Family & Companions
Known as Peter Honda in Japan for all his motorcycle commercials filmed and aired there
Some sources list 1940 as his birth year.
Possessing his father's piercing blue eyes, Peter Fonda also inherited his old man's talent, but not the same level of drive and commitment that passed on to older sister Jane. Still, the stubbornness and tenacity that enabled the black sheep of the Fonda acting dynasty to fashion an iconic career as the quintessential 1960s "hippie," also kept him focused into the 21st Century, where, long after Jane's "retirement," he continued to come into his own as an actor of quiet restraint to rival even his famously taciturn father. For many, he would always be Captain America, the spaced-out cat in "Easy Rider" (1969), the low-budget motorbikes-and-drugs road movie that perfectly captured the Zeitgeist of its day and made Fonda, as producer, "filthy rich." To another younger generation, he was simply Bridget Fonda's dad, but there were still chapters yet to be written, having survived the classic "dysfunctional" family and putting the substance abuse of his youth behind him.
Born Feb. 23, 1940 in New York, NY to his famous father, actor Henry Fonda and financier Frances Ford Seymour, Fonda was the younger brother of big sis, Jane. Tragically, his mother took her own life when he was just 10 and on his 11th birthday, he accidentally shot himself - nearly dying as well. As he grew older, the tormented Fonda traded his Eastern boarding school existence for the Midwestern stability of his Aunt Harriet and Uncle Jack's Omaha, Nebraska - Henry Fonda's hometown. It was there that he first gravitated to the stage, acting in the same community playhouse that had once nurtured his father, before quickly moving to Broadway in 1961 and starring as the earnest Private Ogletorpe of "Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole." He also acted in a 1962 episode of ABC's "Naked City" while in New York, and for the next few years, alternated between NYC and Hollywood, progressing from the boy-next-door of his feature debut, "Tammy and the Doctor" (1963), to the rebel biker of Roger Corman's "The Wild Angels" (1966). En route, he delivered a strong portrayal of a neurotic infatuated with Jean Seberg's "Lilith" (1963) - but it was his second picture with Corman - "The Trip" (1967) - which laid the groundwork for filmmaking history, introducing him to Jack Nicholson (its screenwriter) and Dennis Hopper, whose intuitive, improvisatory approach to acting had allegedly led to an eight-year exile from Hollywood.
Co-written by Fonda, Hopper - who also directed and co-starred - and Terry Southern, "Easy Rider" boasted a great soundtrack of late 1960s rock music and featured a 16mm LSD sequence, during which Hopper coaxed Fonda up on a headstone in a New Orleans cemetery to confront his real mother's 1950 suicide ("Mother, why did you?"). Remembering the catharsis later, he said, "That was it. That was the high point of the whole thing. That was real tears, real time, a real question." Hailed by critics, "Easy Rider" earned a bundle and sent Hollywood studios scrambling to duplicate its uniqueness; the resulting shake-up opening the door to a new generation of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Though Nicholson stole the show as the wealthy alcoholic who joins the two rebels on their sojourn, Fonda's marketability soared, and for nearly a decade, he starred in B-movies made on the strength of his name. Ironically, the hippie-capitalist's salary was always a third to a half of the total budget. The pictures invariably suffered, and his reputation for being difficult ("You know, I didn't play the game in town") precluded his working with better talent in bigger-budget pics.
Fonda and Hopper reteamed on Hopper's virtually incomprehensible and pretentious "The Last Movie" (1971), but a falling out over "Easy Rider" profits made Hopper's name taboo around Fonda's Montana digs. He branched into directing at the helm of a critically-acclaimed commercial failure - the offbeat Western "The Hired Hand" (1971) - opting to step far away from his Captain America pose, as a cowboy who g s to work for the wife (Verna Bloom) he had deserted seven years before. His foray into experimental sci-fi, "Idaho Transfer" (1973), taught him never to again invest his own money in a directing project, and "Wanda Nevada" (1979), his last film as director, gave him the only opportunity of his career to work with his father. Convinced that the beard he was wearing looked fake, the older Fonda insisted his son shoot him from a distance, but Peter's response was to throw some dirt and spit licorice juice in his father's face to weather his countenance.
Fonda enjoyed a memorable turn in the non-stop actioner "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" (1974), stealing money for a competition sports car, then careening around rural California accompanied by Susan George with a demonic officer of the law (Vic Morrow) in hot pursuit. He also delivered the goods as a fishing boat captain duking it out with a nemesis (Warren Oates) in Thomas McGuane's "92 in the Shade" (1975), and as an investigative reporter in "Futureworld" (1976), the strong sequel to 1973's "Westworld." Fonda was back on a bike for the pointless moneymaker "Cannonball Run" (1981) and the 1983 epic "Dance of the Dwarfs," in which he was a drunken helicopter pilot searching for a lost pygmy tribe - both of which epitomized the decline in quality of his projects. There were starring turns in two 1983 foreign films ("Peppermint Frieden" from West Germany; "All Right, My Friend" from Japan), followed by forgettable titles like "Certain Fury" (1985) and "Mercenary Fighters" (1987)- making "The Rose Garden" (1989) look like an inspired choice by comparison. His contributions to the script of "Fatal Mission" (1990), in which he starred as a gung-ho war hero, failed to save that promising film from its disastrous final reel.
