Peter Fonda came from the sixties. As he aged, his screen persona became a referendum on his image and achievements, and what, if anything, that era stood for. But unlike some of his contemporaries, Fonda, who died last week at 79 of lung cancer, was not a simpleminded nostalgist. From the start of his stardom, the actor, director, filmmaker, producer, activist, and father of actress Bridget Fonda ("Jackie Brown," "Point of No Return") had a complicated vision of his time and country. It endured as he aged and started playing roles that commented on his youthful stardom. His signature works are "The Wild Angels," "Easy Rider,", "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry," "The Hired Hand," "Ulee’s Gold," "The Limey," "Escape from L.A.," and "Ghost Rider." All were animated by words and phrases that might pop into the heads of Peter Fonda fans when they thought about his career: motorcycles, counterculture, hippies, drugs, alienation, chaos, romanticism, regret, philosophical reflection, world-weariness, hope, and fathers and sons.
Fonda was born into Hollywood royalty. His father was superstar and Democratic political icon Henry Fonda. His sister was actress and activist Jane Fonda. Fonda’s mother, Frances Ford Seymour Fonda, was a depressive who killed herself when Fonda and his sister were young. His father could be cold, controlling, emotionally abusive, and disapproving of his childrens’ political and cultural alignments. Although the elder Fonda was politically liberal and marched on behalf of Civil Rights, he was culturally conservative, anti-drug, and disapporoving of the sexual mores of the younger generation. Peter Fonda entered the family business somewhat reluctantly, playing guest parts on network TV shows, and getting good reviews as a mental hospital patient in “Lilith” and as the father of an out-of-wedlock child in “The Young Lovers” (both 1964). But it was unclear whether he had the ambition or the stomach to stick with it.
In the mid-‘60s, two important things happened. First, he grew his hair long and started hanging out with rock musicians, doing psychedelic drugs, and taking part in political protests, even getting handcuffed by police during the 1966 Sunset Strip riots, which started when young people who hung out in the vicinity of the Whisky a Go Go rock club refused to obey a 10 p.m police-enforced curfew. The event inspired several popular songs, including Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and the 1968 Gram Parsons-written song “November Nights,” featuring Fonda on vocals.
Thanks to his beatnik/hippie affinities, he developed a reputation as an unconventional and uncommercial leading man. His anti-authoritarian beliefs entwined with his drug use, prompting deeper introspection about his troubled upbringing, and a greater willingness to discuss it with others. Fonda shot himself in the stomach shortly after his mother’s death and nearly died on the operating table, an event he described as an accident. He retold the experience to the Beatles while on acid at a 1965 party at the band’s rented house in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles, as a means of comforting George Harrison, who was scared that he might be dying. This incident became the basis for the Beatles’ trippy song “She Said, She Said,” infused by Harrison’s sitar riffs and marked by the refrain, “I know what it’s like to dead.” Another phrase in the song was originally spoken at the party by Lennon, who warned Fonda he was only making things worse by showing Harrison his gunshot wound and describing his clinical death: “You’re making me feel like I’ve never been born.”
Soon after, Fonda tapped a dormant storytelling impulse working with low-budget movie producer Roger Corman. Corman’s original studio, American International Pictures, did well for itself by cranking out cheaply made thrillers, science fiction films, counterculture-pandering melodramas, biker movies, and other works that exploited current events or tried to cash in on national anxieties or fantasies. (They released “Riot on Sunset Strip,” a dramatization of the real event, filmed just four months after the unrest ended; Fonda, alas, was not involved.)
Corman’s company also served as on-the-ground film school for many future industry heavyweights, including Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, and a young actor-screenwriter named Jack Nicholson (who was also at the Sunset Strip riots). Fonda starred in Corman’s “The Wild Angels,” an outlaw biker picture costarring Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Nancy Sinatra and Michael J. Pollard. Fonda was originally supposed to play the second lead, backing up “West Side Story” Oscar winner George Chakiris, but got promoted to the top spot when Corman figured out Chakiris couldn’t ride a motorcycle. Fonda imprinted his personality on the material, even convincing Corman to change the character’s name to Heavenly Blues.
