Emerging from one of Hollywood's most famous families–he's Henry Fonda's son, Jane Fonda's brother, and Bridget Fonda's father–Peter Fonda became an icon of the '60s counterculture. He made his film debut in 1963's Tammy And The Doctor, but before long, he was cast in his signature anti-authoritarian roles. In 1966, The Wild Angels marked several prominent firsts for Fonda: his first biker film, his first counterculture film, and his first film with B-movie legend Roger Corman. Corman and Fonda reunited for 1967's LSD-themed The Trip, and while doing press for that movie, Fonda came up with the idea for Easy Rider, the movie that made him an icon and earned him a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination. The low-budget film became an enormous commercial hit, and it helped kick-start a golden age of risk-taking and experimentation in Hollywood. Fonda should have flourished in the environment he helped foster, but his follow-up project and directorial debut, 1971's The Hired Hand, was too much of a Western for hippies and too much of a trippy head film for Western aficionados. A meditative revisionist Western distinguished by great performances from Fonda, Verna Bloom, and Warren Oates, as well as gorgeous cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond, the seldom-seen film uses genre trappings to explore female sexuality and the effect of sexual double standards. Fonda continued to appear in films throughout the '70s and '80s, but he gave some of his most memorable performances in 1994's Nadja, 1997's Ulee's Gold (which netted him his second Oscar nomination, this time for Best Actor), and 1999's The Limey. The Onion A.V. Club recently listened to Fonda discuss the creative process, Easy Rider, and The Hired Hand, which is being reissued in preparation for a deluxe DVD edition.
The Onion: What was your inspiration for Easy Rider?
Peter Fonda: I was in Toronto, at an enormous gathering of exhibitors and distributors, to promote The Trip. This was 1967, and I had on a really nice, custom-made, four-breasted suit, Hermes tie, beautiful Italian shirt, and no shoes or socks. Everybody who came in just stared at my feet. On the first day, I was down at the American International Pictures table, all dressed up with no shoes or socks. I had a shotgun microphone, and I was picking up people saying, "We really love your father, he's one of my favorites," or "Your sister's so great," because I was making an album called Got To Get You Into My Life. That Beatles tune was the thesis of the album. At the time, albums would use some extraneous sounds, like a car honking or traffic. For me, it was people saying how much they loved my sister and my dad. So I was there, just recording, when this new man on the block, [Motion Picture Association of America head] Jack Valenti, is introduced to all of us. Don't get me wrong, Jack's a very nice guy, but this is 1967. Forget the clothes, it's the no-shoes-no-socks thing that's got everybody thinking I'm up to some serious cage-shaking. Jack looks down at me–he must not have seen the shotgun microphone–and says, "My friends, and you are my friends"… He said it twice. I have it on tape, in case people didn't hear him the first time. He said, looking straight at me, "It's time we stop making movies about motorcycles, sex, and drugs." I just kept rolling for a while, and then I turned it off. Then I got to my room at the Lakeshore Motel. I'm signing stacks of photographs that AIP made, and I come across an 8x10 of Bruce Dern and me, and only Dernsy and maybe the photographer and me would know that it was us. We were on the beach of Venice, California, on my motorcycle, traveling along this cement walk. In an 8x10 format, we're maybe two and a half inches, totally backlit. I thought, "Who in publicity would pull this photograph for me to sign, where you can barely tell that it's us?" But it's an interesting shot, because it looks like we're riding in the sand. I looked at it. I had a doob, there was no doubt about that. I kept looking at it, and kept thinking about it, because it was talking to me, and what it was saying was, "I got it. I know what my next sex-drugs-and-motorcycles movie is going to be. It's not a hundred Hells Angels on their way to a Hells Angels funeral." On a tangent, [Hells Angels pioneer] Sonny Barger made a point many times of calling me a punk, and saying that Easy Rider was not a biker film. So I said, "You know what? You're the first person to notice that it's a Western. Does that make you feel smart? I was wearing spurs, and [Dennis] Hopper had a cowboy hat and fringe. You catch on to that?" He was angry, but not that angry, and it doesn't matter. We both like motorcycles. So it's not a hundred Hells Angels on their way to a Hells Angels funeral. It's just two guys, like John Wayne and Ward Bond, riding across John Ford's West. They're not looking for Natalie Wood; they're looking to make a big score so they can retire. But I can't stand the idea of retirement. There's too many things to do. I hope I'm working until the curtain drops and someone yells, "That's a cut! That's a wrap on the picture." And I'll still be there with all my original teeth. So I wrote the ending. What happens to these guys? Just because they look different, they look hippie, and they're riding wild motorcycles, they get shot. Then I backed up to make that work as an abstract kind of death, not a retributive type of death. It has to fall within censorship attitudes. We had them then, and we have them now. We have them worse now. [Imitating George W. Bush.] "You're either with me or you're with the terrorists." Excuse me, Former Governor Bush. So we're not looking for Natalie Wood, and we're going east, and we've got this great homage to Hermann Hesse's Journey To The East, this really poetic book. I had already decided that Hopper was going to direct it. He had the passion, and he had the ability to see form and substance much better than I. He understood framing. I was still