It’s ironic that on this, the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, one of our biggest counter-culture icons has passed away. When I saw Peter Fonda had died at age 79, my first reaction was, “Gee, I didn’t know he was that old” (while sitting in an audience waiting for a concert by 72 -year-old Dennis DeYoung of Styx fame!). But we don’t really think of our pop culture heroes as ever aging, do we? I mean, c’mon… how could EASY RIDER’s Wyatt (aka Captain America) possibly be 79??
Be that as it may, Peter Fonda was born into Hollywood royalty February 23. 1940. Henry Fonda was already a star before Peter arrived, thanks to classics like YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, JEZEBEL, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, and THE GRAPES OF WRATH (released a month before Peter’s birth). Henry has often been described as cold and aloof, not showering much in the way of affection on young Peter and his older sister Jane. Their mother, Frances, committed suicide in a psych hospital, where she’d been admitted after the devastating news Henry wanted a divorce, in 1950, when Peter was just ten.
Despite (or more likely, because of) his father distance, young Peter began studying acting in college, hoping to follow in Henry’s footsteps. He began getting work in the early 60’s doing TV guest shots (NAKED CITY, WAGON TRAIN, THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR) and some movies (TAMMY AND THE DOCTOR, THE VICTORS, THE YOUNG LOVERS), nothing very memorable. He then became involved with the 60’s counter culture movement, getting arrested during the Sunset Strip riots and tripping on acid with The Beatles (the line “I know what it’s like to be dead” from The Fab Four’s “She Said She Said” is attributed to Fonda). As his hair got longer and his trips more frequent, acting work seemed to dry up… until Roger Corman came a-calling!
Fonda’s two mid-60’s films with Corman solidified his image as a Hollywood rebel. THE WILD ANGELS was the prototype for all those bikersploitation flicks to come, with Fonda as leader of the pack Heavenly Blues, and another Child of Tinseltown, Nancy Sinatra, as his ol’ lady. The film’s practically plotless, allowing Corman and uncredited script doctor Peter Bogdanovich to indulge in their outlaw biker fantasies, including this now-classic moment:
Next up was THE TRIP , and if you thought WILD ANGELES lacked in the plot department – hoo boy! This psychedelic 60’s ode to LSD was written by Jack Nicholson , and stars Fonda as an uptight director of TV commercials who tunes in, turns on, and drops out. In my 2017 review, I wrote that THE TRIP is “a visual and aural assault on the senses filled with kaleidoscopic imagery, stunning light show effects, and hallucinogenic nightmare sequences… (that) becomes pure film”. It was on this film Fonda met another Hollywood rebel struggling within the system…
…Dennis Hopper, who’d starred in his own AIP outlaw biker flick, THE GLORY STOMPERS . The two hit it off, and decided to make their own movie, their own way, with Fonda producing and Hopper directing.
Envisioned as a modern-day Western road trip, 1969’s EASY RIDER caught the 60’s counterculture zeitgeist perfectly, and became a huge hit. Largely improvised (though screenwriter Terry Southern always denied it), the film’s structure is about as loose as you can get, following Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) as they ride their choppers from LA to New Orleans after a successful cocaine deal to attend Mardi Gras. Their journey across America takes them to an Arizona farm, a hippie commune, and a night in a New Mexican jail, where they meet alcoholic lawyer Jack Nicholson (who copped his first Oscar nom here) before reaching The Big Easy, and that fateful final encounter with the dark side of America on a lonely stretch of highway. EASY RIDER’s look and attitude helped launch the New Hollywood movement, and featured a seminal rock score by artists like The Band, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, and Steppenwolf.
The success of EASY RIDER gave Fonda some clout, and his next picture THE HIRED HAND found him directing and starring as an Old West drifter who returns to his wife (Verna Bloom) after seven years. It’s a dark, moody piece that audiences didn’t quite get when first released; seen today, THE HIRED HAND has a lot going for it, including the performances of Fonda, Bloom, and Warren Oates, and some stunning cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond.
After the box office failure of THE HIRED HAND, the bloom was off Fonda’s rose, and he spent most of the 70’s in a series of action flicks: DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, RACE WITH THE DEVIL, KILLER FORCE, the sci-fi sequel FUTUREWORLD, FIGHTING MAD, OUTLAW BLUES, HIGH-BALLIN’ . Most are good, solid drive-in fare, but Peter’s really not given much to do. He returned to the director’s chair with 1979’s WANDA NEVADA, starring as a gambler who wins 13-year-old Brooke Shields in a card game, and the two hunt for hidden gold in the Grand Canyon. Critics of the day savaged the movie, but I’ve always liked it, and would recommend it to those interested in Fonda’s work. Plus, dad Henry Fonda has a cameo as a grizzled old prospector; it’s your only chance to see Fonda pere and fils share a screen moment together!
To paraphrase Dylan, the times they were a-changin’, and Peter Fonda’s 80’s output isn’t all that interesting, except his cameo as a biker in Burt Reynolds’ THE CANNONBALL RUN, and his turn as a cult leader in Ted Kotcheff’s SPLIT IMAGE. But he made a major comeback with 1997’s ULEE’S GOLD, as a Florida bee (not ‘B’) keeper whose drug addicted daughter-in-law brings chaos into his well structured life. There’s a lot of the real-life Henry Fonda in Peter’s reticent Ulee Jackson, and he received an Oscar nomination for his performance, losing to old pal Jack Nicholson for AS GOOD AS IT GETS.
Most of the next twenty years found Peter Fonda doing supporting parts or brief cameos. The Sixties had come and gone, that free-spirited era existing only in nostalgic memory. But as long as the music and movies of the times are with us, as long as there’s a biker cruising down the highway on his (or her) Harley, the spirit of those times, and of Peter Fonda, will always be with us. Rest in peace, Captain America.