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Wednesday 18 September 2019

Obituary: Peter Fonda

Actor and producer whose best-known films were the counter-culture classic 'Easy Rider', and 'Ulee's Gold'

COMEBACK: Nearly 30 years after ‘Easy Rider’, Fonda was acclaimed for his Oscar-nominated role in ‘Ulee’s Gold’
COMEBACK: Nearly 30 years after ‘Easy Rider’, Fonda was acclaimed for his Oscar-nominated role in ‘Ulee’s Gold’

Peter Fonda, who has died from lung cancer aged 79, co-starred, with Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider (1969), the low-budget cult film that captured the mood of the American counter-culture at the end of the 1960s.

Cast as Wyatt, aka Captain America, astride a powerful Harley Davidson motorbike, Fonda was the more laconic of the long-haired pair as he and his spaced-out hippie friend Billy (played by Hopper, who also directed) hit the road from California to Florida via New Orleans blowing the proceeds of a big drugs sale.

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Having made two earlier anti-establishment films, The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967), Fonda was lionised as an idealistic emblem of an America in the throes of profound social upheaval.

Although a scion of a remarkable Hollywood dynasty, headed by his father Henry, with his sister Jane and daughter Bridget, Fonda had suffered a bruising childhood against which he aggressively rebelled. Now, after Easy Rider (which earned him a fortune), he found himself typecast in low-budget films as a drug-taking biker. "I was Captain America, and where can you go with that? You can only ride so many motorcycles and smoke so many joints," he mused.

It was almost 30 years later that he reclaimed his place in the limelight, winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a remote, uncommunicative bee-keeping grandfather trying to keep his family together in Ulee's Gold (1997), a role he modelled on his father. That success provided a certain symmetry in a life that had been dominated by, and at odds with, Henry Fonda. But they were closer than they realised. For, as one critic pointed out, Easy Rider fitted into the American legend of its own idealism that Henry had done so much to incarnate.

For Fonda, the film was an act of personal catharsis. By co-starring in Easy Rider, he was striving to break free from his father and superstar sister Jane. At 29 he remained troubled by unhappy memories of his childhood and the home life created by his cold, distant father.

In 1950 when Peter was 10, his mother committed suicide. Less than a year later the boy severely injured himself playing with an antique gun that went off, damaging his kidneys and liver, and suggesting to some that this act was itself suicidal.

Years later, Peter Fonda complained about being excluded from the life of his family, and blamed his disillusion and anti-Establishment views on his experiences with his father.

Peter Henry Fonda, who died on August 16, was born on February 23, 1940, in New York, but had a peripatetic upbringing as the family moved according to the dictates of his father's acting career. When Peter was seven, the Fondas settled in Greenwich, Connecticut, and the boy attended several boarding schools in New England, spending the holidays with his maternal grandmother as his mother, Frances, was mysteriously absent. Henry Fonda told his son that she was in a hospital, but Peter later realised that "hospital" meant "asylum", and that the heart attack that supposedly killed her was in fact suicide.

Before her death, Henry Fonda had told Frances that he intended to divorce her to marry another woman, Susan Blanchard. While the newly-weds were away on their honeymoon, Peter shot himself with a .22 calibre pistol and nearly died on the operating table, but insisted later that it was an accident rather than a suicide attempt.

Soon after his stepmother moved out five years later, Peter, now 15, was sent by his father to live with relatives in Omaha. He thrived at school and was accepted at the University of Omaha, where he began to seriously consider an acting career. He joined a summer stock (repertory) company in upstate New York before landing a part in a Broadway play. New York drama critics named him the most promising new actor of 1961. On the strength of that accolade, Fonda moved to Hollywood and appeared in a string of unmemorable teen-flicks. He worked on and off Broadway and in edgy, experimental films such as Lilith (1964) and The Wild Angels (1966).

By the time he starred in The Trip (1967), Fonda was a keen user of the fashionable psychedelic drug LSD, and it was in the prevailing acid-fuelled spirit of peace and love that he conceived Easy Rider and developed it with Dennis Hopper. It was also Fonda's idea to hire a young unknown named Jack Nicholson to play the stoned lawyer the two protagonists meet on their cross-country adventure.

As producer, Fonda raised $350,000 to make the film, which grossed a phenomenal $60m at the box office. Although hailed a cult hero, he earned a reputation for being difficult to work with, and following his involvement in Dennis Hopper's virtually incomprehensible The Last Movie (1971), found that in conservative Hollywood, he had squandered all his artistic capital. Of his many indifferent road movies and one-dimensional cameos, only Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), in which he played a renegade motorist opposite Susan George, proved of any enduring interest.

Peter Fonda married first, in 1961, the model Susan Brewer. The marriage was dissolved and in 1975 he married Becky Crockett, a marriage that was also dissolved. In 2011 he married Margaret DeVogelaere, who survives him with the two children of his first marriage, including the actress Bridget Fonda, as well as two stepsons and a stepdaughter.

© Telegraph

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