The Easy Rider himself, Peter Fonda, was pushing 80 when he passed away early Friday morning — it was respiratory failure due to lung cancer that took him out. But that gamechanging 1969 movie made him immortal, freezing him in time as Wyatt, the stoned biker chasing an elusive freedom. Wearing a leather jacket (a large U.S. flag sewn across the back) on a Harley and going by the handle Captain America, Fonda rode into screen history by roaring through the American south in celebration of hippies, communes, drugs, free love, and anything that raised a finger to the Establishment. Easy Rider was a western played as an acid-fueled road trip. Along with his costar and co-writer Dennis Hopper, who played Billy (as in Billy the Kid) to Fonda’s Wyatt (as in Earp), Fonda blasted a hole in Hollywood’s lazy mainstream culture. It made $60 million on a $400,000 investment. It turned indie filmmaking into the coolest game in town.
Fonda and Hopper, who died in 2010, fought like badgers for the rest of their lives about who deserved credit for the film the former produced and the latter directed (they both were Oscar-nominated for the screenplay they wrote with Terry Southern). For Fonda, one of the unintended consequences of the wildfire success of Easy Rider, also noted for a bright, shiny breakthrough performance from Jack Nicholson as a boozing ACLU lawyer befriended by the bikers, was to reduce this member of a showbiz dynasty to a one-trick pony. In fact, he created quality work before and well after he went searching for America and couldn’t find it anywhere. And he did it against daunting odds.
In person, the smooth-faced, handsome Fonda radiated the no-sweat confidence of a man who had it easy. It was an illusion. As the son of Henry Fonda and younger brother of Jane Fonda, Peter was Hollywood royalty. But the good life it wasn’t. Dad could be frosty and remote. And when his mother, who had mental issues, slit her throat at mental institution, Henry lied to Peter, 10, and Jane, 12, and told them she had a heart attack. Understandable, perhaps, but not to Peter, who wrote in his 1998 memoir, Don’t Tell Dad: “After that, no one ever talked about Mom. No one seemed to miss her. It was almost as if she had never lived. Jane and I never went to a funeral or service for her; I didn’t know where she was buried.”
Talking to Fonda in the late 1990s, he refused to wallow in self pity about his early years. “I was an asshole,” Fonda said bluntly, “rebelling, acting out.” Though he reconciled with his father before Henry’s death in 1982, they were never close (“I dig my father. I wish he could open his eyes and dig me”). Peter partied, drugged, wrangled with cops and hung with the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, even the Beatles; John Lennon quoted his words “I know what it’s like to be dead” in the song “She Said, She Said,” referring to Peter’s story about accidentally shooting himself in the stomach when he was a kid.
Peter hated his early movies, playing pretty-boy nothings in Tammy and the Bachelor (1963) and The Young Lovers (1964). It was his friendship with B-movie king Roger Corman, however, that changed the course of Peter’s career. Henry wasn’t exactly beaming when his son took the leading role in 1966 The Wild Angels, a Corman quickie that riffed on the bike culture of the Hell’s Angels with Fonda as a biker called Heavenly Blues. Critics did not do cartwheels, but the film was a hit. Seen today, you can still feel its raw, primitive energy and feel the sensitivity and nuance that Peter brought to a role that hardly demanded it. His eulogy at a funeral service particularly stands out. The next year, Fonda starred in Corman’s The Trip, with a script by Nicholson, about the hallucinatory LSD subculture that also found its way into Easy Rider. Fonda was forming friendships and a daring style that hinted at a new energy surging under old Hollywood tropes.
After the success of Easy Rider, Peter — no longer feeling alienated by his father’s disapproval — directed and starred in The Hired Hand (1971), a western that he always talked about with a justified pride. Playing a man who returns to the wife and the ranch he abandoned, only to be forced to work as a hired hand, Fonda brings a disturbing resonance to the film as actor and director. Today, the film, a commercial flop once dismissed as a “hippie western,” seems excitingly ahead of its time. Vindication for Fonda came when the film was restored and shown at festivals in 2001 and hailed as a minor classic. “Damn, that felt good,” he said.
Fonda scored a hit with the 1974 outlaws-on-the-run romp Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and in 1979 stirred controversy by directing Wanda Nevada, in which his character romanced a 13-year-old Brooke Shields — it’s also the only film in which Peter and Henry ever appeared together. Through the next decades, Peter danced through various genres: action (The Cannonball Run), horror (Spasms), drama (Bodies, Rest & Motion, alongside his daughter Bridget Fonda) and a role in the TV series In the Heat of the Night. But he was losing career momentum, stifled by films that went straight to video or oblivion.
That all changed in 1997, when Fonda scored a major career comeback with Ulee’s Gold, a low-budget indie from director Victor Nuñez in which he plays Florida beekeeper Ulysses “Ulee” Jackson, a widower and Vietnam vet raising two troubled granddaughters. What Jackson can’t do is open up emotionally (shades of Henry). At the Sundance Film Festival where Ulee’s Gold debuted, Fonda admitted he felt his father inhabiting the stoic everyman hero. In this internalized, character-driven gem, the then–58-year-old gave the best and most moving performance of his career. Fonda remembers the “glow” he felt when he received an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. It’s a wry irony that he lost the gold to his Easy Rider pal Jack Nicholson for As Good As It Gets, bringing his career around to the film that made them both stars.
Fonda never held a grudge against Easy Rider for cementing his image in the public mind. His love of bikes (“riding them gives me focus”) got him inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Working in films as varied as 3:10 to Yuma to the upcoming The Last Full Measure, Fonda remained the man his sister Jane eulogizes as “my sweet-hearted baby brother, the talker in the family.” The talk sometimes got him in trouble, most recently for tweeting against Trump for separating children from their parents at the Mexican border, writing that we should rip Barron Trump from the arms of his parents and “put him in a cage with pedophiles.” A regretful Fonda quickly deleted the tweet and apologized. But he stayed passionate until the end, about family, friends, politics, movies, and most tellingly people he didn’t know. “How can I help?” was a phrase you often heard pass his lips.
When I Iast saw him, about a year ago, he was planning new projects and fresh mischief. “I’m working at it,” he said with that infectious smile. Remembering Peter Fonda means recalling his kindness, a generosity of spirit rare in ego-drenched Hollywood. At the end of Easy Rider, it’s Fonda’s Wyatt who rides back for help when those gun-crazy rednecks blast Billy off his bike. The final image of the film is Wyatt and Captain America going up in flames.” Fonda never saw the ending as hopeless. “It’s a bonfire,” he said. “Still burning.” That’s the attitude that makes the memory of the personal and public Peter Fonda an everlasting flame.