Wasn’t Born to Follow: RIP Peter Fonda

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.

With Sandra Dee in “Tammy and the Doctor”

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!

The Leader of the Pack: 1966’s “The Wild Angels”

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.

Fonda and Hopper in 1969’s “Easy Rider”

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.

1971’s “The Hired Hand”

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.

With Brooke Shields in “Wanda Nevada”

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!

With Vanessa Zinn in “Ulee’s Gold”

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.

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Drive-In Saturday Night 4: WHITE LINE FEVER (Columbia 1975) & HIGH-BALLIN’ (AIP 1978)

Breaker One-Nine, Breaker One-Nine, it’s time to put the hammer down with a pair of Trucksploitation flicks from the sensational 70’s! The CB/Trucker Craze came to be because of two things: the gas crisis of 1973 and the implementation of the new 55 MPH highway speed limit imposed by Big Brother your friendly Federal government. Long-haul truckers used Citizen’s Band radios to give each other updates on nearby fueling stations and speed traps set up by “Smokeys” (aka cops), and the rest of America followed suit.

Country singer C.W. McCall had a massive #1 hit based on CB/trucker lingo with “Convoy”, and the trucker fad was in full swing. There had been trucker movies made before – THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, HELL DRIVERS, and THE WAGES OF FEAR come to mind – but Jonathan Kaplan’s 1975 WHITE LINE FEVER was the first to piggy-back on the new gearjammer craze. Kaplan was a Roger Corman acolyte who started with films like NIGHT CALL NURSES (and later directed Jodie Foster to an Oscar in THE ACCUSED, based on a real-life incident that happened RIGHT HERE in New Bedford, MA). WHITE LINE FEVER was his first movie for a major studio, and though the budget was still small, it resonated enough with audiences to make it a surprise box office hit.

The late, great Jan-Michael Vincent stars as a returning Vietnam vet who marries childhood sweetheart Kay Lenz and buys himself a big rig (christening it “The Blue Mule”), hoping to live The American Dream. That dream is shattered when Vincent refuses to play ball and haul contraband for his sleazy bosses (including Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, and Don Porter), and attempts to unionize his fellow truckers.

Jan-Michael gets blackballed and lands in a whole heap o’trouble before taking matters into his own hands at shotgun point, and there’s lots of 18-wheel action, car crashes, explosions, and other good stuff. Meanwhile, a subplot unfolds when Kay discovers she’s pregnant and considers an abortion, a hot button topic at the time (as I always say, the more things change… ). The Bad Guys set Our Hero up for the murder of Slim, and the trial features a crooked prosecutor (R.G. Armstrong) and crooked witness (John David Garfield, son of the former Warner Brothers star).

Our Hero is acquitted, so The Bad Guys ramp up the nastiness, trashing The Blue Mule, killing his good buddy Pops (Sam Laws), and beating Jan-Michael and Kay severely, then burning their house down! Vindictive bastards! Kay loses the baby (conveniently skirting that pesky abortion issue) and is told she can never have children, so Jan-Michael’s had just about enough, leading to a slam-bang smash-up finale with Our Hero vs Porter’s Evil Empire, going down in an Exploitation Blaze of Glory!

Reportedly, WHITE LINE FEVER is where Jan-Michael Vincent was first introduced to cocaine, a drug that swiftly sent him on a personal downward spiral (I can relate!). He did some excellent work in movies and TV during the 70’s and 80’s, but sadly drugs and alcohol held him back from realizing his full potential. Beautiful Kay Lenz was a personal favorite of mine for films like BREEZY and THE GREAT SCOUT & CATHOUSE THURSDAY (and the Rod Stewart video “Infatuation” , directed by Kaplan) who remains active today, mostly in episodic TV. And besides those previously mentioned, the ubiquitous Dick Miller has a small role as one of Jan-Michael’s fellow haulers; Kaplan and Miller pay tribute to their mentor by naming Dick’s character ‘Birdie’ Corman, who drives a rig called ‘The Brat’!

And now let’s hit the snack bar before our next feature…

Everybody loaded up on popcorn? Good, because next up is pure popcorn movie bliss, 1978’s HIGH-BALLIN’…

This underrated little Trucksploitation flick came out at the height of the CB/Trucker craze, and stars SMOKEY & THE BANDIT’s Jerry Reed as an independent trucker battling another Evil Empire… this time a trucking magnate (Chris Wiggins) who wants to force the indies out of business and work for him. Enter Jerry’s good ol’ buddy Peter Fonda , who first appears riding up to the truck stop on a motorcycle because… well, because he’s Peter Fonda!