learning, watching him, shooting every kind of still shot you can imagine. Directing is a verb, not a noun. It's just like acting. My daughter [Bridget] at graduation said to me, "Dad, I want to be an actor." "Don't you ever say that again!" "But Dad!" "It's a verb, not a noun!" I was like, "Where are you going to study acting?" She said "UCLA." I said "No, that's Tanning 101, and USC is Theory Of Tanning 101. You've got to go to Princeton or Yale." And she's [imitates girlish sobbing] "Dad, everybody's looking at you. This is my graduation. I'm going to NYU." "There's Needle Square right in front of me, right where all the junkies are, and I'm going to send my daughter right in the middle of it, so I better get six tall Italians to follow her." And she was like, "Don't you dare, Dad!" So I'm like, "Go to NYU. Take a course off campus in acting. Try and get into everyone's student films, and get used to being put down because your name is Fonda." I was not thinking about her [while writing Easy Rider], but I was thinking that something was really wrong, and we had to shake the cage. One tries to justify everything when one makes a story out first, so it has places and things, not just abstractions that bump people in the head. When I got it down where I could tell it as a story, I called Hopper. It was 4:30 in the morning Toronto time, 1:30 his time. I told him the story. He said, "That's incredible. What do you want to do?" I said, "You direct, I'll produce, we'll both write, and we'll both act in it so we can save some money." I was so excited, because the story as I thought it out was very simple. It has to be simple. You have to be able to tell it simply and visually. You know, I had an ACLU lawyer [Jack Nicholson's character] see us parading without a permit, for example, and he gets us out of jail and takes a trip with us. Dennis, in a move of genius, writes him as a drunk. 'Cause we never said to the audience that it was pot we were smoking. We'd just wink at them. All the kids knew it. Dennis put Jack in jail with us as an alky. So when he does the whole thing where he tells us he wants to come with us, which is great, I'm wondering, "Where did he come up with D.H. Lawrence?" [Nicholson's character toasts Lawrence in the movie. –ed.] I was dying in a little hospital in the middle of Dallas from bronchial pneumonia, which I fortunately had three days to get rid of before they ripped me out of the hospital to do the parade scene and the leaving-the-jail scene. I thought it was just super-cool to have the lawyer in the jail, because everybody can relate to an alcoholic. Only hippies related to people who were heads. He could talk, and people wouldn't be making moral decisions on him. Drinking booze was a very acceptable thing, as long as you didn't start falling down. So I ask Jack where he came up with D.H. Lawrence, and he says, "Oh, Hopper and I were out at Lawrence's gravesite in Dallas, taking acid." I'm dying in the hospital, and these guys are out there taking acid. I'm producing this film with a bunch of freaks… That's not true. Dennis and I should be the best of friends, but we're not. It's unfortunate. That first moment in Toronto, I was so high on that story, I was like, "This is really going to shake the cage." I knew I was throwing sevens. In fact, it was so evident to me, I knew I could pick them up, throw them over my shoulder, and they'd be sevens. Throw 'em under the couch, they'd be sevens. No matter where they were going, they were sevens. So I couldn't go to sleep. I was too wired from the whole idea. So I went to the second big lunch of this big gathering, and I was allowed to sit at the VIP table where I had seen Jack Valenti the day before. He's talking about how we need to stop making movies about motorcycles, sex, and drugs, and start making more movies like Doctor Dolittle, which cost $27 million. I was sitting next to Jackie Bisset, this drop-dead gorgeous gal, and I knew her. And of course she's got this devastating smile, and she says, "Peter, how come you don't have any shoes or socks on?" I'm smiling, and I say, "So I can put my foot up your dress." So she slaps me, and nobody is looking at me, but they all see her slap me. Then I start trying to slide my foot up her dress. I'm like, "You know you want it. You've been begging me to do it for years." She's like, "Stop it," but then someone says, "Ladies and gentlemen, Peter Fonda." I go, "Excuse me, Jackie, that's me." They gave me a gold lighter, one of those tall Zippo-style ones, with my initials engraved in it and "Thank you, Peter, The Canadian Film Industry, September 27, 1967." I say, "Well, I don't smoke cigarettes." There's mild laughter throughout the audience. "But I'm sure I can do something with this." Then I talked about Picasso, and I said, "You, the exhibitors, have the galleries. I want to know what kind of paintings I should bring to your galleries, that your audience wants to see. I need to find out more about what's in Canada, what's in the audience's mind." Can you imagine Picasso going to his gallery guy with one of his enormous blue paintings, and having the gallery guy go [adopts Southern accent], "Well, I like it, but the wife could use a little more red in it." The reason Picasso painted in blue was because it was the cheapest color. It's genius how he did it, but that's the reason for it. "I want to make paintings that you can hang in your galleries that people will want to come see. Because I don't think it's smart to try to go off and do things that are not commercially viable, unless you don't intend to be in this industry, and you're a wacky artist-filmmaker who's content to eat rice and not put your kids through college and the rest of it. It's called basic life, putting food on the table. And the only time I think $27 million should be mentioned is in the box office, not in the budget." Everyone got up and cheered, and I knew it was another seven. I walked away from that table saying, "Thank you, Jack, for another seven."
