Peter Fonda


In all the books and newspaper articles written about “the fabulous, fascinating, fighting Fondas” as one writer called them, one comment from Peter Fonda’s father, Henry Fonda, stands out – not just as an illustration of the reasons why their relationship became the issue that overshadowed his son’s life, but, albeit inadvertently, as a fairly pertinent summary of the rest of his life as well. 

“I can’t deal with problems and that’s the truth,” his father stated simply. “They keep happening to me. But eventually if you sit there long enough, they just fall off.”

His son’s problems on the other hand never did seem to.

In fact they began the day he was born. 

For a start his mother – a beautiful, fragile, socialite – left him in the hospital for seven weeks before collecting him, having chosen to recuperate in a 5th Avenue hotel instead.

Then when he was ten, on her 42nd birthday she committed suicide, cutting her throat with a razor smuggled into a sanatorium in the back of a framed photo of Peter and his sister. 

From Day One he was in the news – his birth making the front page of the New York Times, the first day of a life spent trying to live up to the demands and expectations of being Henry Fonda’s son, the son of a Hollywood legend, a man identified by the nation by the canon of noble, all-American, heroes he had played, characters like Wyatt Earp, Abraham Lincoln, and Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. 

His father was not there to see the birth, but was away filming, as he would so often be – an immediate example of the distance and disappointment that would dominate their relationship so painfully for Peter that one writer described it as “a perpetual bruise – always tender, never quite healed.”

The problems just kept mounting, so much so that the Fondas’ family friend, Robert Walker Junior, suggested there was something about Peter Fonda that courted failure.  

“Things aren’t right for him unless they’re wrong,” he once said. “There has to be a problem for him to be happy.” (Ouch.)

One writer claimed his early life left him “addicted to adversity.” (Ditto.)

As well as his mother, his childhood sweetheart (Bridget Hayward), her mother (Henry’s first wife), and his best friend at college all committed suicide. 

His role in Hollywood’s equivalent of royalty became that of the family’s momento mori – always struggling to find his place.

Publicly, his life changed from being “Henry Fonda’s son” to “Jane Fonda’s brother” and nowadays “Bridget Fonda’s father.” 

As for his career, the failure of his early films only seemed to be compounded by the phenomenon of Easy Rider in 1969, which not only burdened him with the image of “Captain America”, the film’s rebel biker icon, but became the benchmark he has spent nearly twenty years and more than 40 films palpably failing to repeat. 

Easy Rider made him a superstar, but the great roles in the major films of the 70s went to his contemporaries – actors like Hoffman, Beatty, Hackman, Newman, Redford, and of course Jack Nicholson whose cameo in Easy Rider was the making of him.

In the mid-80s even Dennis Hopper, his drug-addled, drink-dependent co-star – who ruined his career in even grander style than Fonda did – returned, virtually from the dead, to surpass him.

One film catalogue summing up the various Fondas’ careers dismissed him, commenting: “it is becoming increasingly hard to imagine him ever appearing in anything of interest again.”

Instead, Peter Fonda was left with a reputation for being ‘difficult’: for pulling guns and knives on studio bosses who attempted to compromise his films; his predilection for fighting and fast cars, drug busts and protest marches; for too much dope and took much acid; too much sex and too many parties.

While his sister was making millions from aerobics, the Village Voice coined ‘the Peter Fonda Work-Out’, defining it as: “get up, smoke a joint, call sister. Beg for money.”

Time and time again, that Henry Fonda quote was used to justify the main source of his son’s sense of grievance – the remoteness and reticence of his father, bordering on almost a total inability to express anything intimate or emotional beyond criticism.

The rest of Henry Fonda’s comment was usually overlooked. 

“I can’t deal with problems and that’s the truth,” Fonda senior said. “The only thing I could tell anybody is to go on with your life and not let things destroy you. Somehow you do survive these upsets. The name of the game I guess is survival.”

Survival was something else Peter Fonda would come to learn a lot about. 


IT’S something of a surprise and a relief to find that at the age of 58, Peter Fonda is still defying this fantastically dim assessment of his life and is not only in fine fettle but sparkling, outlandish, form. 

Anyone who didn’t know him better would probably assume his high spirits could be attributed to his Oscar nomination as Best Actor for his role in the highly-praised movie, Ulee’s Gold.

