Peter Fonda, who died recently from lung cancer, aged 79, co-starred, with Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider (1969), the low-budget cult film that captured the mood of the American counter-culture at the end of the 1960s. The films critical success had his image emblazoned on teenage bedroom walls and university campuses alongside Bob Dylan and Che Guevara and the like.
Peter Henry Fonda (February 23, 1940 – August 16, 2019) was an American actor, director, and screenwriter. He was the son of Henry Fonda, younger brother of Jane Fonda, and father of Bridget Fonda.
Fonda was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Easy Rider (1969), and the Academy Award for Best Actor for Ulee’s Gold (1997). For the latter, he won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama. Fonda also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries or Television Film for The Passion of Ayn Rand (1999).

His career was defined by ‘Easy Rider.’

Born Peter Henry Fonda, he started his career on Broadway in 1961 in “Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole.” He directed his first film, “The Hired Hand,” in 1971. He also starred in the critically acclaimed western, which was restored and premiered at the 2001 Venice Film Festival.

In 1998, at age 57, Fonda was nominated for a best actor Academy Award for his turn as a beekeeper trying to hold his family together in the indie film “Ulee’s Gold.” The New York Times said of his performance, “It would be accurate but barely adequate to call this the finest work of Fonda’s career.”

He went on to star in a number of films, including “The Limey” and “Ocean’ Twelve, and television shows, though he never achieved the success of his father – Henry Fonda. But his career would forever be defined by his turn as Wyatt, with his stars-and-stripes helmet astride his motorcycle, “Captain America,” in “Easy Rider,” a rough-hewn character that often times reflected his personal life. Fonda’s Wyatt and Hopper’s Billy travel from the California-Mexico border to New Orleans in time to celebrate Mardi Gras.

Turner Classic Movies says “Easy Rider” on one level is the story of two drug dealers who become rich from a cocaine deal.

“But the film is much more than that and shows a diverse cross section of American culture that encompasses lifestyle experimentation (the hippie commune), intolerance (the hostile locals at a backwater Louisiana diner), and wanderlust (the motorcycle becomes a symbol for freedom).”

The biker image is one Fonda cultivated from an early age on, partly because of his famous father.

Fonda told the LA Times that it was his rocky relationship with his father that led him to first ride a motorcycle. “My father didn’t want me to. I was like in your face,” Fonda said. “As soon as I could I bought a Harley.”

Early Life

Fonda was the only son of actor Henry Fonda (1905–1982) and his wife Frances Ford Seymour (1908–1950); his sister was actress Jane Fonda (born 1937). He and Jane had a half-sister, Frances de Villers Brokaw (1931–2008), from their mother’s first marriage. Their mother committed suicide in a mental hospital when Peter, her youngest, was ten, although he did not discover the circumstances or location of her death until he was 15 years old.
On his eleventh birthday, he accidentally shot himself in the abdomen and nearly died. He went to the Indian hill station of Nainital and stayed for a few months for recovery. Years later, he referred to this incident while with John Lennon and George Harrison while taking LSD. He said, “I know what it’s like to be dead.” This inspired The Beatles‘ song “She Said She Said“.
Early on, Fonda studied acting in Omaha, Nebraska, his father’s hometown. While attending the University of Nebraska Omaha, Fonda joined the Omaha Community Playhouse, where many actors (including his father and Marlon Brando) began their careers. Before he attended the University of Nebraska Omaha, Peter attended the Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts, and was a member of the class of 1954. He then enrolled to Westminster School, a Connecticut boarding school in Simsbury where he graduated in 1958.

Counterculture figure and Roger Corman

By the mid-1960s, Fonda was not a conventional “leading man” in Hollywood. As Playboy magazine reported, Fonda had established a “solid reputation as a dropout”. He had become outwardly nonconformist and grew his hair long and took LSD regularly, alienating the “establishment” film industry. Desirable acting work became scarce.
Through his friendships with members of the band The Byrds, Fonda visited The Beatles in their rented house in Benedict Canyon in Los Angeles in August 1965. While John LennonRingo StarrGeorge Harrison, and Fonda were under the influence of LSD, Lennon heard Fonda say, “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Lennon used this phrase as the tag line for his song, “She Said She Said“, which was included on the Revolver (1966) album.
In 1966, Fonda was arrested in the Sunset Strip riot, which the police ended forcefully. The band Buffalo Springfield protested the department’s handling of the incident in their song “For What It’s Worth“.
Fonda’s first counterculture-oriented film role was as a biker in Roger Corman‘s B movieThe Wild Angels (1966). Fonda originally was to support George Chakiris (West Side Story), but graduated to the lead when Chakiris revealed he could not ride a motorcycle, Fonda helped name his character “Heavenly Blues”, with Bruce DernNancy Sinatra and Diane Ladd also appearing in the film. In the film, Fonda delivered a “eulogy” at a fallen Angel’s funeral service. This was sampled by Psychic TV on their 1988 LP recording, “Jack the TAB”. It was later sampled in the Primal Scream recording “Loaded” (1991), and in other rock songs. The movie was a big hit at the box office, screened at the Venice Film Festival, launched the biker movie genre, and established Peter Fonda as a movie name.
Fonda made a television pilot, High Noon: The Clock Strikes Noon Again, filmed in December 1965. It was based on the 1952 film High Noon, starring Gary Cooper, with Fonda in the role that Cooper played. However, it did not become a series.
Fonda next played the male lead in Corman’s popular 1967 film The Trip, a take on the experience and “consequences” of consuming LSD, which was written by Jack Nicholson. His co-stars included Susan StrasbergBruce Dern and Dennis Hopper. Released on 31 August 1967 at the pinnacle of the “Summer of Love,” the film had a huge cultural impact and grossed $6 million – a massive sum for a movie that cost $100 thousand. The film encountered huge censorship problems in the UK and was refused a certificate 4 times by the BBFC. A cinema classification was rejected in 1967, 1971 and 1980, and again for video in 1988. It was eventually released on DVD fully uncut in 2004.
Fonda then travelled to France to appear in the horror movie Spirits of the Dead (1968). American International Pictures distributed this horror anthology film featuring three Poe stories directed by European directors Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico FelliniJane FondaAlain DelonPeter FondaBrigitte Bardot, and Terence Stamp are among the stars. The English-language version features narration by Vincent Price. Peter Fonda’s segment co-starred Fonda’s sister Jane and was directed by her then-husband Roger Vadim.

