In Memoriam: Peter Fonda, Golden Globe Winner, 1940-2019

by Philip Berk August 17, 2019
Actor Peter

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Peter Fonda, twice Golden Globe winner, the son of acting legend Henry Fonda, younger brother of Jane Fonda and father of Bridget Fonda, died on Friday, August 16, 2019, at his home in Los Angeles. The cause of death was respiratory failure due to lung cancer.

"In one of the saddest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our hearts. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy," said his family rep on Friday afternoon. And, while we mourn the loss of this sweet and gracious man, we also wish for all to celebrate his indomitable spirit and love of life."

The family statement concluded: "In honor of Peter, please raise a glass to freedom.”

Fonda got his first seminal roles working with Roger Corman on The Wild Angels and The Trip where he bonded with fellow actors Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper.

Easy Rider - whose 50th anniversary, ironically, was celebrated on the date of his passing- was the result of that bonding. The movie, which cost under $400,000 to make, eventually grossed over $60 million and changed Hollywood for all time. Fonda produced, co-wrote, and played the leading role.

Although he worked consistently for the next four decades, in film (The Limey, Ghost Rider, 3:10 to Yuma) and TV (with featured parts in The Blacklist, Hawaii 5-0, CSI: New York, among others) it was his comeback film Ulee’s Gold that earned him a shot at immortality. For that performance, Fonda won the Best Actor Golden Globe, but he was eclipsed by his buddy Nicholson in the Oscar balloting. Had he won, he would have been the third Fonda to be honored in the best actor category and his, the only family to achieve that distinction.

For 40 years he was considered the black sheep and the under-achiever of his family, even upstaged by his daughter, actress Bridget (Fonda), who assumed the mantle when her famous aunt Jane (Fonda) married and settled into temporary retirement, and her even more famous grandfather Henry (Fonda) passed away.

But Ulee’s Gold, in which he gave a larger than life performance, changed that. At his HFPA press conference, Fonda spoke about his tenuous relationship with his fabled father. 

Did they eventually reconcile? “You’re right, but because I had such a good closure with him when he died, my feelings are now very positive and happy about him.”

How much of his father did he bring to the performance? “People make those comparisons because the last time they saw him was in On Golden Pond when he had his mouth down most of the time and he wore wire-rim glasses, as I do in the movie, but I actually went to the character through the two granddaughters I have in the film. I imagined myself and Jane as the grand-daughters and took it from there.  After that, I looked back at my father. and the feelings that I had about why he wouldn't talk to us when we were younger. We all thought he was angry. It was only much later that we found out that he was extraordinarily shy, the more we wanted him to say things to us, the deeper he would withdraw. I used a little bit of that idea in creating the character.”

Peter Fonda at the Golden Globes

Peter Fonda at the Globes (clockwise from top left): presenting Cate Blanchett's Golden Globe in 1999; with Brenda Blethyn and Geoffrey Rush, with his Golden Globe for Ulee's Gold, 1998; with presenter Keri Russell with his Golden Globe for The Passion of Ayn Rand, 2000;  in 1979 with wife Portia and daughter Bridget.

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Was he aware of how unhappy his father was? “Towards the end of his life, I think he was very happy.”

Did he try to avoid the mistakes his father made? “Ted Danson once asked me what was the saddest part of my life, and I told him when I had my first divorce. When I realized my first marriage was breaking up, I thought to myself, I'm going to lose my children, I'm going to lose that relationship, and I’m going to become like my dad. At the time I wasn’t old enough or mature enough to understand why father made me feel so alienated. Because I was the one who had children first, my two sisters were very jealous of me because I always gave them extra special attention and let them know that I was always there for them. From the beginning, we’ve been a tactile family. We touch and we kiss and we hug and we talk about things. We talk about family things and we don't have secrets. We're open, and if there are questions, we answer them. I don't want to say I overcompensated because that would tarnish my memory of my father, but I was aware of the failures in relationships that my father had and which we had with him in the earlier years.”

