A vocal figure of the counterculture movement of the 1960s, Peter Fonda was an American actor, director, and screenwriter. Starting out on Broadway in 1961, he made his film debut in 1963, slowly but surely establishing his Hollywood image as a cool and laid back guy. In 1969, his highly influential film Easy Rider was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and helped to skyrocket Fonda into stardom. Throughout his life, he tried his hand at different aspects of the film industry, was an activist for many causes, and an inspiration to young people. Join us as we take a look at some of the lesser-known aspects of Peter Fonda’s life up until his death on August 16, 2019.
He Came From A Line Of Famous Family Members
Born in New York City on February 23, 1940, Peter Fonda was part of a well-known family with deep connections in Hollywood. His father was Henry Fonda, a renowned actor whose career spanned over five decades.
In turn, his mother was Francis Ford Seymour, a known socialite. In addition to his parents, Fonda’s older sister, Jane Fonda, also grew up to become a famous actress who earned numerous accolades for her many performances.
His Mother Took Her Own Life
Fonda’s mother, Frances Ford Seymour, married Henry in 1936. The two had a troubled marriage, with Jane Fonda claiming that her mother had suffered from abuse during her childhood. Three months after Henry Fonda filed for divorce, she was admitted as a patient at Craig House, a sanatorium in Beacon, New York.
It was there she took her own life, with Peter just 10 years old at the time. Both Peter and his sister were told that she had died from a sudden heart attack and didn’t learn the truth about their mother’s death until years later.
Trouble With His Early Career
In the early 1960s, after acting in a few roles, director and producer Robert Rossen saw promise in Fonda and signed him to a seven-film contract. Things were starting to look up for Fonda, but unfortunately, before the contract was solidified, Rossen passed away.
That wasn’t Fonda’s only road bump, either. He was having trouble securing acting gigs in Hollywood because he was a symbol of the current counterculture movement. He had long hair, didn’t follow the rules, and was open about his opinions about the industry. To top it all off, he didn’t hide his recreational substance use.
His Outfit In Easy Rider Was Very Specific
In the iconic 1969 film Easy Rider, Fonda plays the character of Wyatt, who is known for his excessive wearing of the American flag which is featured on his helmet, his gas tank, and on the back of his leather jacket.
In order to get his outfit just right, Fonda spent a week searching around L.A. to find the perfect props that looked appropriately worn out. As it turns out, this would cause some issues during production, resulting in Fonda being repeatedly pulled over by the police for his suspicious overuse of the American flag.
He Was A Musician With A Lot Of Connections
Along with his love for film and acting, Fonda was also deeply involved in the music world and had a close connection with the rock and roll group The Byrds. Fonda could also play instruments and sing. He recorded the song “November Night,” written by frequent Byrds collaborator Gram Parsons, in 1968.
He also knew the Beatles, visiting them while they were under the influence of psychoactive substances. He inspired a line from the song “She Said She Said” on Revolver.
He Was Incredibly Close To His Sister
Although the Fonda family as a whole wasn’t very put together, with their mother passing away and Fonda having a distant relationship with his father, he and his sister were incredibly close. One of the reasons for this was their family life, which forced them to rely on one another.
Fonda has always known to stand up for his little sister. When she was criticized for her political activism, he backed her up. At one point, he was even arrested for defacing a poster that said “Feed Jane Fonda to the Whales.”
Issues With The Wild Angels
The Wild Angels was originally supposed to star George Chakiris and Fonda, however, it was eventually discovered that Chakiris didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle, a necessary aspect of the film.
So, they put Fonda, who did know how to ride, in Chakiris’ role and hired Bruce Dern for the Fonda’s initial role. In the end, the film helped to launch Fonda’s career, as well as popularized the biker gang film genre which exploded in the 1970s.
He Had A Genuine Love Of Motorcycles
Fonda demonstrated his comfort on a motorcycle in several of his movies such as Cannonball Run, Easy Rider, The Wild Angels, and others. Motorcycles aren’t just props that he used in films, but were a true passion in Fonda’s life, with him claiming that motorcycles helped him stay focused throughout his life.
In 2002, Fonda was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. However, his love for bikes didn’t come without injury — he broke his back at one point.
He’s Been Arrested A Few Times
Fonda was threatened with arrest on numerous occasions, mostly due to political activism. One of his most memorable run-ins with the law occurred in 1966 during the Sunset Strip riot. This was a hotspot for counterculture activities and eventually started to draw in large crowds.
When the city attempted to enforce a curfew to limit the amount of counterculture youth on the streets, they staged a protest movement in response. During the event, Fonda was handcuffed and arrested on the scene.
Going For Full Authenticity
Being a symbol of the counterculture movement, it’s no surprise to learn that the substance Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and Dennis Hopper smoked in Easy Rider was the real thing. Not only were they getting high on set, but the conversation filmed afterward actually showed them under the influence.