Things started to turn around for Fonda with his understated portrayal of the vampire hunting Van Helsing in Michael Almereyda's quirky "Nadja" (1994), but his big break came when Nick Nolte passed on the leading role in Victor Nunez's "Ulee's Gold" (1997). Fonda gave the performance of his life as an emotionally crippled beekeeper raising his granddaughters and experiencing romance with a divorcee (Patricia Richardson), drawing raves and reminding people of the kind of decent yet stoic loner that his father made a career of playing. Looking through the lens, Nunez could see the elder Fonda in the son's drooping shoulders and flat-footed walk. The actor described his technique to USA Today: "It's like a little pond, no movement on the surface, so you can look down. If I overdramatize, it would disturb the surface. You won't see the depth." Fonda followed up this career highlight with a starring turn as Gideon Prosper, a man blinded by sorrow over the death of his wife, in "The Tempest" (1998), NBC's novel Civil War take on the Shakespeare classic, and gave an even more nuanced (and Emmy-nominated) turn as the passive, pitiful spouse of Ayn Rand (Helen Mirren) in "The Passion of Ayn Rand" (Showtime, 1999).
Fonda teamed with fellow 1960s icon Terrence Stamp in Steven Soderbergh's "Point Blank"-like revenge thriller "The Limey" (1999), which used elements from both actors' real-life pasts in improvisational moments during filming. The director's virtuoso editing style paid homage to the Godardian New Wave jump-cutting that inspired the original "Point Blank," and Fonda had a blast patterning his corrupt Hollywood record exec after some of the self-absorbed industry types whose paths he had crossed. He also got a chance to play opposite Thomas the Tank Engine in Britt Allcroft's live-action adaptation "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" (2000), creating a convincing grandpop for the children who frequented Shining Time Station.
Fonda was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003 and in 2007, finally returned to the big screen in a pair of well-received supporting roles. Still first on the wish list for any motorcycle-related film, he co-starred with Nicholas Cage in an adaptation of the Marvel Comic "Ghost Rider" (2007) playing villain Mephistopheles with an unsettling, understated coolness that brilliantly contrasted the roar of the hero's engine. Fonda took on another bad guy in the James Mangold remake of "3:10 to Yuma," co-starring with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. The character-driven Western featured Fonda as career killer Byron McElroy who gives Crowe's Ben Wade cause to reconsider his own path. The film opened at number one at the box office and critics hailed it among the best of the season's slew of Westerns. On August 16, 2019 Fonda died at age 79 from respiratory failure due to lung cancer.
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Survived a near-fatal gunshot wound while horsing around with an antique .22 pistol nine months after his mother's suicide
First stage lead in "The Golden Fleece" at the Omaha Community Playhouse; the same theater where his father first stated acting
Broadway acting debut, "Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole"
Made TV debut in an episode of "Naked City" (ABC)
Feature acting debut, "Tammy and the Doctor"
Played a young man who commits suicide in Robert Rossen's "Lilith"
First film with Roger Corman, "The Wild Angels"
Re-teamed with Corman for "The Trip"; written by Jack Nicholson and starred Dennis Hopper
Only film with sister Jane, Roger Vadim's "Metzengerstein" segment of "Spirits of the Dead"
First film as producer and co-screenwriter, "Easy Rider"; directed by and co-starring Hopper; shared an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay
Directorial debut, "The Hired Hand"; starred Warren Oates and produced by William Hayward (son of Henry Fonda's first wife Margaret Sullavan)
Re-teamed with Hopper for "The Last Movie"
Directed second film, "Idaho Transfer"; produced by William Hayward
Played a race driver in "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry"
Starred in two movies with Oates, "Race with the Devil" and "92 in the Shade"
Starred in Richard T. Heffron's "Futureworld"
Directed by Jonathan Demme in "Fighting Mad"; produced by Corman
Re-teamed with Heffron on "Outlaw Blues"
Directed and co-starred with father in "Wanda Nevada"; last directing project to date and only film acted with his father
TV-movie debut, "The Hostage Tower" (CBS)
Played father to Rick Schroder in "A Reason to Live" (NBC)
Contributed to screenplay and starred in "Fatal Mission"
Had cameo role as a motorcycle rider in "Bodies, Rest and Motion"; starred daughter Bridget
Hosted "Harley Davidson - The American Motorcycle" (TBS)
Played duel roles of Van Helsing and Dracula in Michael Almereyda's "Nadja"
Played a beekeeper raising his grandchildren in "Ulee's Gold"; earned an Academy Award nomination
Played Gideon Prosper in NBC's Civil War era take on Shakespeare's "The Tempest"
Delivered a slick turn as a corrupt record executive in "The Limey"
Portrayed the novelist's husband in the Showtime drama, "The Passion of Ayn Rand"; earned an Emmy nomination
Portrayed Grandpa Burnett Stone in Britt Allcroft's live-action adaption, "Thomas and the Magic Railroad"
Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Co-starred with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in James Mangold's western, "3:10 to Yuma"
Known as Peter Honda in Japan for all his motorcycle commercials filmed and aired there
Some sources list 1940 as his birth year.