Did he model Ulee on any of his father’s performances? “I'm sure most of you remember the scene in Grapes of Wrath when Tom Joad says goodbye to ma and says the "Wherever there are cops beating on a fellow, I'll be there, ma" speech. Well, John Ford shot it in a tight close-up of my father. While he was reading these words his face was absolutely motionless. He didn't raise an eyebrow. He hardly blinked. He didn't have to move his face because those words of John Steinbeck said everything, and the honesty in his eyes made the difference. If he had started to raise an eyebrow or do something else, it would have destroyed the power of that scene. That’s how it was for me in Ulee’s Gold. Victor (Victor Nunez, the director) made sure that it was always less because that meant it was more. Now and again he would say, ‘That's a little too less, Peter,’ but most of the time he was reminding me to stay still and just be in the moment, and then occasionally he'd say, ‘Now forget everything I've said, and go play it.’”

Is he still on good terms with his Easy Rider costars? “Indeed, I have an ongoing relationship with Jack, and I'm very happy to be on his yes list. As for Dennis it was all settled and taken care of, I'm happy to say.”

Does he have any special memories of making the film?

“One I can think of. The film was made on my credit card -- actually, it was Diners Club, and that was long before MasterCharge came up with the idea of using actors like Zsa Zsa to promote the card. I went up to Diners Club and I said, ‘Listen, just do this one ad with me. I'll look right at the camera, and say, 'The things you can do. I made Easy Rider on Diners Club,'  but they thought it was the wrong image for them. Too bad.”

Was there a lot of improvising in that film?

“Well, we understood what the opening was, so we improvised that and the closing, and that made the whole thing seem like it was just happening. But I don’t like to see improvisational acting on film, letting the actor do the writer’s work is sometimes a dangerous thing, but in this case because it was so much our story and we didn't have too much time, a lot of the scenes were improvised,  but the scenes with Jack and Dennis and me were carefully written, and they worked very well because they flowed as if they were improvised.”

After Easy Rider, Fonda directed The Hired Hand, although deemed a failure when it came out, it is now considered a classic. He must be proud of it.“You’re right, the New York Times gave me a great review. Sight and Sound gave me a great review. I got some very fine reviews in this country. It's just that Time and Newsweek put me in the toilet, but here's what really happened. It’s called release patterns. Universal had forty screens available, so they put my movie out in the summer on forty screens. It ran those two weeks, and they took it off, and then put it on a double bill with Dennis's film The Last Movie. So it wasn't really given a chance, but I'll never forget what (critic) Gene Shalit said when he reviewed the film in 1971, he said, ‘In 25 or so years Peter Fonda will be able to say, Yes, I directed that movie.’ I'm very happy to say that now.”

Moments from the life of Peter Fonda

A life in movies (clockwise from top left): in 1966 with Jane Fonda in Venice, attending the Venice Film Festival with the film The Wild Angels; in 1968, in New Orleans, with Dennis Hopper on the set of Easy Rider ; in 1955, arriving in Rome with his father Peter Fonda and sister Jane Fonda - Henry was to begin filming War and Peace on location in the city.

philippe le tellier/paris match via getty images; susan wood/getty images; bettman/getty images


Growing up, was there ever sibling rivalry between him and Jane?  “Not as far as I’m concerned. Jane has always been very supportive. At the moment she's extraordinarily happy for me because she sees this as my second wind  and I'm thrilled if that's the case because then I'll be able to play the multidimensional roles I always wanted to play.”

Does he still ride motorcycles? “I love riding motorcycles. I have two and I have a guest motorcycle at my ranch. There's just something very free about getting on a motorcycle and riding. I carry a fly fishing rod with me so I can fish if I want to. I live in a part of our country that has the best trout fishing in the world, right near my ranch. I enjoy that. Of course, I ride a motorcycle very slowly, very relaxed. I'm not in a hurry to get any place, and I enjoy that. I'm not doing it as a rebel against anything, I'm doing it because I like the feeling.”

Would he play his father in a film about him?

“That would be the most difficult. His life is so different than people expect, particularly his internal life. I don't know that I know enough about his background to be able to play him. Probably it would be better to take an actor who had had no spin on that and have that person portray him. I wouldn't mind directing it though.”

Unfortunately, it never happened.

Fonda gave one last memorable performance in the TV film The Passion of Ayn Rand for which he won the Best Supporting Actor - Television Golden Globe.

To the end, he was a gentle man.

Rest in peace, Peter.