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Remembering Peter Fonda 1940-2019

Screen shot from Easy Rider
Image from Insomnia Cured Here on flickr: Easy Rider (1969) Wyatt, George and Billy head for the Mardi Gras.

“They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.” – “Easy Rider”

Peter Henry Fonda died last week at age 79. He was born into an acting dynasty – son of Henry, brother of Jane and father, of course, to Bridget. However, Peter Fonda was more than just Hollywood royalty. He was a true artist who forged his own creative path and, in the process, carved out his own place in film history.

Jane_Fonda_&_Henry_Fonda_&_Peter_Fonda,_1950s
Jane, Henry and Peter Fonda circa 1950s. (United Press Photo: public domain)

It would have been easy for Peter to simply melt into the woodwork. By the time he reached his 20s, his father had long been a giant of stage and screen and his sister was beginning to have success of her own.

He made his film debut in 1963’s “Tammy and the Doctor,” but just three years later he starred in Roger Corman’s “The Wild Angels.” With his leather jacket and tinted Aviators (and Nancy Sinatra), Peter Fonda became the coolest dude in the room.

The following year, he reunited with Corman on “The Trip,” which was written by a young Jack Nicholson. Now would be a good time to brush up on your Peter Fonda-Beatles history if you haven’t already done so. The L.A. Times has a great article on it (How Peter Fonda’s LSD trip with the Beatles produced a classic John Lennon lyric).

1969, of course, saw the release of his landmark film — “Easy Rider.” Even if you haven’t seen it, you know it. At some point, it’s permeated your subconsciousness. And you’ve no doubt heard about the on-set stories of making it.

But it’s also a good movie — a great one, in fact and a turning point for Fonda’s career.

Nearly 30 years after his father became the iconic Tom Joad for John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Peter had become a hero of sorts for his own generation — one that needed a “Captain America” in a country that had been long worn down by the turmoil of the 1960s.

The similarities don’t end there.

Both Peter and Jane inherited their father’s sense of justice and integrity. Although Henry may not have been as vocal as his children on his political convictions, they certainly came by it honest.

Peter followed “Easy Rider” with 1971’s terribly underrated “The Hired Hand.” It’s a beautifully paced film that has our protagonist (Fonda) returning home after spending years drifting with his partner (Fonda’s old pal, Warren Oates). His wife, of course, isn’t thrilled to see him and doesn’t want their daughter to know who he is. Instead, she allows him to stay on as – yep, you guessed it – a hired hand.

The film didn’t make much of a splash at the time but is now regarded as one of the genre’s best anti-Westerns (post Peckinpah’s “Wild Bunch”). It really makes you wish Peter had done more directing.

Although most of his films in the 80s and 90s weren’t great, he never stopped working. He saw a critical resurgence in the late 90s with “Ulee’s Gold” and “The Limey” – the former earning him an Academy Award nomination. He ended up winning the Golden Globe that year but lost the Oscar to his “Easy Rider” co-star Jack Nicholson.

As an aside, I’ve adored Henry Fonda since I was 14 (and that’s been longer than what I really want to think about) and it feels almost surreal to mourn the passing of his son, especially so close to the 50th anniversary of “Easy Rider.”

It stings a little and it’s sad. But we’re all so fortunate that Peter got to mark the occasion and see that the film still resonates with people. Whether you saw it in theaters a half-century ago or you’re an alienated millennial, you can’t help but be moved by it. And that’s what’s important – to be moved.

So, raise a toast to Peter and celebrate his life by watching his films. He’s made some good ones.

He was an artist, an icon and an image for a generation. But by all accounts, Peter Fonda was truly a nice guy. And that’s something to celebrate, too.

Image of Peter Fonda toasting

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