But in fact throughout the years, Fonda has always had a pretty fine time of it and has, if nothing else, learnt to make the best of things. 

His tanned, handsome, face is chiseled with the same rugged features and bright blue eyes of his father, which added to the distinct glint of mischief, suggests an American cousin to Rutger Hauer or a cowboy version of Peter O’Toole, especially when he pours himself what he calls “Guinness stout.”  

Tall and as lean as ever, he dominates the room, leaving you in no doubt about being in the presence of a warm but wild and gently unhinged spirit. Fonda turned up at one interview in New York with a sandwich bag full of dog hair that his wife had given him – as a reminder of home (in Montana), particularly the family Labrador.

Pleasingly, his sentences are still sprinkled with the words “dude” and “far out”, using them as naturally and eagerly as if it was the 60s. 

Recounting the time he met Jean Cocteau on the Cote D’Azur when he was 17, he recalls “the little chapel that Cocteau did – with the angels and everybody with pubic hair under their arms”, adding with a smile: “and to me it was fabulous. I thought ‘alriiiight man !! This is it ! Get real ! You bet !” 

The subjects that you might think he’d be wary of come tumbling out in his conversation easily and immediately: his feud with Dennis Hopper (over who wrote Easy Rider); his catalogue of dud movies; drugs. 

Mind you, marijuana aside, he insists his intake never was as prodigious as people think.

“I’d be a basket-case if it was. Not that I want to ruin my bad reputation”, he grins. 

He relates the only occasion he snorted heroin, the time he took acid with The Beatles, and his first experience of cocaine (with David Crosby from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young). 

“It was never really my scene,” he states, with a slightly giddy emphasis that only makes the claim more questionable, then laughing: “Not that I’m prudish or anything !”

I see a demonstration of this later – when he leans over the bridge of his thumb and gives a snort up each nostril so loud it makes half of the hotel bar look his way. Then, nonchalantly declining the waitress’ tray of vol au vons, without missing a beat he quips: “no thanks baby ! I just took alot of cocaine.”

He talks about ‘dying’ three times when he shot himself as a boy, how it inspired The Beatles’ She Said She Said, and then the night that Greta Garbo stripped for him and the current King of Sweden.

Only a fool would not believe any of them.

The word ‘Dad’ is never far from his lips and he has no qualms talking about sister Jane – with whom he emerged from childhood, he says, “bonded like troops from the trenches.”

Seamlessly, he moves on to his brother-in-law. 

“Ted (Turner) is very cool, very funny. Now that they’ve been married five years,” he grins, “he is just about coming to terms with the fact I’m a pretty laid-back kind of individual.”

Something of an understatement…

“I don’t give a rat’s ass. As long as he’s nice to Jane, you know. Otherwise, it’s ‘forget Jane ! Here comes the little brother with the big mouth. Gonna tear you a new asshole !” 


THE Oscar nomination has come out of the blue to say the least, despite the acclaim at the Sundance Film festival and an award at the Golden Globes, when he wore his father’s watch for luck. 

Most of his roles in the 90s, in films like Love And A .45 have been dire, invariably requiring him to ride a Harley, smoke a joint, and generally send up his reputation. 

In John Carpenter’s truly execrable Escape From LA in 1996, he was eleventh on the bill, just after Pam Grier – which goes to show how quickly a career can turn around. 

Before these, following Easy Rider he spent nearly twenty years making obscure German art movies, low budget American independents, and directing three films of his own: The Hired Hand (which Time magazine adjudged “a fine, elegiac, Western”), Idaho Transfer (a decidedly un-heralded ecological science fiction picture), and Wanda, Nevada (which featured one scene with Fonda acting opposite his father. 

But in terms of success Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) was as good as things ever got. 

“Time magazine loved that too !” he cheers. “‘He’s back !’ they said. ‘Captain America rides again !’ Hah !”

And now “Captain America is a gramps !” – to quote his sister the first time she saw Ulee’s Gold.

Fonda plays Ulee Jackson – a grandfather, widower, and former Vietnam vet following his father’s trade as a bee-keeper making Tupelo Honey. 