O: What role did Terry Southern play in the writing of Easy Rider?
PF: I was on the west coast of France working with Jane and her husband Roger Vadim on a film called Metzengerstein, for AIP. I spent more time waiting to work than I did working, so I made a shitpile of a per diem. I was writing Dennis letters, saying "Let's go to Mardi Gras. We'll have 100,000 people in costumes that we don't have to pay for." Then I wrote in parentheses, "See, I was listening to [Roger] Corman." So whilst waiting to go to work in this little château, which was also part of the set, we had our dressing rooms, these cold, stone things. I was getting paid not bad, yet not nearly enough, but I got to work with my sister. So I hear this soft shuffling up the stairs, then "Peter!" I recognize Terry's voice. He wanders up to me, and I'm dressed like a 14th-century German count. He asks me, "What are you up to?" I told him about Dennis' and my idea, and he said, "What are you going to do next?" I told him that we wanted somebody else to put it in script form, and he wanted to do it. I said, "Terry, your fee is the budget of the film." He and I are really into the story now–into the possibilities, talking away, leaving the movie set and going back to my hotel, where I'd sit in front of the window before I was ready to work, and watch the tide go all the way out, looking at the ships and thinking about the boat that I was going to buy. We talked about it, and I told him I thought it was great that he wanted to be a part of it. I told him we'd have a meeting in New York. I had to be back in December, and we'd sit down with Hopper and talk about it. He gave us guidance. He gave us a great wall to bounce off of. He gave us dark humor and a literary panache that Dennis and I did not have. Having him with us as a writer on the script put it above periscope depth. People would say, "Wow, Terry Southern co-wrote that. I wonder what that's about?" He gave us the title. Dennis and I had a slew of titles, some of which were hilarious and would make us both erupt with laughter, and some were serious. Terry came up with Easy Rider, and explained what it was. An "easy rider" is the guy who is the prostitute's boyfriend, her lover. He sits at home drinking beer and watching television. When she comes back home, he has sex with her. He's got the easy ride. She takes care of him. That was definitely a major gift, that title. That's how Terry got involved. Here's an example of how Terry and Dennis and I worked together: Terry and Dennis wanted [Easy Rider protagonists] Wyatt and Billy to go to a whorehouse. I didn't. I thought, "Captain America just rides down the street and gets popped. He doesn't have to go to a whorehouse." These guys are a few years older than I am. They went to Tijuana to get laid. I didn't want to, but they kept insisting on it, until I finally said, "Give me a reason for going there. Because I don't see us leaving this incredible set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras to go to a whorehouse. I see us taking drugs and finding chicks, and that's how it is, you know? It's today we're talking about, not when you guys were in high school." Hopper's like, "No, we've got to! We've got to do it for the lawyer. We can't spend the whole scene in the whorehouse anyway–we've got to get down on the street where it's happening, but my job is to get the girls. I want that to happen, and your job is to get us out on the street." I said, "It works for me." Finally, after a week of storytelling, going back and forth, we were ready to set it all on tape. So I had a little reel-to-reel Sony, and I set it up in my father's library, in his house in New York City. Terry brought a young director from England who was a commercial director whom Terry thought had great potential. He brought this guy Michael Cooper along as somebody else to tell the story to. Terry didn't realize that I could tell the story to a wall. We got the money by telling the story to Bert Schneider, who'd made a lot of money with Bob Rafelson inventing The Monkees. Monkee money made Easy Rider. But Easy Rider made The Hired Hand possible. How is Petey boy going to tie this all in? I was shooting the Hired Hand sequence at the back porch where [Warren] Oates is sitting there drinking the water, and there's a very, very hard talk about Verna Bloom's sexual stuff. I was working with great actors who are coming up with this stuff that's fabulous. And then [makes static noise], "Wooooooo." And I yell, "Who's got a radio on? We're working here!" We go again, and everything's very quiet and very subtle, except for some [makes more musical radio noise]. "Can somebody kill the fucking radio! Lose the radio! How many people don't know what 'lose the radio' means? Cut it out, we're working here!" Then my assistant director says nobody has a radio on, but I tell him that I hear one. So finally I say, "Let's go. Let's put this one on film