Critic's Appreciation: A Look Back at Peter Fonda's Career

Peter Fonda
Courtesy of Photofest

Peter Fonda, who broke out from under the legendary Fonda family name with Easy Riderdied on Friday, Aug. 16, at his home in Los Angeles, according to his rep. He was 79. Fonda, the son of acting legend Henry Fonda, the younger brother of Jane Fonda and the father of Bridget Fonda, received an Academy Award nomination as a screenwriter for Easy Rider, which he shared with Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern. Fonda and Hopper dreamed up the idea of two motorcyclists who hit it big with a drug deal and take off across the country, ostensibly to attend Mardi Gras. Their trek was "in search of America," emblematic of the '60s zeitgeist of rebellion and drug experimentation. Featuring Jack Nicholson as their alcoholic, back rider/lawyer, the film was a low-budget, colossal hit. Fonda produced Easy Rider for about $384,00, with Columbia Pictures picking up distribution rights. Shot in roughly seven weeks between L.A. and New Orleans, it introduced the studios to the bright, educated youth market, and Fonda paved the way for independent filmmakers. For the cataclysmic year of 1969, Easy Rider was a road movie that accomplished cinematically what Jack Kerouac's On the Road did for literature. It won a standing ovation at Cannes and the festival's best director award. To a generation of young people, Fonda was "Captain America" and a poster-boy for the age. With his cool shades, leather jacket with the flag stitched on back, he sat perched atop a chrome-laden, high-handle-bar cycle, and the poster for the film was ubiquitous in college dorms in 1969 and the early '70s. As a symbol for rebellious youth, Fonda, along with Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, Muhammad Ali and John Lennon, were among the most revered of countercultural poster boys. Nearly 30 years after Easy Rider, Fonda's performance in Ulee's Gold (1997) as a beekeeper and sullen Vietnam War veteran whose family had nearly fallen apart earned him a best actor Oscar nom. Fonda followed up Easy Rider by starring and directing The Hired Hand (1971), a feminist Western that his Pando Company made for Universal. He then helmed Idaho Transfer (1973), a message film about the environment. He directed and starred opposite Brooke Shields in Wanda Nevada (1979), which featured a cameo by his father. For a period after Easy Rider, Fonda lived on an 82-foot sailboat, essentially having dropped out. "I was writing during that period, and I got about as much writing done as a child in a sandbox," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1984. In the early '80s, Fonda appeared in a humdrum batch of projects: He played as charismatic cult leader in Split Image (1982), a freewheeling adventurer in Dance of the Dwarfs (1983) and a suicidal father in the 1985 NBC movie A Reason to Live. Fonda was born in New York City on Feb. 23, 1939. As a child, he attended a number of boarding schools in the Northeast. When at home, he and Jane spent most of their time with their maternal grandmother. In 1950, his mother, Frances, committed suicide on her 42nd birthday; Jane and Peter were told she died of a heart attack. Throughout his adult life, he openly referred to an uneasy relationship with his dad, who died in August 1982. His father remarried Susan Blanchard, the stepdaughter of Oscar Hammerstein II, but she left him after five years of marriage. Subsequently, Peter was sent to live with relatives in Nebraska. He enrolled at the University of Omaha but quit school during his third year and became an apprentice at the Cecilwood Theatre in Fishkill, New York. After a year in New York, Fonda made his Broadway debut, playing an Army private in Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole. It was an auspicious turn: He received the Daniel Blum and the New York Drama Critics Award as the most promising young actor of 1961. He was signed to a personal contract with producer Ross Hunter to produce and to act. It gave him the chance to leave Manhattan, which he loathed. "New Yorkers don't know what the people who live in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado know: the reality of this world, what it is made of, the reality of days, nights, weather, season, dirt, air, food, love." Groomed to be the next Dean Jones, Fonda made his film debut opposite Sandra Dee in Tammy and the Doctor (1963). He followed up with The Victors (1963) and Lilith (1964), in which he played a suicidal mental patient. He then latched on with Roger Corman's low-budget enterprise and starred as biker Heavenly Blues in The Wild Angels (1966). He followed that with another Corman opus, The Trip (1967), a paean to LSD that was written by Nicholson and featured Hopper playing a freaked-out character. The film was widely popular among college-age students and meshed with the counter-cultural mindset of the day. Not content with cranking out cheapo motorcycle vehicles for Corman, the threesome decided to do "their own thing," in the parlance of the times, and that turned out to be Easy Rider.  Fonda also starred in such features as Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974) and Race With the Devil (1975) — where he starred with Warren Oates as two family men who take on a band of devil worshippers in Texas — and the Canadian horror film Spasms (1983). In addition to his daughter Bridget, Fonda had a son Justin, by his first wife, Susan Brewer. With his second wife, Betty Crockett McGuane, the pair had a combined family, including her son Thomas McGuane.

In the wake of the 'Easy Rider' actor's death earlier this month, The Hollywood Reporter reflects on his screen work that made him a "compelling screen presence right to the end."

Peter Fonda was a master of keeping a cool head when all around were losing theirs. Despite his Hollywood royalty background, he began and ended his career in modestly budgeted cult movies, the kind of biography that says more about dedication to noble ideals than about thwarted superstar ambitions. Even in his most left-field roles, Fonda remained a soulful, thoughtful, compelling screen presence right to the end.

Of course, Fonda's iconic breakthrough came in Dennis Hopper's landmark hippie-biker Western Easy Rider (1969). In a movie seething with volcanic egos and explosive tempers, it fell to Fonda to encapsulate the story's elegiac message with elegant understatement. “We blew it,” his Captain America character says wistfully. Arriving just as the utopian flower-power dream began to curdle into darkness and violence, this poetic prophecy still resonates down the ages, from Woodstock and Altamont to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Fonda was the heart and soul of Easy Rider.

The box office success of Easy Rider gave major career boosts to an entire youthful generation of indie auteur filmmakers, Fonda included. His directing debut The Hired Hand (1971) remains an absorbing and underrated anti-Western, with Fonda quietly magnetic as a high plains drifter who returns to the wife he abandoned years earlier. He also scored a shallow but fun box office hit starring opposite Susan George in John Hough's gleefully nihilistic car-chase movie Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974).

Fonda's cult reputation arguably became more burden than blessing in later years, when he was frequently cast more for his counterculture baggage than for his acting skills. Even so, his finest performances made inspired use of these self-referential echoes, most notably his deliciously sleazy portrayal of veteran L.A. record producer Terry Valentine in Steven Soderbergh's stylish, time-jumping revenge thriller The Limey (1999).

Crucially, Fonda transcended typecasting restrictions with his mature, Oscar-nominated star turn in Ulee's Gold (1997), a much-loved Sundance gem from director Victor Nuñez, in which he played a widowed Florida beekeeper fighting to protect his troubled family from violent criminals. Fonda later confessed his poised, dignified performance was partly modeled on his own father Henry. "Ulee is the best character I've ever read," he claimed, "the kind of role you pay money to do."

Ironically, Fonda was beaten at the Academy Awards by his old Easy Rider comrade Jack Nicholson, who starred in the mainstream comic tear-jerker As Good as It Gets. Fonda may have mostly missed out on the big-league perks of major prizes and mega paychecks, but he was perhaps the last of that entire Easy Riders, Raging Bulls generation to keep the faith in low-key, left-field, nuanced indie cinema. A steadfast and subtle screen presence right to the final curtain, he never blew it.