With his son in prison and his daughter-in-law off the rails, Ulee – who had virtually withdrawn from life altogether after his wife died – is, reluctantly, raising his two grand-children.

As one American reviewer said: “the way Fonda brings to life a man who is virtually lifeless is a subtle miracle.”

It’s a simple, gently affecting, film, with the bees as a corny, quiet, metaphor for a family having to work in unison, and for the bravery Ulee shows – forcing himself to take responsibility and bring the family together. 

As Fonda points out “in some of my other movies, when the showdown comes, you’d have been expecting my friends the bees to come and sting the bad guy to death…”

Above all, Fonda clearly identified with Ulee’s solitary nature and what he calls his “survivor’s guilt”, playing him with a kind of quiet suffering that many critics have attributed to the connection with his father, who also kept bees. 

In fact, what he brought from his childhood, he says, was the way he and his sister saw their father’s remoteness and reticence – putting it into how Ulee’s grandchildren saw him. 

While the American public thought of Henry Fonda as the archetypal family man and all-round good guy from roles like the young Abe Lincoln, for long periods Fonda saw his father as Colonel Thursday in Fort Apache – prone to formidable anger, “driven more and more inside himself”, and creating “a facade of silent terror” neither children could get past. 

“He was quick to criticise, slow to praise. My sister and I would be sitting at the dinner table saying ‘What did we do wrong ?”

Wanda, Nevada has a scene where he and his father play differing generations of gold prospector and sees them meeting on a path to the canyon where his father greets him by saying: ‘reckon one of us got up a little late this mornin’ and it weren’t me.’  

“To the audience, this was actually Henry Fonda talking to Peter Fonda but he didn’t get it !” he grins. “It was really me making my father come up to me on film and say ‘reckon you forgot to hang the towels up in the bathroom this morning.’ It was hysterical !”

The real purpose behind the story becomes clear when it allows him to relate the letter his father wrote to him afterwards.  

“‘In 41 years of making motion pictures’,” he recites, glowing with pride, “‘I have never seen a crew so devoted to their director.’ How ‘bout that for a review?!”

He beams, as if it had just been given to him that day. 

The resentment, though, never seems too far away.  

He was born Peter Henry Fonda on February 23rd 1940, weighing 8lbs and 10oz. The New York Times called it 9lbs and by the time it got back to his father, it was 10.

“He was skipping round the set saying ‘oh boy, I got me a fullback!’ Well I didn’t weigh much than 10lbs ‘til I was 21 ! I was skinny as a needle. So I was a fucken’ failure from the get-go. My dad was a skinny man too, and embarrassed about his skinniness, but he still visited it all on me.”

They tried everything to make him gain weight: “drinking tiger’s milk, goat’s milk, all that shit. Beers with lunch when I was five. Then they packed me off to a farm school for bad boys when I was six to make a man of me. I was Henry Fonda’s son, born with a platinum spoon up my ass, so they just beat me up the whole time.” 

Asked to confirm the story that his mother left him in the hospital, he grins another dashing smile, eyes gleaming with mischief, and declares: “no, I was taken out twice for a photo opportunity ! Then she decamped to the Pierre Hotel. I would have loved to have gone to the Pierre Hotel too, but I was left behind at the Le Roy sanatorium for seven weeks which doctors now tell us is the most important time in a baby’s life !” he roars. “And there was nothing wrong with me !”                                               

In many ways, the first few years of his life were idyllic, growing up in isolation with his sister, left to roam around the hills and woods of his father’s nine-acre estate in Brentwood, California. (His sister in particular was fond of playing her father’s role in Drums Along The Mohawk). 

His godfather was James Stewart, a regular visitor to the house along with his father’s friends like John Wayne, John Ford, and John Steinbeck who described him as “gentle, but capable of sudden violence… A man reaching but unreachable.”

But when the family moved away when Fonda was eight (because his father was playing on Broadway), he scrawled ‘I HATE THE EAST’ on his bedroom wall, and from then on, the rows and rebellion became part of both his nature and the relationship with his father.

When he was ten, with his father away honeymooning with his new wife in the Virgin Islands only a few months after his mother’s suicide, Peter Fonda shot himself in the stomach playing at a friend’s house with an antique pistol from the civil war – a fairly effective way of getting his father’s attention.