East Rider

In 1968, Fonda produced, co-wrote and starred in Easy Rider, directed by Dennis Hopper.
Easy Rider is about two longhaired bikers travelling through the southwestern and southern United States where they encounter intolerance and violence. Fonda played “Captain America”, a charismatic, laconic man whose motorcycle jacket bore a large American flag across the back. Dennis Hopper played the garrulous “Billy”. Jack Nicholson played George Hanson, an alcoholic civil rights lawyer who rides along with them. Fonda co-wrote the screenplay with Terry Southern and Hopper.
Fonda tried to secure financing from Roger Corman and AIP, with whom he had made The Wild Angels and The Trip, but they were reluctant to finance a film directed by Hopper. They succeeded getting money from Columbia Pictures. Hopper filmed the cross-country road trip depicted almost entirely on location. Fonda had secured funding of around $360,000, largely based on the fact he knew that it was the budget Roger Corman needed to make The Wild Angels.
The guitarist and composer Robbie Robertson, of The Band, was so moved by an advance screening that he approached Fonda and tried to convince him to let him write a complete score, even though the film was nearly due for wide release. Fonda declined the offer, instead using Steppenwolf‘s “Born to Be Wild“, Bob Dylan‘s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” sung by The Byrds‘ Roger McGuinn, and Robertson’s own composition “The Weight“, performed by The Band, among many other tracks.
The film was released in 1969 to international success. Jack Nicholson was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Fonda, Hopper and Southern were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Significance

Easy Rider was the third highest grossing film of 1969, with worldwide gross $60 million including $41.7 million domestically in the US. Along with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, Easy Rider helped kick-start the New Hollywood era during the late 1960s and 1970s.The major studios realized that money could be made from low-budget films made by avant-garde directors. Heavily influenced by the French New Wave, the films of the so-called “post-classical Hollywood” came to represent a counterculture generation increasingly disillusioned with its government as well as the government’s effects on the world at large and the establishment in general. Although Jack Nicholson appears only as a supporting actor and in the last half of the film, the standout performance signaled his arrival as a movie star, along with his subsequent film Five Easy Pieces in which he had the lead role.
Vice President Spiro Agnew criticized Easy Rider, along with the band Jefferson Airplane, as examples of the permissiveness of the 1960s counterculture.

Director

 

After the success of Easy Rider, both Hopper and Fonda were sought for film projects. Hopper made the drug-addled jungle epic The Last Movie (in which Fonda co-starred along with singer Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas). The film was a notable box office and critical failure, effectively ending Hopper’s career as a director for well over a decade.

Fonda directed and starred in the 1971 Western film, The Hired Hand. He took the lead role in a cast that also featured Warren OatesVerna Bloom and Beat Generation poet Michael McClure. The film received mixed reviews and failed commercially upon its initial release, but many years later, in 2001, a fully-restored version was shown at various film festivals, gaining critical praise, and was re-released by the Sundance Channel on DVD that same year.
Fonda later directed the 1973 science fiction film Idaho Transfer. He did not appear in the film, and the film received mixed reviews upon its limited release. It has since become a cult classic with science fiction fans. That same year he co-starred with Lindsay Wagner in Two People for director Robert Wise, in which he portrayed a Vietnam War deserter.

Ulee’s Gold

After years of films of varying success, Fonda received high-profile critical recognition and universal praise for his performance in Ulee’s Gold (1997). He portrayed a stoic North Florida beekeeper who tries to save his son and granddaughter from a life of drug abuse. For his performance, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Harley Davidson Motorbikes

There’s been much dispute over who designed and built the four Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a.k.a. choppers, used in the movie.
American civil rights activist, filmmaker, and motorcycle builder, Cliff Vaughs said he did it, but Peter Fonda said he designed the sketches and built them: “I built the motorcycles that I rode and Dennis rode. I bought four of them from Los Angeles Police Department.”
Vaughs worked on the movie for about a month before being fired, therefore his name doesn’t appear in the credits. Three of the bikes were stolen, and the final one was destroyed in the film’s finale but was later restored. Fonda gave the bike to actor Dan Haggerty, who eventually sold it to a collector named Michael Eisenberg. In October 2014, Profiles in History auctioned off the bike; the bike sold to an anonymous winner for $1.35 million and became the most expensive motorcycle in the world.
In 2009, Vaughs was credited publicly for the first time as creator of the ‘Easy Rider’ choppers on the Jesse James Discovery Channel television series, the ‘History of the Chopper’.

The Captain America – the “last remaining motorcycle from the landmark film” – is on display at EMP Museum – Seattle.

 

Source: en.wikipedia.org and www.filmsite.org
Fonda and Hopper in Easy Rider. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

 

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