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As hard as it is to believe, Peter Fonda — one of the key faces of 1960s counterculture, and the face of the iconic film Easy Rider, which he co-wrote and stars in — is now 75 years old, only two years younger than his legendary father, Henry Fonda, was when he passed away in 1982. Peter is wearing his years better; whereas Henry seemed like an old man at this age, Peter is energetic, trim — and with his tight jeans, leather jacket and shades — looks like he’s ready for another cross-country motorcycle ride. But when he joined me for an hourlong interview at the TCM Classic Film Festival last week, the resemblance was still undeniable: This was Henry Fonda’s boy.
For most of their overlapping years, Peter — like his older sister, the actress Jane Fonda — had a strained relationship with Henry, a Midwesterner who was always a man of few words. Henry became even more taciturn after the suicide of his second wife, Frances, when Jane and Peter were just 12 and 10, respectively. It’s not a coincidence that while Henry’s kids followed him into careers as actors, they became characters both onscreen and off, that were far edgier than their conservative father ever did. They were angry and they rebelled, as Peter acknowledged during our conversation. But before it was too late, they also found peace and closure with their dad, which is why Peter was at the TCM Classic Film Festival in the first place.
2015 marks the 110th anniversary of Henry’s birth, and to commemorate the milestone, Peter agreed to speak about his father with film historian Scott Eyman for an audience of festival attendees. Before he did that, though, he sat down with me to reflect on both Henry and on his own journey. He spoke about coming into his own as an actor on TV shows and in Roger Corman B-movies; earning a best original screenplay Oscar nom for Easy Rider that he shared with the late Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern; and later, gaining further respect with the 1997 film Ulee’s Gold, for which he received a best actor Oscar nom.
Following are some further highlights from the interview.
- What it was like growing up as the son of Henry Fonda. (“Did you ever see Fort Apache? And you know who Col. Thursday was? Dad … He didn’t know how to do the things of a father. It frightened him.”)
- How and why he became a big fan of marijuana (after being introduced to it by Jim Mitchum, son of Henry Fonda’s contemporary Robert Mitchum).
- His father’s first time seeing him perform on stage. (“I didn’t know that my dad was there until after the show. He came to me and he said, ‘I’m very pleased with what you did … ‘ “)
- How he wound up on Broadway at just 21. (Summer stock led to getting an agent, which led to the role on the Great White Way in Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole, for which he won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award.)
- Coming out to Hollywood to work in TV (The Naked City) and ultimately counterculture B-movies for Roger Corman. (“Truthfully, what it did for me was it saved my life, because my agents wanted me to be the next Dean Jones at Disney.”)
- How the idea for Easy Rider came to him at a convention in Toronto where MPAA chief Jack Valenti had just urged people not to make films about motorcycles, sex and drugs (“I knew this would shake the cage”) and three-and-a-half hours later, in the middle of the night, he called Dennis Hopper to tell him the story and ask him to direct it. (“Dennis said, ‘Oh, man, that’s great. … I’m sure glad you called because I was never gonna talk to you again.”)
- How Rip Torn came to be replaced by Jack Nicholson as Fonda and Hopper’s companion and how Fonda landed the $360,000 needed to finance the picture.
- The degree to which Fonda’s Easy Rider character was based on himself (“It wasn’t me — I’m a much more gregarious person, as you can see”) and how he kept the two separate, (“I’ve got those glasses on — and I didn’t need glasses in those days — ’cause there was just enough color to make you know you can’t get all the way in”)
- His early expectations for the film. (“The reason for Easy Rider was to get a track record of success so we could make more movies. No, I did not have an idea that it would go as big as it did in the world, but I did know that I had an audience already from [the earlier Corman flick] Wild Angels.“)
- The impact of the film on his career (“It certainly put a nail in the coffin of ‘the next Dean Jones at Disney’ “) and the industry. (“They were making films like Pillow Talk and [The] Glass Bottom Boat. Gidget? That’s not a kids’ film. Beach Blanket Bingo? C’mon. Those were not really films of the youth that I had grown into and up with, shutting away the establishment, going on their own. … We made a movie for these people that didn’t have their own movie.”)
- What it was like directing and acting in a scene with his father in the 1979 film Wanda Nevada. (“He wrote me a letter at the end of it .. ‘In my 41 years of making motion pictures, I’ve never seen a director so adored by the crew. You’re a very good director, son, and please remember me in your company.’ Which was incredible — he was dying when he made that film.”)
- Finding closure with his dad. (“The night that he died, we were all in his hospital room … [and he said] ‘I want you to know, Son, I love you very much,’ laid down his head and never regained consciousness. That’s closure.”)
- Paying inadvertent homage to his father in Ulee’s Gold, which brought him his second nom. (“Ulee’s Gold was the most fun I have ever had making a movie. I’ve made some good movies and I’ve made a pile of bad ones. … I was not channeling my dad. I never even thought about him. It’s just the glasses that I was wearing … he wore those wire-rimmed glasses in On Golden Pond, and I think that’s where the critics and people talking about it get that idea. … It’s too bad that he didn’t get to see that — or maybe he did.”)
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