Even though he said it wasn’t deliberate, the bullet blew the top off his liver, went straight through the middle of his left kidney, and lodged close to his spine. It was a week before he was out of danger. 

It seemed to give him a taste for melodrama and to spend his teenage years trying to shake his father out of his reticence, usually by getting into trouble. (He and Jane settled on the nickname ‘Holden’ for him, from Catcher In The Rye.) 

After doctors judged he had an IQ of 160, at 17, he was sent to college in Omaha to calm him down but only complained “they were trying to teach me about art when just the summer before I had met Picasso. I had listened to Faulkner talk the way some people listened to the radio.”

“Picasso was very, very, far-out,” he acknowledges, downing another Guinness. “He invited me to his studio and then stood there, talking to his painting in French and cursing his paint in Spanish. You know, ‘you’re beautiful, oh what a beautiful line you have!’ – to the painting. Then ‘see what I do with you, you are nothing without me, you’re just paint.’ It was hysterical ! ”

His acting career started with a dazzling debut on Broadway which had the New York Herald Tribune somewhat optimistically declaring: “this is no doubt the very last morning in which Peter Fonda will have to identified as ‘Henry Fonda’s son.’”

Only a year later though, Variety reviewed his first film, Tammy & The Doctor (“Tammy & The Schmuckface” as Fonda called it), describing him as “looking like a cross between his dad and Fred Astaire.” 

Clean-cut and groomed like his father, for four films he seemed torn between a desire to emulate his father and the instinct to rebel against him for his lack of acceptance. Fonda himself told Playboy: “I was always trying to create an elegant, conservative, graceful, fashion thing – trying to emulate my father. That all went after I took LSD.” 

He dropped out of two years and returned with two Roger Corman movies, The Wild Angels and The Trip (scripted by Jack Nicholson) which critics considered “totally incoherent”, “a psychedelic tour through the bent mind of Peter Fonda”, and “little more than an hour and a half long commercial for LSD.” 

Wild Angels (“a portrait of anti-social hostility untempered by the slightest humanitarian instinct” according to one paper) made him the biggest leather-jacketed icon since Brando and James Dean, selling two million posters of Fonda as the leader of a pack of Hell’s Angels. 

By now he was living the life too – dressing like a kook, being busted for marijuana, arrested at the riots on Sunset, and continually humiliating his father -talking in interviews about his parental shortcomings and advocating acid as the antidote. 

“I thought about my father and my relationship with him, my mother, and my sister and suddenly I busted through the whole thing,” he said about his first acid trip in the Mojave desert.  “I had no further relationship with the past. I’d licked it.”

The rest he remembered as being “real womb stuff” – full of oatmeal cookies with worms on, the sky looking like “a Tiffany lampshade but prettier”, and his daughter Bridget popping out of his stomach – which “stopped me being scared.” 

Even now though, he gave the impression of someone still, almost desperately, reaching.

“I really dig my sister,” he said in one interview. “Much more than she digs me probably. I dig my father too. I have a great deal of compassion for him. I wish he could open his eyes and dig me.”


PUT the motorbikes of the Wild Angels together with the drugs of The Trip and you get Easy Rider. Essentially a biker’s western, Hopper and Fonda starred as two doomed hippy outsiders (Fonda’s Wyatt probably alluding to his father’s Wyatt Earp), heading East in an love-hate odyssey across America with a Stars & Stripes gas tank full of cocaine dollar bills, neatly symbolising not only the philosophies of the counter-culture at the time but its hypocrisy and ultimately fatal weakness for the allure of the American Dream.     

Starting with the stunning denouement, Fonda had had the idea for “a really good movie about motorcycles and drugs” when he looked up at “a really far-out” image of himself and Bruce Dern on a motorbike (in Wild Angels) and “thinking how cool it would look if they had a bike each.” 

He won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay but that barely scraped the surface of the film’s achievement. 

Financing most of its $ 375, 000 budget himself, as the film’s star, co-writer, and producer, Fonda negotiated a deal with Columbia to take 22% of its profits figuring that any Peter Fonda motorbike movie could recoup its money from audiences in Texas alone. 

