialogue, fuck, and then Mark decides to return the plane with disastrous results, and Daria blows stuff up with her mind to Pink Floyd music. That’s it. I’m serious. You don’t believe me and think that there is more to this movie then find a copy and watch it yourself. MGM was hoping that Zabriskie Point would be a box office smash and an instant counter culture masterpiece. They were wrong. Zabriskie Point was a bomb. Critics hated it. Audiences hated it. Even the films stars were quick to condemn it. Now there was no denying that Zabriskie Point was beautifully filmed and crafted. I mean, this is Antonioni we’re talking about and it is a visually stunning film. However, the script, written by Antonioni along with a team of successful writers, was nothing but a pretentious and pointless mess without any plot or direction. Watching Zabriskie Point is really a marathon of numbness with dialogue that goes no where, characters who pop in and out of scenes and a bigger message which may not be clear to anyone but Antonioni himself…and he took that bigger message to the grave with him. Anybody claiming that Zabriskie Point is a masterpiece is probably a pretentious phony. They are the type who stocks their bookshelves full of avant-garde literature, yet has never actually read any of it, in order to impress people who come over and may just happen to look at the shelf. Yet, everyone who ever saw Zabriskie Point would never forget it, and love it or hate it, the film would stay in the hearts and minds of movie fans forever.

Yet Zabriskie Point would not have been made possible without the “talents” of the two young unknown actors that Antonioni cast in the leads of his film – Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin in the roles of…well….Mark and Daria. Where they lacked in talent they made up in good looks and for a millisecond America was fascinated with the pair, especially when they found out that magic did happen in the barren land called Zabriskie Point. You see, although Mark and Daria had never met before the film, in the desert the two fell in love, and soon became America’s first counter culture couple. Mark and Daria quickly found themselves featured on the cover of magazines such as Look and Rolling Stone and being featured in round table discussions and interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show. However critics questioned why a master film maker like Antonioni would cast two unknown kids with no acting experience in a film like Zabriskie Point? I mean, MGM was dishing out seven million dollars to make this film! It was a big risk. Yet what Antonioni saw that perhaps nobody else did was unlike many of the counter culture figures and celebrities that cried for revolution and peace during the late 1960s, Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin were the real deal. Sure, they may not have been the most talented, and nearly forty years later they may not have become icons of the counter culture movement, but Frechette and Halprin walked the walk and talked the talk. No other couple ever embodied the true spirit of the counter culture movement more than Mark and Daria. Not John and Yoko. Not Tom Laughlin and Deloris Taylor. Not even Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. They all had their merits and their messages were carried farther and better remembered. Yet Mark and Daria were brought from the front lines of the counter culture movement to represent the counter culture movement. But, like most of the real revolutionists of the time, their names have faded into the obscurer parts of the pop culture journey.

So lets steal an air plane as we take a flight once again to that big orgy at Zabriskie Point and rediscover the story of Mark and Daria; their humble beginnings, their short time at the top, their revolutionary love affair and two different endings – one which ended in tragedy and another who stayed true to the spirit of the sixties and dedicated a life to spirituality and healing. Come back to Zabriskie Point. How we get there depends on where we’re at.

Before we can begin to rediscover the story of Mark and Daria, we have to begin with the man who brought them together, Italian art house director Michelangelo Antonioni. Without him the world would have never have known Mark and Daria, and they would have never have known each other. Already famous in Europe for films such as Le Amiche, L’advventura and L’eclisse, Antonioni signed a deal at the end of the 1960’s with MGM studios to make three English speaking films to be released for American audiences. The first of these films was the British crime thriller Blowup, which took a look at England’s Canterbury fashion subculture and made stars out of David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgraves. Despite mixed reviews, Blowup was a huge success for Antonioni, and he finally made his mark on English speaking audiences. Thus, for his second feature Antonioni set his sights on America to try to discover the true nature of the US of A. Obviously he concluded that the US was made up of auto mobiles, billboards, radicals, police violence and discontented youth, because the result was Zabriskie Point. Preferring to use unknown actors instead of name stars in the thoughts that he could shape and mold their performance to his needs, Antonioni decided to ignore casting calls and auditions and instead he sent his casting directors out upon the streets of America to find the modern all American girl and boy. Acting talent was not a prerequisite. All that was required was that the pair be beautiful, unashamed and revolutionary.