A tawdry stew of brawling, shooting, rape, and macho self-pity, the movie was a huge hit in relation to its negligible cost, jump-starting audiences’ association of Fonda and Harley-Davidson motorcycles and spawning a subgenre of motorcycle pictures stretching into the 1970s, including “The Devil’s Angels” (starring John Cassavetes), “The Born Losers” (which introduced Tom Laughlin, aka Billy Jack) and “The Glory Stompers.” That last picture costarred a young actor, photographer, and screenwriter named Dennis Hopper, a beatnik and hippie-adjacent Los Angeles wildman who would turn out to be the final element in a talent package that would remake American film.
Fonda followed up “The Wild Angels” with “The Trip,” a Corman-produced LSD-sploitation picture written by Nicholson and starring Fonda as a disillusioned TV commercial director who drops acid to escape the pain of his divorce and goes on a nighttime odyssey through 1967 Los Angeles while being pursued by hooded, Grim Reaper-like horsemen. Fonda saw a poster for “The Wild Angels” featuring him and Dern—while stoned, one can only assume—and got the idea for a modern Western about a couple of longhaired drug dealers on motorcycles, starring him and Hopper, that would interrogate the myth of the American dream.
Financing the production in its early stages with his own money, Fonda hired novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern ("Dr. Strangelove") to write the script. Beyond Southern retitling the picture “Easy Rider” (from its working title “The Loners”) and naming Fonda and Hopper’s characters Wyatt and Billy (after Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid) it’s unclear from the film exactly who contributed what, although both Southern and Hopper would subsequently trash-talk each other’s contributions. The main cast included a gem of a supporting role, George Hanson, a lawyer who accompanies Wyatt and Billy on their journey and gets his eyes opened to a new reality. Hanson was originally supposed to be played by Rip Torn, but during a lunch in a New York diner, Torn became so offended by Hopper’s descriptions of “rednecks” he encountered during scouting trips in the South that the two men nearly had a fistfight in the restaurant, and Torn withdrew from the production. (Hopper retold the story on a talk show later in life and added the detail that Torn pulled a knife on him, which prompted Torn to sue Hopper for defamation.)
Nicholson, who had costarred with Hopper in the inventive and likable Monkees cash-in film “Head” and also wrote the script, took over the part. It launched his career as a superstar character actor with enough charisma to play lead roles. There were heated fights between Hopper and various crew members and collaborators throughout production and postproduction. Fonda ultimately locked Hopper out of the editing room to prevent him from making the film more impressionistic than it already was (the movie contains numerous “flash-forwards,” but they're brief, and less involved than Hopper wanted).
But nobody could argue with the result. "Easy Rider" became the highest-grossing film of 1969, forming an aesthetic bridge between the underground-exploitation-counterculture filmmaking scene and Hollywood studios, and sparking a Gold Rush mentality by those same studios. They were reeling from the collapse of the old system and competition from TV, and were willing to take a chance on new talent to lure young people into theaters. "Easy Rider" was not just a bankable title to them. They treated it as a talent farm and a template for other success stories. The myth of the wild and uncompromising auteur as we now know it comes partly from Hopper's "Easy Rider" mystique. A twelve-year flood of director-driven dream projects, arguably ending with the disaster of "Heaven's Gate," came out of "Easy Rider," too.
Nicholson emerged as the most reliably exciting (and widely parodied) leading man of the last three decades of the century, winning Oscars for four roles stretching from 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” through 1998’s “As Good as it Gets.” Hopper would go on to direct 1971’s “The Last Movie,” a postmodern Western and moviemaking satire (costarring Fonda in a small role) that was as obscure, striking, meandering and self-conscious as he’d wanted “Easy Rider” to be. After that, Hopper directed only occasionally (due to both his reputation for being “diffcult” and his uncommercial taste in subject matter) while building a durable career as a superstar character actor and (later) a sobriety advocate.
Fonda’s own career arc was less easy to see, but in retrospect it’s obvious that it all came out of “Easy Rider,” and that much of it could be read as a comment on, or footnote to, that early triumph. At the same time that Hopper was off in Peru shooting “The Last Movie,” Fonda starred and directed “The Hired Hand,” an excellent, low-key character-based Western costarring Warren Oates and Verna Bloom, with a screenplay by Alan Sharp (“Ulzana’s Raid”) and cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, who made miracles that year in another Western, Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” Fonda went on to direct the 1973 ecologically-minded science fiction thriller “Idaho Transfer” and star as a Vietnam war deserter in Robert Wise’s “Two People” (with Lindsay Wagner, future star of TV’s “The Bionic Woman”).