Easy Rider then went on to become only the fourth film of all time to make $60million, making Fonda $5 million at a time when stars like his father and sister were getting a massive $300, 000 a movie. 

Starting filming on Fonda’s 28th birthday, they finished the legendary, drug-frenzied, shoot in just seven weeks – “so that Columbia couldn’t absorb everything that was going on.”

Famous myths that emerged from the wreckage included Hopper and Nicholson taking acid on DH Lawrence’s grave (true) and 105 joints being smoked during Nicholson’s famous campfire speech (false) – “although there were alot. I got the best shit for Jack. He was really loaded.”

Still, the LA Times called Easy Rider “an astonishing work of art”, “an over-powering motion picture”, and “a disturbing, important, social document.”

Coming four years before the likes of Mean Streets and American Graffiti, it was credited in Philip Cagin & Seth Dray’s book Hollywood Films of the 70s with having “changed the course of Hollywood history”.

“Before 1969,” Hopper said, “there were no real independent film-makers in America. Easy Rider changed all that.”

Fonda became one of the poster-boys for the whole era but the movie’s mumbled moral – “we blew it” – allowed the film to illustrate, advocate, and glorify the counter-culture movement at the same time as very subtly judging it doomed and corrupt, an ambiguity which has helped it to remain a classic.  

He described it as “my own protest against all the hypocrisy of the current American scene.”

“The movie deals with imprisonment, blowing grass, riding motorcycles, bad acid trips in graveyards with hookers, scoring coke…” he told The Guardian in 1969. “These things have nothing to do with freedom.”

The New York Times was in no doubt “it is obviously Fonda who is responsible for the delicate rage that the film projects” and it’s tempting to see the film as reflecting the way he not only hated and resented conventional society but saw his own rebelliousness as a self-defeating failure. 

In any case, as if it was almost too cathartic, Easy Rider was an idea and a triumph he never came close to repeating. 

The moral of the film – the indictment of their attitude towards drugs and money – ended up summarising the demise of both Hopper’s career and his own. 

While Nicholson coolly stepped into the spotlight, Fonda, like Hopper, persisted in making things difficult for himself.

He developed a reputation for being unable to take direction on or off the set, and threatening studio bosses who tampered with his movies with guns or knives. Wanda, Nevada saw him call the head of the studio “a fucking Nazi.”

“The problem is,” he announced to one producer, “I’m a better writer than the writer on this film, a better director than the director, and a better producer than you are.” 

As his sister’s fame surpassed him, they traded so many jibes about each other’s politics and acting ability his Dad admitted he was giving up on them both.

“It gets boring to hear them say they missed Daddy when they were young. Should I apologise that I had to work while the kids were in a beautiful farmhouse in Brentwood ?” 

True to form, Fonda’s response was to hit the road, or “the big street” as he calls the sea.

In 1970, he bought a luxurious 81-foot boat (‘The Tatoosh’) and in between making numerous indifferent movies, spent 14 years sailing between the Tropics often for months at a time, “mooring up in Bora Bora to party.”

“On the boat “my word is law,” he would say. “I pay no taxes and nobody can just drop in.”

Fonda’s performance in Easy Rider had been described as “a combination of Clint Eastwood and James Dean” by the Village Voice and “austerely convincing and strangely beautiful performance” by Vogue, but he missed out on every significant film of the 70s. 

“I was never offered them,” he says, seemingly unconcerned. “Most of the people who were making the good movies were establishment people who really felt we were trying to take down the establishment. They backed Jack. Maybe I wasn’t ready to it. I don’t feel regret about it.”

Now, he’s up against Nicholson for the Oscar – “not up against him,” he corrects me. “We’ve all won. It’s wonderful. Because we do suffer so much rejection, these moments of acceptance are just unbelievably cool.” 

Although Nicholson never helped his floundering career, Fonda refutes the view that Nicholson sold his soul to Hollywood. 

“The original script he wrote for The Trip was amazing and Jack knows I know that.”

He has just finished writing his autobiography Don’t Tell Dad, which judging from the stories that pour forward, should if nothing else disprove the adage ‘if you can remember the 60s, you weren’t really there.’

“It was 1067 pages long when I handed it in. But I put a note on the front of it saying: “it’s easier to mow a lawn than grow it. So cut it in blood.”