Antonioni discovered Daria Halprin himself while watching Jack O’Connell’s 1968 documentary Revolution about the San Francisco hippie movement in and around Haight-Ashbury, which featured a naked Daria reciting terrible hippie poetry. Daria’s long dark hair and hard eyes appealed to Antonioni and he sought out the beautiful hippie girl. In an interview with Look Magazine Antonioni stated that he was drawn to Daria’s “bratty, free, earth-child quality” and that he “made no attempt to change her.” Born and raised in the San Francisco area, Daria Halprin was the daughter of prominent landscape architect Lawrence “Pops” Halprin and postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin. Daria was attending Berkley when the call came from Antonioni’s people for Zabriskie Point, which left her with a choice to make. Either she settle with a degree in anthropology, or follow the dream of potential stardom. Being a true free spirit, Daria dropped out of school and headed to LA. It would be there that life would temporarily change for Daria, and that change came in the form of Mark Frechette. If Daria represented the airy and free spirited movement of Haight-Ashbury, Frechette in many ways represented just the opposite.

Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin

The search for Antonioni’s all American boy was far more difficult. Ads went out in major city newspapers looking for someone that had “angular features … Politically Aware” but nobody suitable auditioned. Antonioni’s casting directors found Mark Frechette on the streets of Boston. The story goes that Frechette was first spotted by Antonioni’s people at a bus stop screaming “motherfucker” at a woman (although some reports say it was a man) in a third story apartment and flinging a flower pot at her. The casting directors sent the simple message to Antonioni: “He’s twenty and he hates.” This was exactly what Antonioni was looking for. In Look Magazine Antonioni described Mark Frechette as having “”the elegance of an aristocrat, though from a poor family. There is something mystical about him.” Born in Fairfield, Connecticut, high school drop out Frechette was basically a penniless drifter when he relocated from New York City to Boston where he was discovered. In order to support a wife and child, both of whom little is known about, Frechette would take up the odd carpentry job, but spent most of his time begging for money on the streets. Arrested a number of times due to his violent temper and drugs, it was during his time as an angry and discontented youth on the streets of Beantown that Frechette discovered the underground publication The Avatar which was published by members of the Mel Lyman cult. His fascination with the writings of Mel Lyman would go on to change the course of his entire life.

Folk musician Mel Lyman, was a Boston based cult leader who taught his own warped and claustrophobic LSD filled views encouraging Americans to return to the roots that folk music was born from and to reject modern America, and throughout the end of the 1960’s and early 1970’s ran a commune with approximately one hundred members in the Fort Hill area of Roxbury. At the best of times Mel Lyman claimed to be the “living embodiment of the truth” and “the greatest man in the world.” At the worst of times he claimed to be “Jesus Christ” and an alien life form sent to Earth in human guise. Said to be both merciful and cruel, kind and tyrannical, Mel Lyman’s commune appealed to members of the disenchanted anti-establishment of the 1960s, and through the publication The Avator, his group attracted its followers. It is believed that Mark Frechette first approached Lyman in 1967 but was completely ignored. However, upon reproaching Lyman after he was cast in Zabriskie Point, Frechette was brought into the commune with open arms. Mel Lyman was a true opportunist, and believed that Mark Frechette could be the celebrity spokesperson for his message. Mark’s initial time with Lyman would be short, as he had a movie to make in California, but he promised he would return. So, in 1968, Mark Frechette, whose wife had taken their child and left him by this point, headed for sunny California to become a counter culture super star….and into the arms of Daria Halprin.