now. Okay? We're going to put it to film, keep it calm. Keep on doing what you're doing. You're great. You guys are fabulous. Let's roll!" I'm watching them, I'm in the scene with them, as a director would be. It's so good. These two actors are very, very good. Nobody had ever cast Warren Oates as a romantic leading man, but he has all these qualities. I watched him play the goofy cowboy and then sidle up to some woman and be a very charming man, so I thought he was perfect for the role. But here comes the music. I say, "Hold the roll. Do you hear that?" So we're listening to the music. It's Easy Rider playing at a drive-in theater five miles over, and the wind just happened to take that sound to where we were shooting. I wasn't paying myself to direct, produce, or act in The Hired Hand, or to co-write the third draft. But I was getting paid from that movie that was playing down the river. It was a big crack-up. It took the serious edge off of the moment. But it kind of revitalizes the moment, to go back and continue shooting. It was a beautiful scene to me, as it ends up with him taking his hand off her foot. You know, he's been caressing her foot. It would have been stupid for me to show that, but to make it the reveal afterwards, it's like, "What was going on in that scene? What was the director up to? What were the actors up to?" Which is exactly what you want, because audiences have never seen it before. They've never seen a woman like her, a woman who is confronted about her indiscretions and says [quoting Bloom's character], "Oh, yeah? Not every time, and not every time I wanted it. How 'bout that?" It's a scene that's so powerful, NBC cut it out of the broadcast version, because it's too sexual. No woman in any Western had said this, let alone in many films. Except Europeans, who weren't hung up on the morals of society. Morality sucks. Clearly, so does gravity, but we can prove gravity. We can't prove morality. It doesn't exist at all. Don't pay any attention to it. Those were the characters that [Hired Hand screenwriter] Alan Sharp had written so beautifully. He has this old slang of that time. It comes just rolling off Warren Oates' tongue, and you're right there in that time in 1881. It wasn't really a three-way deal, sexually, but the inference was that she was not a bad person, but that she didn't have any compunction about forgetting the man who ran out on her six years earlier, and having sex with someone else. Women get horny, too. They did in 1881.
O: How would you describe the relationship between your character and Warren Oates' in The Hired Hand?
PF: They're more than friends. Their relationship very much is that the two of them are alone. I don't intend to get into whether or not it's a homosexual relationship. It's just a male-to-male relationship, which in a Western was taken for granted, but in this different Western, maybe it had more overtones, more subtext to it. The script was so good that I could see each shot, which lens I wanted to use, how close I wanted to be. When I look at anything, I look for the subtext, to try and find the root of the story. Most stories have roots in some other story, in some other time. For me, the Western is the mythology of the United States. If you take on a mythological story, whether it's a tragedy, a comic tragedy, a drama… The ancient Greeks, when you look at these plays, there's innocence, always trying to get experience too soon. There's intelligence or wisdom, knowledge. There's the ambiguous character who is the foil for all that. I looked at it. Oates was the wisdom, I am the ambiguity and the young kid's youth. Part of the dramatic prose of ancient Greeks is the tragedy of losing innocence. We lose it in a very graphic way, but not nearly as graphic as slow-motion shooting in Sam Peckinpah. Don't get me wrong: I love Sam, but I didn't even think of anybody else's shooting of any film once I got into this Western. This was unique in the way it was written. Then, I had a contact with things that I knew about that I studied in college, that I studied in prep school. I took so many years of Latin that there was no more Latin, so I moved to Greek. I was well-read in that mythology, so I had a lot of background to find it, and there it was for me. It was a dynamic trinity of youth and innocence, and youth dies–that's a tragedy. Ambiguity thinks that revenge is his and goes to take it. Wisdom and ambiguity hightail it out of there and go back to the garden. But the whole thing is, you can't go back to the garden. To put it in 1969 terms, because that's when I read the script, Joni Mitchell had already written the "Woodstock" song, the anthem: "We are stardust, we are golden." We are this and that, and we need to get ourselves back to the garden. In Greek drama, Shakespeare, Socrates, and Euripides, they talk about people wanting to get back, and it's a very dangerous thing to want to do. You can't go home again.