His sister Jane “freaked out” when he told her, complaining “you wear it like a hat, the family stuff.”  

He claims he only started writing it because he once told her he’d just signed a big book deal.

“I wasn’t doing anything else, and didn’t want to tell her !” he howls. 

Amidst all the acrimony, people have forgotten that public bickering like the Fondas’ only tends to happen in a family as close as theirs. 

He and Jane, for example, “have always been there for one another,” he says. “We’re like buddies from the war.”

It must have hurt that he was left out of On Golden Pond though, especially as he was planning to bring the three Fondas together in his film Conceived In Liberty. 

The greatest story in the book will probably be his efforts in wearing down his dad.

Midway through the 70s, the Fondas’ family friend Bill Hayward said that Peter Fonda had taken to telling his father ‘I love you dad’ “every four minutes.” “Not only because he really did love Henry, but because he knew it forced Henry to confront the fact that he wasn’t the sort of man who felt comfortable saying the words back.”

“It took me 37 years but I taught him how to say I love you very much,” Fonda grins now, albeit mostly a mumble down the phone. “He would’ve left it without me, that’s true yeah. Easily. I wanted that cleaned up. I needed it for myself.”

The relationship had recovered so much that shortly before his father’s death in 1982, he was urgently called to his father’s bedside and stormed into his father’s ICU room, where the rest of the family was morbidly gathered and started shouting: “I can’t fucking believe this !’ Then picked up his drip. ‘Dad, didn’t I tell you ‘if you want drugs, you call me?! What are these ?! Needles ! Didn’t I tell you never to mess with needles Dad?!’ A whole reverse role on him! ‘You’ve got everybody here believing you’re dying of a bad heart so that you can get in here, get drugs and have sex with the nurses.’ Grabbed his face and give him a big kiss. And got a smile on his face.”

When he fell out of the room for a deep breath, his sister followed him and said: ‘how the hell did you do that ?!’ It was one of my great performances of my life.”

With his family once again around him, Henry Fonda’s last words were: ‘I want you to know son, I love you very much.’

“Then he laid down his head and died.”

He says that the closure his efforts achieved meant “if you had any baggage on your back it just washed off like that” although this may partly be bravado or wishful thinking. 

When Peter Fonda talks about hiring a plane to fly in and see one of his kids graduating, he can’t help elaborating: “I promised my children I’d go to their graduation – cos no-one came to mine. You know… ‘Dad, why am I doing all this work again ?!”

“There were some really low parts that really hurt, but looking at it now, I don’t think I could have come to where I am if I had not come to terms with the anger I was carrying inside. Sometimes I hear Don Henley’s The Last Resort and wonder ‘is that about me ?’ ‘You could kiss it all good-bye and sail to Lahaina…’ I took off on the boat and said ‘fuck you man’, but I didn’t kiss it all good-bye.” 

He got rid of the boat after 14 years because “I wanted to be home more often while my two boys made the transition between high school and college – to be there for them, be their friend.”

Without the resentment and rivalry with his Dad to work out or a reputation in Hollywood to sustain, over the years Peter Fonda’s problems have in fact dissolved. 

“I’ve got this real neat ranch in Montana. I’ve been married to this real cool woman more than twenty years. My children are great – they come over and kiss me and hug me. I’m real proud of them all. I think I’ve raised them well. They always saw me as a real person.”

But deep down you suspect, what Peter Fonda really treasures is the satisfaction that, unlike his sister (who married one of the world’s richest men), or Nicholson and other actors from the time (who gave themselves over totally to Hollywood), he has never sold out his ideals.

He still bridles at the notion of “abstract authority” controlling him. Even now, he declares, he is considering taking up smoking again – “just to get in the face of the people who tell people not to.”

He still likes to hit the road on his motorbike – “never at night, never on freeways” – doing at least one long trip every summer, usually a 3000 mile trip in Montana, “down one side of the continental divide and back up the other. Just…ridin’.” 

And of course now he has his Oscar nomination, which may well give his career a chance all over again.

I tell him it’s been an amazing life by anyone’s standards. 

“Absolutely. I’m having a blast !” he grins, his arms open wide and that gently crazed smile filling up the whole room. 

“Best of all, I’m still here !”