When Mark and Daria first met in Hollywood in the MGM offices, it could be said that it was love at first sight. In a 1970 Pluto Magazine interview, Mark and Daria described their first impressions of each other. Mark stated:

“The first time I met her, she walks into the MGM office, gorgeous, tan, real long hair, shoulder pads – she must have had shoulder pads…I’d never seen shoulders on a chick like that, she sits down on a chair and rolls her eyes at me…looks over at me and says, ‘I feel like I should rush into your arms and kiss you, but I’m really knocked out from the flight down.’”

However, Daria’s first recollections of Mark were a little less flattering:

“He’s sitting there in his big arm chair, looking like a zombie, not saying a word to anyone, real white and pasty, and he’s got these huge Benjamin Franklin glasses on. You know what he looks like when he hasn’t had a hair cut? He had about five pounds of hair all combed over to one side, looks like he’s going to collapse on the floor from all that weight … it kinda drags him over to one side like the leaning tower of Pisa. And remember the only reason (Mark) got that role was ’cause (he was) the only guy around who had shoulders as big as mine!”

Yet history would prove that this mismatched pair would grow close as filming began on Zabriskie Point. But, making the film would not be an easy task. Even before filming began the public were out to damn Zabriskie Point. When word came out that Antonioni’s screenplay was highly anti-American the FBI began to trail and investigate the cast and crew of the film. Upon showing up to film a real life protest in Oakland, California for stock footage, the sheriff accused Antonioni of provoking the protestors in order to get the footage he required, while the group of militant anti-establishment protestors involved stated that they felt that they were being “sold out” When word got out that there was to be a flag burning scene, a mob of right-wing protestors besieged filming locations. The irony is no scene of this nature was in the film.

Most notably, however, was the Sacramento California’s US Attorney Office’s failed attempt to shut filming of Zabriskie Point down. Investigating the film for its anti-Americanism, the district attorney’s office attempted to use the Mann Act to cease the film from being made. The Mann Act was a law created in 1910 prohibiting the export of women across the state line “for immoral conduct, prostitution or debauchery.” Proposing that the orgy scene at Zabriskie Point could be held under these laws, the DA’s office had to back down when it learnt that Zabriskie Point was actually fifteen miles west of the California-Nevada state line, and that Antonioni wasn’t breaking any laws. As the public tension around this film rose, MGM hoped that public outcry, scandal and protest would lead to a curious public embracing the film. However, what was perhaps more true is that these protests were in reality omens of doom for the film.

Even the relationship between Antonioni and his stars were often difficult, although Mark and Daria would have very different perceptions of working with the fabled director. Antonioni was famous for not getting along with his actors and for having little use for them and even stating that he hated them. In a famous quote Antonioni said “Actors are like cows. You have to lead them through a fence.” However despite his usual disdain for actors, Antonioni seemed to take a great liking for Daria and took her under his wing. In the disastrous interview with Dick Cavett, one of the only clear statements that Daria made when asked about Antonioni was that she often felt very close to him.

Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin

Yet for Mark Frechette it was a different story. The two had a very stormy relationship with arguments and bitter discussion surrounding the film as well as their opposing views and ideologies. Mark Frechette tried to turn Antonioni on to Mel Lyman’s message, and was even reported to be leaving copies of The Avator around the set. However, Antonioni could not be swayed to Frechette’s frame of mind, and kept true to his own vision of America as an outsider looking in, which to Mark was tainted and unrealistic. After Zabriskie Point was finished, when expected to promote the film, Mark continuously criticized the film and Antonioni’s vision of America, at one point being quoted as saying “(Zabriskie Point is) A big lie and totally alien.” Yet, it could be wondered if Antonioni wasn’t just a little bit envious of the budding relationship between his new protégé Daria, and the angry and rebellious Mark, especially when he was succeeding in seducing her with Mel Lyman’s ideas, and eventually getting Daria to agree to return with him to Boston to live in Mel Lyman’s commune, in which they returned and handed their entire earnings from the film over to the charismatic and bizarre cult leader. Perhaps his music and message was unheard in Zabriskie Point, but the film just made Mel Lyman $60 thousand richer. Lyman would be the only one who made any money off of the film, and he wasn’t even in it.