There’s plenty of exciting action to be found in this Canadian-made entry, and I especially enjoyed the scene where Jerry and Peter are being chased by bad guys down the highway while hauling a load of stock cars – you can’t get much more redneck than that, good buddy! HIGH-BALLIN’ also costars the sexy-cute and extremely underrated Canadian actress Helen Shaver as Pickup, a tough truck drivin’ chick (who shares the obligatory 70’s sex scene with Fonda). David Ferry (Detective Dolly of THE BOONDOCK SAINTS) is on hand as psycho henchman Harvey, who winds up in a cowboy-style showdown with Fonda at the film’s conclusion. Keep an eye out for Canadian actors Harvey Atkin (TV’s CAGNEY & LACEY) and Michael Ironside (SCANNERS, V: THE FINAL BATTLE, TOP GUN) in minor roles.

HIGH-BALLIN’ may be low-budget, mindless entertainment, but it’s good for what it is, with lots of action, trucker lingo (“Keep the shiny side up, keep the greasy side down”), and likable performances from Fonda, Reed, Shaver, and young Chris Langevin (who now works as a prop man) as Reed’s son Tanker, a rare instance where the little kid isn’t annoying in one of these action flicks. So keep the bears away from your back doors as you leave the drive-in while we listen to C.W. McCall’s smash “Convoy”, from the glory days when Kenworths and Peterbilts ruled the roads – and the screens!:

  That’s a Big 10-7 from me, Good Buddies!

Get Your Motor Runnin’ with THE WILD ANGELS (AIP 1966)

Roger Corman  kicked off the outlaw biker film genre with THE WILD ANGELS, setting the template for all biker flicks to come. Sure, there had been motorcycle movies before: Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE and the low-budget MOTORCYCLE GANG spring to mind. But THE WILD ANGELS busted open box offices on the Grindhouse and Drive-In circuits, and soon an army of outlaw bikers roared into a theater near you! There was BORN LOSERS , DEVIL’S ANGELS, THE GLORY STOMPERS , REBEL ROUSERS, ANGELS FROM HELL, and dozens more straight into the mid-70’s, when the cycle cycle revved its last rev. But Corman’s saga of the freewheeling Angels  was there first; as always, Rapid Roger was the leader of the pack.

Our movie begins with the classic fuzz-tone guitar sound of Davie Allen, as Angels president Heavenly Blues (Peter Fonda ) rolls down the road to pick up club member Loser (Bruce Dern ). The two then gather up the club and ride to the desert town of Mecca, where a Mexican gang have Loser’s stolen chopper. A fight breaks out, the ‘man’ comes, and the Angels take off, with Loser stealing a cop’s bike to join them. He’s shot in the back while riding away, and the cops take him to the hospital under armed guard. Loser’s ‘old lady’ Gaysh (Diane Ladd ) is worried, but Blues has a plan to “bust him out”, using his girl Mike (Nancy Sinatra) as a decoy. The club brings Loser home, but he soon dies, right after toking his last jay. The club then takes his body to his hometown for an Angles style send-off, a wild Bacchanalia of desecration, degradation, destruction, and decadence….

That’s about all the plot there is, a loose frame to hang some scenes of sex, drugs, violence, and the Angels cruising down the highways. Biker flicks were never meant to be plot-heavy; they serve to show the nihilistic viewpoint of an alienated part of our culture, who reject (and are rejected by) conventional society and form their own “family” units. It’s a theme as old as mankind itself, and Fonda sums it up best:

Right up there with his dad’s speech in THE GRAPES OF WRATH! Notice none of the actors are wearing any “official” Hell’s Angels colors, patches, or rockers. That’s because the real club (some of whose Venice chapter appear in the film) don’t allow it… Bruce Dern alleges he copped a beating for doing so, despite the fact his character was already dead!

 

Besides those mentioned, the cast features Buck Taylor , Norman Alden, Michael J. Pollard, Lou Procopio, and Marc Cavell as club members, along with Familiar Faces Art Baker , Kim Hamilton, Gayle Hunnicut, Frank Maxwell (as the preacher), Dick Miller (naturally!) , Barboura Morris, and veteran tough chick Joan Shawlee as Momma Monahan. Charles B. Griffith wrote the script, which Corman hated, so he gave it to his assistant Peter Bogdanovich for a complete rewrite! Bogdanovich did so without credit, also working on some second unit directing, cinematography, editing, and even playing a bit part in the final fight scene at Loser’s gravesite! THE WILD ANGLES is as much Bogdanovich’s film as it is Corman’s, and the work he did for Roger helped launch his own career as a filmmaker. Those of you who dig biker exploitation will surely dig THE WILD ANGELS. Those who don’t… well, you’re just too square, man.