Of course, nobody could prove it was real, so they didn’t have a hard time getting away with it. All of the other substances featured in the film were fake, but that was just because the budget wouldn’t allow for the real stuff.
Ambiguity On The Script For Easy Rider
The process with which the screenplay for Easy Rider was written still remains somewhat of a mystery. Some claim that there was only a 12-page outline, while Fonda claims something else.
According to him, he, Hopper, and Terry Southern all partook in substances in Southern’s basement, where they wrote and recorded it from beginning to end. However, Southern’s recollection is even more unbelievable. He stated that he wrote the entire script himself, and that Fonda and Hopper were so into it that they begged to get screenplay credits.
Fonda And Hopper Had A Falling Out
After Southern left the project Easy Rider, Fonda and Hopper continuously argued over writing credits and how Southern’s money would be split up. Fonda ended up giving a percentage of Southern’s money to the production company and Hopper’s brother-in-law, Bill Hayward, who was also an associate producer.
However, this made Hopper feel as though he’d been ripped off, leading to a grudge that he held until his death in 2010. Although Fonda attempted to see him before he died, he was refused. He was also denied access into the chapel for Hopper’s funeral.
He Was Not A Fan Of Tom Hayden, His Sister’s Ex-Husband
Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda met in the early ’70s, bonding over their shared political views and eventually getting married in 1973. He was a well-known leader of the radical left, spearheading her anti-Vietnam War movement, with some of his protests turning into riots.
Supposedly, he hated his wife’s fame, yet had no problem using her large bank account to fund an unsuccessful U.S. Senate run as well as a successful California State assembly campaign. According to Peter Fonda, “That commie pervert had my sister and he used her for his own ends […] Frankly he’s lucky he’s still alive.”
He Only Developed A Relationship With His Father Later In His Life
It was no secret that Peter Fonda had less than a close relationship with his father, Henry, during his youth. In a 2014 Q&A, Fonda opened up, stating, “my dad’s family were Christian Scientists […] Crying was not acceptable. My father was a shy man. To his dying day, we only ever knew seven stories about him. He was afraid of strong emotion.”
He went on to note that “he just wasn’t available to us. But, you know, he didn’t beat us and we ate well.” However, as Fonda grew older, he built a healthier relationship with his father until his death in 1982.
He Almost Died At A Very Young Age
Horrifyingly, Fonda’s life nearly came to an end when he was just eleven years old, and on his birthday! Discovering a loaded weapon in the house, he accidentally shot himself in the abdomen.
After finding his son with a near-fatal wound, Henry Fonda rushed him to the Indian hill station of Nainital where he spent the next few months recovering. This experience led him to eventually telling John Lennon that “I know what it’s like to be dead.”
His Daughter Stopped Acting In 2003
In the 1990s, Peter Fonda’s daughter Bridget was an up-and-coming actress in Hollywood. Some of the films she acted in include The Godfather Part III, Jackie Brown, White Female, and even Lake Placid, before she slowly disappeared from the film industry. Her last appearance was in the Hallmark Channel miniseries The Snow Queen.
In 2003, Bridget was involved in a serious car accident driving on the Pacific Coast Highway. She survived the crash with minor cuts and bruises, although it was the end of her acting career. Shortly after, she married her longtime boyfriend, Danny Elfman, and had a son.
People Expected Him To Follow In His Father’s Shoes
After it was clear that Peter was on a trajectory to become a famous actor just like his father, people wanted him to play roles similar to the ones his father had done. One of the most popular requests made by the public was for Peter to play Henry’s iconic role in 12 Angry Men.
Of course, considering the relationship he had with his father at the time, he denied the role. Whenever he was asked about the possibility in interviews, his typical responses were “No” or “Don’t hold your breath for that one.”
Turning To Directing
After the immense success of Easy Rider, Fonda and Hopper were both interested in making their own films. Hopper went on to make the jungle film The Last Movie which starred Fonda and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas.
Fonda then directed and starred in his own Western film The Hired Hand in 1971 and the science fiction film Idaho Transfer in 1973. Although he did not appear in the movie, it received mixed reviews at the time.
He Was Nominated For Best Actor
In 1997, Peter Fonda received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor in the film Ulee’s Gold. Fonda played the character of Ulee Jackson, a widowed beekeeper trying to hold his family together.
The film had an emotional connection for Fonda, as his father was an amateur beekeeper in his free time. In remembrance of his father, he even wore his father’s watch as a good luck charm during production.
He Spent Time As An Action Star
During the 1970s, Fonda gave a lot of his attention to action films, which did decently. After the success of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry in 1974, he continued on with a series of action flicks including Open Season, Race with the Devil, 92 in the Shade, Killer Force, and others.
That same decade, he also directed and acted in Wanda Nevada in 1979, which also briefly featured his father. It was the only film they ever acted in together.