Peter Fonda, 1940-2019

In the clip above from The Late Show with David Letterman, the year is 1997 and Peter Fonda was back in the news. He was on the show to promote Ulee’s Gold, a fine drama that earned him an Oscar nomination. He’s in a great mood, talking about his father Henry who became interested in beekeeping. Sooner or later the conversation turns to Easy Rider (1969), because that’s inevitable when you’re talking about Peter Fonda. Sadly, he passed away yesterday at the age of 79.

Born in New York City, Fonda was three years younger than his famous sister Jane. His childhood was dramatic. His mother committed suicide when he was ten and one year later he accidentally shot himself in the abdomen; it took months for him to recover. Like his sister and father, Peter became attracted to acting and started appearing in Broadway plays in the early 1960s. His first movie was the romantic comedy Tammy and the Doctor (1963); he won a Golden Globe for Best Newcomer the following year, after starring in the war film The Victors

Fonda was on his way to becoming a traditional movie star, but then the 1960s got in his way, so to speak. He became fascinated with the growing counterculture of that time and the Hollywood establishment did not like how Fonda grew his hair long and took LSD. He famously found friends among The Byrds and Beatles; when he was arrested in 1966, the incident inspired Buffalo Springfield’s famous song “For What It’s Worth”. The same year he starred in Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels, a movie that was his biggest hit so far (check the famous clip above) and started the whole biker genre; another popular Corman-directed movie that followed was The Trip (1967). You can guess the theme…

Then came the film that defined Peter Fonda’s career. Easy Rider (1969) changed Hollywood and became a symbol of something new; what was old and safe was not always the most lucrative, it turned out. Once again, Fonda played a biker who’s synonymous with freedom and his performance, along with those by Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson, was unforgettable. Fonda wasn’t just a hired talent; he co-wrote and produced the film, with his close friend Hopper as director.

In the 1970s, Fonda also tried directing, making a Western called The Hired Hand and the sci-fi movie Idaho Transfer. Most of his movies were forgettable, including the western-comedy Wanda Nevada (1979), where his father had a small role.

His career was in decline during the 1980s and ’90s, until Ulee’s Gold came along, a film where he played a widowed beekeeper; watch the trailer above. Two years later Fonda also found good work in Steven Soderbergh’s thriller The Limey. One of his last films became a road-trip drama, Boundaries (2018), with Christopher Plummer and Vera Farmiga. 

His career had ups and downs, that’s for sure, and his talent wasn’t fully explored. Still, he will be remembered A few weeks ago, D.A. Pennebaker died. His documentaries captured the countercultural movement. Peter Fonda became its icon, “Captain America” on a chopper. Of course, his daughter Bridget, also an actor, is another reason why his legacy lives on. 

Many Hollywood celebrities honored Fonda yesterday and today, including Ava DuVernay…

… Rob Reiner…

… Mia Farrow…

… and John Carpenter:

In a statement to CNN, Jane Fonda said:

“I am very sad. He was my sweet-hearted baby brother. The talker of the family. I have had beautiful alone time with him these last days. He went out laughing.”

What do you think?

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