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Fonda rarely strayed far from the Corman exploitation model, even though he wasn’t working for Corman anymore. “Open Season” was a nasty piece of work, about three Vietnam combat veterans who torment and hunt unarmed kidnapees and are ultimately hunted themselves. 1974’s “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” was a drive-in touchstone starring Fonda, Adam Roarke and Susan George, about a couple of NASCAR hopefuls who rob a supermarket to finance their would-be jump into the racing circuit.
Fonda didn’t make much of an impression in his ‘80s roles, aside from a cameo in “The Cannonball Run” (1981) as “chief biker,” the first of many knowing parodies of his breakthrough part. He would go on to play many roles that associated him with motorcycles, Southern California, the counterculture '60s, or all three. Sometimes he got cast as an elder statesman or mentor: he played the founder of the biker gang Del Fuegos in “Wild Hogs,” the burnt-out surfer Pipeline in John Carpenter's "Escape from L.A.," and the voice of The Truth, an aging hippie, in the 2004 videogame “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." Other times Fonda was cast as a sinister or villainous figure: he played a cult leader in 1982’s “Split Image” and was Mephistopheles in 2007’s “Ghost Rider,” starring Nicolas Cage as a motorcycle stuntman who makes a deal with the devil but ends up serving him. Fonda was inducted into the American Motorcycle Association’s Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2007 told an interviewer that he continued to ride motorcycles because it “forces focus…The bike takes you on a free road. There’s no fences on the roads I ride, and I don't ride freeways.”
The more you think about the different ways Fonda reinterpreted his “Easy Rider” character, the more he seems as integral to the actor’s filmography, and to America’s postwar self-image, as Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name—the character to who every other Eastwood hero owes his existence, and who also simultaneously embodies and criticizes aspects of the national personality. As impossibly good-looking as his father and sister, Fonda played Wyatt with a touch of Eastwood’s whispery interiority, and a similar awareness of how to capitalize on patriotic imagery even while he critiqued it. Wyatt wore a helmet with an American flag symbol on it. His Harley was named Captain America, and had a stars-and-stripes pattern painted on the gas tank that contained their cocaine—a stash that Albert Brooks’ 1985 satire “Lost in America,” about spoiled yuppies wandering America in a fully stocked Winnebago, would describe as a “nest egg” undermining the duo’s claims that they were counterculture rebels.
All of those hypocrisies and contradictions are embedded in "Easy Rider," a film about two main characters who read as hippies but are more accurately described as drug dealers, and that climaxes with them getting blown away by the sorts of people who probably pulled the voting booth lever for Richard Nixon, the "law and order" candidate, less than a year earlier, if they voted at all. "Easy Rider" would not exist without Fonda’s initial conception and his checkbook, and its final form is due to Fonda's decisions as a producer.
It's not just an instinctual, elusive, multifaceted statement than can be interpreted any number of ways; it's a bottomless gold mine for artists who wish to answer it, expand on it, or reinterpret it—including the filmmakers themselves. Hopper alone unofficially revisited the movie many times, in projects as diverse as "Flashback" (in which he played an aging hippie anti-war protester who cautions Kiefer Sutherland's straitlaced FBI agent that you can't become a rebel "by going to your local video store and renting 'Easy Rider') and "The River's Edge" (playing an aging biker who once killed his girlfriend, and urges a younger murderer to turn himself in after doing the same).
Fonda's last great role, as 1960s record producer Terry Valentine in Steven Soderbergh’s crime picture “The Limey,” written by Lem Dobbs, might be the greatest revisitation of all. Although the core plot is a tale of revenge, the script is a dissection of the politically progressive but greedy and sexually exploitive entertainment machine that produced not just “Easy Rider,” but much of American popular culture afterward: noble and scummy, idealistic and materialistic. Terry is being hunted by a Cockney ex-con (Terence Stamp) who knows Terry was in a relationship with his twentysomething actress daughter Jenny and believes he was responsible for her death in a car wreck. When we meet Terry, he’s a rich man living in a spectacular cliffside mansion with security provided by a brutal fixer (Barry Nelson), and regaling his latest girlfriend—who, like Jenny, is barely half his age—about the magic of the sixties.
“Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before?” he asks her. “A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half remembered when you wake up? When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew your way around. That was the sixties.” He pauses, then adds, “No. It wasn't that either. It was just '66 and early '67. That's all there was.” Terry is introduced in an audacious montage, practically a self-contained trailer for the character, that includes shots of him smiling and mugging for the camera, scored to “King Midas in Reverse,” emphasizing the slippery charm of a character who brags that his secret in life is “I learned how to skate as a young boy.” There’s a shot in the montage of an American Express billboard which, in context, is using Terry Valentine’s face to sell credit cards, but the actual billboard is of Peter Fonda. You have to really know yourself to allow a touch that self-deprecating.
Along with motorcycles and the counterculture, one of the defining threads in Fonda’s career and life was his rebellion against authority generally, father figures specifically, and his own dad, a beloved American star whose legacy he would keep grappling with. The book jacket for Peter Fonda’s 1998 memoir combines the two rather bluntly: it’s titled Don’t Tell Dad and features a back jacket photo of a grinning Peter Fonda astride Captain America in “Easy Rider.”
The Fonda-directed star vehicle “Wanda Nevada” (1979), about a drifter who wins a 13-year old girl (Brooke Shields) in a card game, tries hard not to be sleazy, but its “Paper Moon” affectations never convince. It's mainly interesting for its behind-the-scenes story of reconciliation. Fonda paid his father $1000 to play a small role in the film, after the elder Fonda confessed that nobody was offering him work. It was the only time the two acted together onscreen.
The Fonda family seemed to put away most of its remaining differences when the elder Fonda starred opposite Katharine Hepburn in the multiple Oscar-nominated “On Golden Pond” (1981), costarring and produced by Jane Fonda. The film was a surprise blockbuster, for a movie built around two senior citizens bickering in a lakeside house. Jane Fonda accepted her father’s only Best Actor Oscar on his behalf because he was too ill to attend the ceremony; he died of heart disease five months later.
Arguably Fonda’s deepest and most surprising performance is as the title character of “Ulee’s Gold,” a film he agreed to make three years shy of his sixtieth birthday. Fonda’s Ulee Jackson is a taciturn beekeeper who, like Fonda’s own father, is left to care for children (and later, grandchildren) in the void left by absent mothers (Ulee’s wife is dead, and the mother of his grandchildren has run off, leaving him to care for two girls on his own). Written and directed by independent filmmaker Victor Nunez, who made a star of Ashley Judd with “Ruby in Paradise,” the movie gets bogged down in a crime thriller plot (Ulee’s son is in jail for armed robbery, and his two accomplices want the loot). But the image of a man demonstrating love for others through his actions, despite being an undemonstrative person himself, resonates with Fonda’s own stories of how he and his sister used to figuratively beat their heads against the stone wall of their father’s coldness. From this pain came decades of art.
In 2014, Fonda told People magazine that his father was “starchy,” not at all like the “archetypal decent man” he played on film. He said that his father once accused him of stealing a piece of candy, carried him into his bedroom by the scruff of his neck, and beat him. He told his children that their mother died of a heart attack. Peter Fonda only learned that she died from suicide when a neighbor told him the truth sometime in the early sixties, showing him a yellowed newspaper clipping that told the real story. The revelation marked the beginning of his adult estangement from his father—they had little to do with each other for the next 15 years—as well as his drift into the counterculture and his entrance into Hollywood (by the early ‘60s, he was appearing in stage productions and on TV shows).
That small part the elder Fonda played in “Wanda Nevada” started a healing process that continued until the elder man's death. Fonda would later remember how, during and after production, they used to hang out and talk as equals for the first time. His father’s darkness ebbed and was replaced by affection that the son never thought him capable of. One day his father started to cry as he left one of their afternoons together. On his way out the the door, he stopped and turned.
“Slowly and choking on the high-powered emotion, he said, ‘I love you very much, son...I want you to know that," Peter Fonda remembered. "I hugged him so hard, I could feel the pacemaker in his chest. Tears streaming down my own cheeks, I told him I loved him very much and kissed him on his lips. Something we had never done before. I quickly drove off, stopping at a nearby park to have the good hard cry I needed. Years of frustration fell off my heart like melting snow sliding off a roof.”