My Favorite Super Bowl Commercial 2017

I admit I didn’t pay much attention to the ads during last night’s nail-biting Super Bowl, but this one caught my eye. A rowdy gang of bikers are partying hardy, when one comes in and tells his brothers they’re “Blocked in!”. The gang goes outside ready for action, when they see a shiny new Mercedes AMG GT Roadster. Who’s driving? None other than Mr. Easy Rider himself, Peter Fonda! The ad was directed by the Coen Brothers, and as we say in New England, it’s “wicked funny”! Enjoy!

Roger Corman’s Electric Kool-Aid Tangerine Dream: THE TRIP (AIP 1967)

“You are about to be involved in a most unusual motion picture experience. It deals fictionally with the hallucinogenic drug LSD. Today, the extensive use in black market production of this and other so-called ‘mind bending’ chemicals are of great concern to medical and civil authorities…. This picture represents a shocking commentary on a prevalent trend of our time and one that must be of great concern to us all.” – Disclaimer at the beginning of 1967’s THE TRIP

trip1

“Tune in, turn on, drop out”, exhorted 60’s acid guru Timothy Leary. The hippie generation’s fascination with having a psychedelic experience was a craze ripe for exploitation picking, and leave it to Roger Corman to create the first drug movie, THE TRIP. Released during the peak of the Summer of Love, THE TRIP was a box office success. Most critics of the era had no clue what to make of it, but the youth of suburban America flocked to their theaters and drive-ins in droves to find out what all the LSD hubbub was about.

Corman also wanted to know, so he and some friends dropped acid one balmy night and headed to Big Sur to trip. Having had a good experience, Corman sought to translate it into film (and make a buck in the process, no doubt). He solicited his pal Jack Nicholson , who’d experimented with LSD himself, to concoct a screenplay depicting what it was like to do acid. Nicholson came up with an acceptable script, and Roger went to work translating it for the big screen.

trip2

It begins as TV commercial director Peter Fonda, in the midst of a divorce from wife Susan Strasberg , decides he want to try acid to “find out something about myself”. Pal Bruce Dern brings him to drug dealer Dennis Hopper’s pad, they cop and return to Fonda’s place, where he takes a 250 microgram dose, Dern staying straight to act as his guide.

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Dern advises Fonda to “turn off your mind, relax, and just float down the stream” (paraphrasing The Beatles), and soon he’s off on a journey to the center of his mind. THE TRIP then turns into a visual and aural assault on the senses filled with kaleidoscopic imagery, stunning light-show effects, and hallucinogenic nightmare sequences as Fonda gets deeper and deeper into his trip. The plotless structure now becomes pure film, with quotes from Fellini, Bergman, and Corman’s own Poe films. The “Psychedelic Special Effects” credited to Charlatan Productions, bold cinematography by Arch Dalzell (in ‘Psychedelic Color’), rapid-fire editing by Ronald Sinclair, and Corman’s knowing way behind the camera, combine to dazzle the viewer and, if it doesn’t quite truly capture what it’s like to trip, comes pretty damn close.

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The music soundtrack is provided by The Electric Flag, a 60’s San Francisco-via-Chicago band featuring Mike Bloomfield, Buddy Miles, Barry Goldberg, and Nick Gravenites. Their trippy raga-rock sound serves as the perfect backdrop for Corman’s visual feast. They are not the group shown at the club, though; that’s Gram Parson’s International Submarine Band, whose music Corman didn’t feel was  “far-out” enough. Corman regulars Dick Miller (as a bartender), Barboura Morris (hilarious as a woman Fonda meets at a laundromat), Salli Sachse, Luana Anders, and Beach Dickerson all appear, as do (briefly) Angelo Rossitto , Michael Blodgett (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS ), and Tom Signorelli. Look fast for Peter Bogdanovich, Brandon DeWilde, and rock scenemaker Rodney Bingenheimer.

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Fifty years later, THE TRIP remains a film lover’s delight, something that has to be seen to be truly appreciated. AIP honchos Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson tacked on that opening disclaimer, as well as superimposing a “cracked glass” effect over Fonda’s face in the film’s final shot, implying he’d been permanently damaged by the experience. This pissed Corman off, and after they later butchered his 1969 satire GAS-S-S-S!, he struck out on his own and formed New World Pictures, where he and others could enjoy artistic freedom (on a low-budget, of course). Whether you’ve ever tripped or not, this film is worth seeing for its technical mastery and daring concept. Also, it’s downright groovy, man!