Peter Fonda obituary: Easy Rider star and screenwriter

The actor carried on the Hollywood dynasty begun by his father, Henry Fonda

American actor Peter Fonda as Wyatt in the film Easy Rider, 1969. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

American actor Peter Fonda as Wyatt in the film Easy Rider, 1969. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

 

Peter Henry Fonda

Born: February 23rd, 1940

Died: August 16th, 2019

Peter Fonda, the tall, lanky actor who became a star and a counterculture sex symbol in the film Easy Rider, carrying on the Hollywood dynasty begun by his father, Henry Fonda, died on Friday in Los Angeles. He was 79.

The death was confirmed by his family, who said the cause was respiratory failure because of lung cancer.

During his acting and filmmaking career, Fonda earned two Oscar nominations, almost three decades apart. He shared, along with Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern, a best original screenplay nomination for Easy Rider, the story of two hippie bikers on a cross-country trip fuelled by drugs and the thrill of youthful freedom.

From the time Fonda made his first Broadway and television appearances in the early 1960s, his looks and style – piercing blue eyes, firm jaw and imposing frame – were inevitably compared to his father’s, and it seemed that he might be the breakout star of his generation. But his career cooled – while that of his sister, Jane Fonda, flourished – and his next appearance on the list of Oscar nominees was in 1997 for Ulee’s Gold. He was nominated for best actor for his role as a widowed beekeeper with grandchildren.

“Peter is all deep sweetness, kind and sensitive to his core,” Jane Fonda wrote in My Life So Far, her 2005 memoir. “He would never intentionally harm anything or anyone. In fact, he once argued with me that vegetables had souls. It was the ’60s.”

Peter Henry Fonda was born in Manhattan, the younger of two children of film star Henry Fonda and Florence Seymour (Brokaw) Fonda, a New York socialite. His mother died by suicide in 1950, when he was 10 and Jane was 13.

Less than a year later, Fonda shot himself in the stomach with a pistol. Interviewed by The New York Times decades later, he insisted that it was an accident, not a suicide attempt or even a warning. “You shoot yourself in the hand or foot if you want attention,” he said, “not the way I did.”

Like his sister, Fonda had a troubled childhood. In his 1998 memoir, Don’t Tell Dad, he chronicled his difficult, distant relationship with his famous father. Describing Henry’s role in John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) as “an unsmiling, bitter, strict hard-ass,” he added, “when people ask me what it was like growing up as Henry Fonda’s son, I ask them if they have seen Fort Apache”.

After attending the University of Nebraska, in his father’s home state, Fonda began his theatre career the old-fashioned way, in regional theatre. In 1960 he starred in The Golden Fleece at the Omaha Community Playhouse. His Broadway debut, only a year later, was in Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole, an army comedy for which he won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. He made his television debut in a 1962 episode of Naked City.

Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra in The Wild Angels, 1966. Photograph: Ronald Grant
Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra in The Wild Angels, 1966. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Hollywood saw him as a sort of male ingénue at first, casting him as a boyish, clean-cut physician in Tammy and the Doctor (1963), opposite Sandra Dee. He starred with Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg in Lilith (1964), a drama set at a psychiatric hospital. But it was a very different genre in which he seemed to find his true persona.

In 1967, Roger Corman, then the king of low-budget movies, directed The Trip from a script by an up-and-coming actor, Jack Nicholson. Alongside Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper and Susan Strasberg, Fonda starred as a mild-mannered television commercial director who uses LSD for the first time and makes the most of it. Easy Rider, which he also produced, came two years later.

Decades later, the Times asked him about his personal experience with the drug. “For me, it solved a great deal,” he said. “However, I didn’t take it and go out running through the city looking at lights. I was very circumspect and lay down on a couch.” Luckily, he added, “I don’t have an addictive character, and nothing except pot stayed with me.”

That period was the height of Fonda’s fame, but he maintained a busy screen career over the next 50 years. He starred in television movies, including The Passion of Ayn Rand (1999) and Back When We Were Grown-Ups (2004). His films included Futureworld (1976), Steven Soderbergh’s crime drama The Limey (1999) and the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma. His final film appearance was in The Last Full Measure, a war drama, scheduled to be released in October.

He had two children with his first wife, Susan Brewer, whom he married in 1961. They were divorced in 1974, and the following year he married Portia Rebecca Crockett. They were divorced in 2011, the same year he married Margaret DeVogelaere.

In addition to his wife and his sister, his survivors include a daughter, actress Bridget Fonda; a son, Justin Fonda; two stepsons, Thomas McGuane and Wills DeVogelaere; a stepdaughter, Lexi DeVogelaere; and one grandson.

Fonda appeared never to abandon his 1960s attitudes and openness, even as he prepared for the 50th anniversary this fall of Easy Rider, which will include a Radio City Music Hall screening. The “about” section of his current website includes this thought: “I believe that one is only truly free when learning, and one can only learn when one is free.”