Peter Fonda (1940-2019): Born into Hollywood royalty, actor preferred bad-boy rebels

Peter Fonda, best known for the iconic anti-establishment hit “Easy Rider” and, more recently, the quietly reflective “Ulee’s Gold, died Thursday from lung cancer. He was 79. We talked numerous times, including when he was guest of honor at San Jose’s Cinequest Film Festival.

by Glenn Lovell

Peter Fonda remembered his first screen kiss. He didn’t know it at the time, but the liplock would presage much to come in a career noted for its quirky rebelliouFonda2sness.

“I was in ‘Tammy and the Doctor’ (1963) with Sandra Dee,” recalled the star of “Easy Rider” and “The Limey,” who received Cinequest’s Maverick Spirit Award in 2000. “I think it was Sandy’s first on-screen kiss, too, and she was plenty nervous.’”

The lanky Fonda and the chirpy Dee embraced for their close-up.

And the director yelled, ”Cut!”

‘”The director walked up to me and said, ‘Peter, please close your mouth when you kiss Sandy.’”

They kissed again, and again the director shouted, “Cut!”

“It was auto-reflex — the way most people kiss,” said Fonda, who at the time was enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity thanks to back-to-back Golden Globes for “Ulee’s Gold” and ‘”The Passion of Ayn Rand.”

“But, remember, this was the time when you had two actors in bed, one had to have a foot on the floor. And there was absolutely no open-mouthed kissing. It fell under this weird, abstract studio morality.”

Fonda told this story to illustrate Hollywood’s basic hypocrisy. Something of a movie brat, born into Hollywood royalty (as son of Henry, brother to Jane), Peter was always stirring things up. It came naturally.

“It’s just me,” he said. “I will battle these things no matter how tough it gets. That’s how I became part of the 1970s counterculture and made the first biker pictures. I just enjoy rolling the dice.’”

Faced with the choice of a Universal contract and steady work as a light romantic lead (“the next Deaeasy rider postern Jones”) or a hand-to-mouth existence on the fringe, Fonda chose the latter.

“I love the idea that I’m getting Cinequest’s Maverick Award,” he said.

Fonda did “The Wild Angels” for Roger Corman. This anarchic motorcycle flick kick-started a whole new genre: the motorcycle Western. Then came “The Trip,” wherein Fonda drops acid and wigs out. Jack Nicholson wrote the script.

“The audience for these films sensed I was an angry young man. And once they found out I also did illegal things, they accepted me as a voice of the counterculture.”

In 1968, Fonda teamed with Dennis Hopper on “Easy Rider.” The cross-country biker odyssey, produced for $600,000 and set to the period’s blaring rock anthems, changed the way Hollywood did business. Fonda, who played the laid-back Captain America opposite Hopper’s Billy, shared in an Oscar nomination for co-writing the script. He would go on to direct a counterculture western (”The Hired Hand”), a post-holocaust allegory (“Idaho Transfer'”), and a good-natured modern-day Western (“Wanda Nevada”) with father Henry as an old prospector.

Now that sister Jane appears to be calling it quits with husband Ted Turner, did he think she would return to movies?

”I would love to see it,” he replied. ”When Jane told me she was quitting acting, the look on her face was one of total calm. That came from knowing the farcical race to stay younger and younger was over.

”My daughter (actress Bridget Fonda) and I want her to come back. I want to direct all three of us. I don’t think it would take more than half an hour to find a project.” (Jane Fonda (Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie”) returned to the screen five years later in “Monster-in-Law.”)

Peter Fonda’s 1997 comeback vehicle, ”Ulee’s Gold,” found him playing a Florida beekeeper who’s good at work but lousy at relationships. Fonda based his characterization on his father, who had trouble relating to Peter and Jane.

”I had to catch my breath when I got that script,” he recalls. ”I was emotionally blown away.”

Though Fonda enjoys playing the maverick, he wouldn’t say no to more mainstream gigs.

”I am a maverick, but that isn’t to say if a studio sends me a script, I’m going to turn it down. I know how to write, direct, edit. With all these awards I’m getting, I’m happy to be brought back into the fold.”

And all those Captain Geritol and Easy Chair Rider jokes?

”Remember that naked geezer on the motorcycle in ‘Waking Ned Devine’? I thought, ‘This is so cool. I can still work and still be in a biker film.’ I called Jack (Nicholson) and said, ‘We can still do that ‘Easy Rider’ sequel in our 60s — as an old-timers biker film.’ ”

 

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