Peter Fonda, whose performance in 1969's Easy Rider cemented his role as one of Hollywood’s most recognizable countercultural icons, has died. An Oscar-nominated actor and writer with more than 100 credits to his name, Fonda’s career stretched across nearly 60 years of Hollywood history—despite frequently living his life in firm opposition to its restraints.
Born into the Fonda acting family (Henry was his father, and Jane his older sister), Fonda spent a few years trying his hand at conventional stardom, appearing in films like Sandra Lee’s Tammy And The Doctor. But the rom-com life was ill at ease with his pot-and-LSD-heavy outsider lifestyle, and so Fonda ended up drifting into the orbit of director and mega-producer Roger Corman who, if not precisely a kindred spirit, at least understood that Fonda represented a vast and untapped market of people operating on the fringes of Hollywood’s straight-laced society.
With 1966's Wild Angels and 1967's The Trip, Corman helped transform Fonda into a counter-culture hero, first as an untameable biker, and then as a man dipping into the world of acid for the very first time. Both films were hits, kicking off their own sub-genres of exploitation flicks, and introducing Fonda to folks like Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson, and Dennis Hopper. The latter meeting would flourish into a full-fledged partnership when Fonda conceived the idea for Easy Rider, which—unlike the Corman movies, in which bikers were as much threat to society as victims of its prejudices—would situate itself firmly within the biker’s nomadic worldview. With Hopper directing, and the two starring together (primarily in order to save money), the pair’s neo-Western became a massive success, kicking off a new era of Hollywood auteurs, and cementing both men (and co-star Nicholson) as instant icons.
In the years that followed, Fonda’s career would wax and wane with the changing tides of the industry; his directorial debut The Hired Hand, riding high on Easy Rider’s success, was dismissed by both audiences and critics. (Although modern viewers, better tuned into Fonda’s discursive, meandering headspace, have treated it far more kindly.) He picked up a sideline for a while in a variety of action films for directors like Jack Starrett and Val Guest, facing off against Satanists, killer robots, and other mainstay threats of 1970s genre cinema. His fortunes as a director pointedly did not improve, meanwhile; although there’s some lingering affection for his slow-burn dystopian sci-fi film Idaho Transfer, critics were much less forgiving of his decision to cast himself opposite 13-year-old love interest Brooke Shields in 1979's Wanda Nevada. (Also, as people are always quick to point out, the only time he ever acted opposite his famous father.)
But if Fonda seemed ill-at-ease with the changing times—with some of his most notable roles in these later eras trading on his image in not always flattering ways, as with the hostile biker he plays in 1981's Cannonball Run—he still found the occasional foothold from which to give an eye-catching performance. Most notable among these: 1997's Ulee’s Gold, in which Fonda’s restrained performance as a stoic Florida beekeeper wrestling with his family’s issues earned him the second Oscar nomination of his career.
Given his family connections, it was always a strong possibility that Peter Fonda was going to be a star. But it’s unlikely that anyone could have predicted the individualistic course he took to those lofty heights, leading the way for a whole generation of actors and directors more interested in making movies than in playing the Hollywood game. He’s also one of those figures who is almost impossible to detach from his public persona (suggesting, perhaps, that there was never much difference between the two to begin with); in a 2003 interview with us, he was discursive to an almost comical degree, answering a question about Easy Rider’s origins with a 2,000-word story that encompassed barefoot Hollywood premieres, Pablo Picasso, and (almost in passing) the sexual harassment of Jacqueline Bisset. It’s also blindingly honest stuff, pulling no punches about the wounded romanticism that lurked beneath the work, or Hopper’s eye as a visual stylist. Along the way, he drops this tidbit, which feels particularly apt today, on the day of his death from lung cancer:
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.
Fonda was 79.