Fonda, the host of "Harley Davidson--The American Motorcycle" (TBS, 1993), still enjoys riding his Harley and tries to do at least one 3000-mile ride a year. Unfortunately, he had to cancel a planned millennial ride from Paris to Vladivostok when his safety couldn't be guaranteed in Russian bandit country.
"I stepped onto the stage of the Morosco Theater in 1961 for a Wednesday matinee of 'Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole'. I was in front of all the blue-haired ladies who come up from Philadelphia, and I could hear the murmuring: 'He looks like his father.'" --Fonda quoted in the Daily News, June 11, 1997
"People ask me... what it was like ... with Henry Fonda as my father. I say, 'Ever see "Fort Apache" (1948)? He was like Colonel Thursday at the table every day.' Jane'd say to me, 'What did you do?' I'd say, 'I didn't do anything. What is he so angry about?' 'I don't know.' But he wasn't angry at us. He was so painfully shy, and here he had two children and he didn't know how to relate to them, and it drove him inside more and more, and, as far as we were concerned, it created a facade of silent terror. It took us years to find out that he loved us very much, because it was hard for him to express it. He was a good actor because he could take that repressed emotion onstage or in front of the camera and say how he felt about things and be this person he couldn't be in his normal life. It was very hard for audiences to understand that. When Jane and I spoke out, they thought, 'What ungrateful children ...'" --quoted in Interview, June 1997.
About the special gift future wife Becky gave him on his 35th birthday: "It was her childhood copy of E.B. White's 'Stuart Little'. I couldn't talk, I was weeping so hard. Nobody in my fuckin' family knew that Stuart was a genuine hero, a mouse born into a regular family, and it all worked. It was a family as it's supposed to be. I used to think, I'm fuckin' Stuart Little. If Stuart can do it, I can do it. So I asked myself, 'What woman gives a grown man her childhood book?' And the answer was, 'The woman you're supposed to be with.'" --Fonda to Peter Biskind in Premiere, July 1997
Remembering the first time his father verbalized his love: "We both walked slowly to the front door. Once outside, he took me by the shoulders. It was as if he were pushing me away and at the same time drawing me close. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. Slowly and choking on the high-powered emotion, he said, 'I love you very much son. I want you to know that.'"I hugged him so hard, I could feel the pacemaker in his chest. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I told him I loved him very much and kissed him on his lips. Something we had never done before. I quickly drove off, stopping at a nearby park to have the good hard cry I needed. Years of frustration fell off my heart like melting snow sliding off a roof." --From "Don't Tell Dad" by Peter Fonda, excerpted in People, March 16, 1998
On Hollywood's prevailing attitude toward him in the years since "Easy Rider": "'Fonda? That sonuvabitch? Isn't he up there in Montana just loaded on his ranch?' Well, no, I wasn't. I took drugs but I wasn't a druggie. I made an average of 1.3 films a year. Some were, you know, bad. But I did my job well. My father took everything he was offered. I'm sure he wasn't thrilled about being in 'The Swarm', but there he was." --Fonda to Bruce Weber in The New York Times Magazine, March 22, 1998
"Peter has gone through some difficult times. I equate it with tempering of steel. He emerged stronger and more flexible. He was always a fine actor and is now demonstrating the ability to be a finer actor than ever before." --Roger Corman quoted in USA Today, March 23, 1998
Of his character in "Ulee's Gold": "Three pages in, I knew I could be this guy. I'd sat at the dinner table with him all those years ago. I understood his depth, I knew his sadness. I knew what I'd studied in 36 years in motion pictures would come together to help me create him." --Fonda to the London Times, March 30, 1998
About the inspiration for "Easy Rider": "I was a little bit loaded, and I looked at a picture that had been left on the table for me to sign for somebody's cousin. It was a photograph from 'The Wild Angels' of me and Bruce Dern on a chop. I looked at the photo for a while and then thought about what I would look like if, instead of two guys on one cycle, I had each of the guys on a bike." --Fonda quoted in Neon, May 1998