After two years in production Zabriskie Point was released in February 1970 to a sea of controversy and to scathing and terrible reviews. Time Magazine called the film “Incredibly simple-minded and obvious. The scenario might have been written by a first year student in film school.” Film critic Rex Reed wrote “Hilariously awful…it is uninspired and phony” and of Mark and Daria said “two of the worst performances of the decade” (ironically, Rex Reed would be a guest during Mark and Daria’s Dick Cavett interview, where both barely acknowledged him). Meanwhile The New Yorker called Zabriskie Point a “pathetic mess” and The New York Times called it “One of the worst films of 1970.” Yet we all know that just because critics don’t like a movie doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s awful, right? Doesn’t mean the audience won’t embrace it. Well, after Zabriskie Point ran its course, including second run engagements, the film only made $892 thousand back from the seven million it took to make it, being one of the biggest money losing films in film history up to that point. Antonioni called the film to “his first flop,” and never returned to America to make a movie again.

Yet despite the fact that America was not having a love affair with the film, for a very short while Mark and Daria became the face of the counter culture. The idea of a beautiful and revolutionary couple living together in a commune seemed to fascinate a certain pocket of America and for a very brief time America was fascinated with the pair. However, it is uncertain how beautiful their love actually was. Evidence shows that Mark Frechette could be quite cruel and controlling of Daria. It is known that the Mel Lyman’s cult was very male dominant and even, at times, misogynistic. There is no solid evidence proving that Mark tried to control Daria nor abused her, but there is much evidence that he tried to mute her voice and crush her spirits. In their tense interview with Dick Cavett, Mark ruled the roost, answering (or in his coy way, not answering) Cavett’s questions, and interrupting Daria any time she made an attempt to speak, and when she finally found a chance to speak, between the constantly cut off my Cavett, Mark and guest Mel Brooks (who Daria shows on screen disdain towards) she psychically was forced to shake Frechette and tell him to be quite, only to say in the confusion that she forgot what she had to say.

Mark Frechette went on to make a third film in Yugoslavia called Man Against in 1972, and returned again to Mel Lyman’s commune. However, in an abstract and foolish protest against Watergate in 1973 Mark and two other members of the cult staged a bank robbery which went wrong. Frechette’s best friend, Christopher “Hercules” Thein, was gunned down by police and died on the way to hospital during the robbery. Yet, upon confiscation of the robber’s guns, it was revealed that there were no bullets in the chamber. Upon being arrested and asked why he had tried to commit such a bizarre and major criminal act Frechette stated:

Later, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, when they were asked if they were to get married Daria answered “one of these days, right Mark?” to have Mark quickly and coldly reply “Wrong.” When Daria tried to recover by suggesting they’d get married so that they could have children Mark replied “In France they call them natural children, not bastards.” This type of repression for a former San Francisco flower child must have been both difficult and demoralizing. In a wishy-washy unrevealing interview with Pluto Magazine near the end of Daria’s time in Boston, her frustrations with commune living poked its head out when she said “it’s so hard for me to recognize that person I was in Zabriskie Point. And when I read that the Women’s Lib. believe me to be the most liberated women ever to be filmed, it makes me sick!” By the end of 1970 Daria had had enough of Mel Lyman’s commune and made her way back to San Francisco while Mark went to Italy to make an anti-war film called Many Wars Ago. Upon returning to the US Frechette followed Daria to San Francisco, but by the end of 1971 Mark was back in Boston, while Daria had found comfort in the arms of another counter culture icon – award winning actor Dennis Hopper.

Thus, as America’s interest with Zabriskie Point faded, so had the romance between Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin. Yet their individual stories were hardly over.

“I am afflicted by a political conscience. We did it as a revolutionary act of political protest. We had been watching the Watergate hearings on television and we saw John Dean tell the truth and we saw Mitchell and Stans lie about it. We saw the apathy and we felt an intense rage. They did not know the truth and did not want to know the truth. We know the truth and wanted to show it to them. Because banks are federally insured, robbing that bank was a way of robbing Richard Nixon without hurting anybody…There was no way to stop what was going to happen. We just reached the point where all that the three of us really wanted to do was hold up a bank. And besides…standing there with a gun, cleaning out a teller’s cage – that’s about as fuckin’ honest as you can get, man.”

Perhaps, as the flower power of the sixties turned towards the lies, deceit and greed of the seventies, and without Daria Halprin there to keep him grounded, Frechette’s train of thought was finally warped. As a result of the attempted bank robbery, Mark Frechette received a six to fifteen year sentence for his crime. He would only serve two years of his sentence but never know freedom again. On September 27th, 1975 a fellow inmate found Mark’s dead body in the prison weight room where a 150 set of barbells had fallen on him and he had been chocked to death by the bar that fell on his throat. An inquest was held to investigate Mark’s death, with the official conclusion being that his death was accidental and that the barbells had slipped while Mark was bench pressing. Yet, questions occurred around his death as the result that no marks from the bar were left on his neck. Still, foul play was ruled out as Mark Frechette proved to be very popular with inmates. But, it was said that due to increase depression, Mark had stopped eating and had lost a lot of weight and muscle, which possibly resulted in his accident. Thus ended the life of a cultural icon that we barely got to know.

But what of Daria Halprin? Did she find happiness after Zabriskie Point? Daria made one more film, The Jerusalem File, in 1972, and married Dennis Hopper the same year. In 1974 the couple had their only child, Ruthanna, but by 1976 Daria and Dennis had split up as well. Daria remarried later in life, and had another child.

Daria eventually returned to San Francisco to teach and study dancing alongside her mother Anna Halprin, and together they revolutionized the art of dance as a healing process in the 1970’s. When Anna was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1972 she began to use dance as a form of movement therapy. Through this endeavor, she and Daria together formed the Tampala Institute, which is a San Francesco based non-profit organization dedicated to teaching dance as a therapeutic art form and through a combination of psychology and drama, use dance as a way to cure emotional, mental and physical ailments. Daria is currently the director of the Tampala Institute as well as a registered movement therapist and expressive arts therapist where she maintains a private practice in Marin County, California. She is also the author of the book The Expressive Body in Life, Art and Therapy. For more information on Daria’s work and the Tampala Institute you can visit their web-site. Obviously Daria’s future artistic endeavors were more revolutionary then joining a cult, robbing a bank and dieing in prison. Instead Daria took the free love and peace and creativity aspects of her days at Haight-Ashbury and has used it to better the lives of people.

Today Mark and Daria are best known as the nameless couple on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Zabriskie Point Sessions CD cover. The film was recently released on DVD, but every now and then finds its ways to art house screening and film festivals so that a whole new generation can watch it in a combination of confusion and amusement and scratch their heads and ask “what the hell was that all about?” Yet, despite the fact that the world has seemed to forget the lives and love of Mark and Daria, they still remain the greatest counter culture couple that we never really knew. Their love was as fleeting as their time at the top, and although their film didn’t make it in the Hollywood hall of fame, their story is far more interesting then many Hollywood movies. Love and sex, madness and manipulation, revolution and aggression, tragedy and redemption. Mark and Daria’s story had it all, and if the world wants to forget about Zabriskie Point, hopefully it will never completely forget Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin.

About the author

Since 2013, Sam Tweedle has been writing as an arts and culture journalist for kawarthaNOW, with special attention to Peterborough's theatrical community. However, his career as an arts writer goes back further via his website Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict where Sam has interviewed some of the entertainment world's most notable and beloved entertainers. Sam's pop culture writing has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, The National Post,, Filmfax Magazine and The New Yorker. You can follow Sam on Instagram at sam_tweedle_z where he posts about his four greatest loves: cats, comic books, movies, and records. Sam no longer uses Twitter because, as far as he's concerned, it's no longer a thing.