Actor Peter Fonda died Friday at his home at age 79. Tribune entertainment editor Sarah Linn interviewed the Hollywood legend about a decade ago, when he received the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival’s highest honor. Here’s the article, originally published on March 13, 2008.
“He really is the essence of cool.”
Those are the words of Wendy Eidson, festival director of the San Luis Obispo Film Festival.
“Cool” is probably the best word to describe “Easy Rider” star Peter Fonda, whose laidback California drawl, laced with’ 60s slang, marks him as a natural storyteller. He’s a 20th century icon — a movie maverick.
Fonda will attend the film festival Saturday as the recipient of the King Vidor Career Achievement Award, which honors excellence in filmmaking.
Part of the famed Fonda family of actors, which includes father Henry, sister Jane and daughter Bridget, Peter Fonda gave a voice to the American counterculture as a freedom-loving biker in “Easy Rider.”
His directorial debut, “The Hired Hand,” put a new twist on westerns with its quiet, powerful story of a man returning to the wife he abandoned years before.
In 1997, Fonda won fresh accolades for “Ulee’s Gold,” playing a stoic, yet loving beekeeper. He won a Golden Globe and received an Oscar nomination for the role.
Fonda’s recent films include “Ghost Rider,” “Wild Hogs” and “3:10 to Yuma.”
“He’s still cool and still has a good reputation. That’s something to be revered in that business,” Eidson said, calling Peter Fonda’s most famous flick “timeless.”
“It’s just got a great mellow’60s kind of feeling to it. It represents the era very well,” she added. “It really does show that he was ahead of his time and a trendsetter to a lot of filmmakers out there.”
Fonda, 68, recently spoke to The Tribune about movies, acting and his lifelong love affair with motorcycles.
Q: How did “Easy Rider” come about?
A: I wrote the story. I was in Toronto, Canada, selling a film, and the idea popped in my head while I was signing autographs back in my room.
I called Dennis Hopper from Toronto. It was 4:30 in the morning for me, 1:30 for Hopper. I said, “I’ll be coming back into town tomorrow afternoon. Will you meet me at the house?” David Crosby was there by the pool with a guitar and a few friends, playing. When I told him the story he said, “That’s great.” And Dennis came in and I made the offer to him to direct it.... (Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern shared an Oscar nomination for screenwriting.)
I didn’t realize it would become as iconic as it did. What (that status) did for the movie and what it did for me were pretty dramatic.
Q: What challenges did you face in getting “Easy Rider” off the ground?
A: Even though people said, “You can’t do that” and “Nobody’s going to come and see that film,” I never even took it seriously. I thought, ‘Well they’re crazy. Of course people are will come to see this film. It’s a dynamic story.’
(They said) “You can’t do that. Your heroes can’t be smuggling narcotics.”
The old Hollywood standard was, if you do something nasty you have to pay retribution in the end. Well, yeah, we get whacked at the end of “Easy Rider” but it had nothing to do with what we did at the front of “Easy Rider.”
People were lulled by the beautiful rides and great music and the little incisive things about our citizenry and our freedom, and by the time they got to the end they totally forgot about the beginning ...
Q: How long have you had this love affair with motorcycles?
A: Since I was 18. Actually, since I was 15 and saw my first cool motorcycles in Rome. Every kid thinks about putting an engine in a bike. You put the playing cards on the frame of the bike so they make noise as the spokes of the wheel go by, and it sounds like a motor ....
I built the bikes for “Easy Rider.” Bought them from an auction by (the Los Angeles Police Department). I think the irony that those are LA cop bikes is very interesting. They were built by me and five friends of mine from Watts, so we’re going really politically incorrect.
It’s almost a rule now: When anybody makes a movie about bikes, you have to be in it.
Some of the bike movies are pretty iffy now, although I did a really quick appearance in “Wild Hogs.” I told them they couldn’t use my name in the advertisements. So it was a surprise when the audience went in there. Apparently they cheered, and laughed, so that was kinda cool.
Q: You also had a cameo as Mephistopheles in “Ghost Rider.”
A: Everybody thought I’d be riding. I said, “No, no, I just create the cycle. I don’t have to ride it.”
When I was there, I bought this MV Agusta, which is an incredible Italian motorcycle, a crotch rocket, we call them. Rode all over Australia with that thing....
Very often it’s in my contract, “Don’t ride while filming.” They forgot to put it in my contract for “Ghost Rider” and, of course, I rode it right down on the set. They couldn’t stop me. I said, “I’m a great rider. I don’t want to screw up this important part.”
Q: What’s one of the best parts about being a biker?
A: There’s no traffic for me, with this Italian rocket I’ve got. I go right between the cars, to ahead of the stop sign. All the traffic jams that happen around here, they’re not a problem to me.
Other people can handle me walking into a meeting with my motorcycle togs, or they can’t. It’s more fun to do that than ride in a Ferrari, ‘cause I can park the motorcycle right out front. (laughs) Get in their face.
Q: You mentioned watching your father, Henry Fonda, on the set of “War and Peace” with King Vidor.
A: I was on that set as a little 15-year-old kid. I had no idea this is what I was going to do.
I liked performing in the plays that we had put on in school, and for the governesses. ...
But I didn’t know about the job, I didn’t know I was going to be interested in doing it.
And then once I did, I was out there on that limb thinking, “Oh my god, here I am sawing if off behind me. Oh great. This is a wonderful way of having a stress-free career.” (chuckles)
Q: At what point did you realize you were serious about acting?
A: A couple things happened. I was in “Harvey,” I played Elwood P. Dowd. I was 19, I looked about 12. How I got the role I’ll never know, but I made people laugh, which was fun.
The next thing that hit me, was that I was at the University of Omaha. We put on Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” I played the drunken choir master. I come out in my most drunken moment ... I hear this whisper coming from the audience, “Oh my god. Poor Harriet. He’s drunk!” (laughs) Far out.
I went back to my Aunt Harriet’s house, where she was waiting up for me. She said, ‘Oh Peter, you won’t believe what happened to me.” I said, “(Your friend) called you and told you I was drunk on stage.”
“You’re not upset, are you?”
I said, “Are you kidding, Harriet? That’s fantastic. I made her believe I was drunk? I love this.” That’s when I consciously decided, I better learn about this stuff.
Q: One of your tenets is “Acting is a verb, not a noun.” Explain.
A: You don’t want to be an actor. You want to act. Because you can drive cars and live in Beverly Hills and wear clothes and do affections as if you are an actor. You can say, “I want to be a poet,” and put on a white cable-knit sweater and go to an Irish pub and drink beer. But that doesn’t mean you can write poetry.
As I pointed this out to my daughter upon graduation when she said, “Dad, I want to be an actor.” I looked at her. I said, “Don’t you ever say that again.” “Dad!” “It’s a verb not a noun.”
Q: What advice did you give your children about working in the film industry?
A: I did say to Bridget, “You can do this (but) you have to get used to being slapped around because your last name is Fonda. You have to get above that.”
My son, he entered the business as a cameraman. And I encouraged him. I said, “Justin, your impact won’t be as hard but you’re still my son and Henry’s grandson. ... They’ll expect you to be professional, and I expect you to be professional.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I just want to keep working. Fortunately for me, I continue to get work. Did you see the movie “Waking Ned Devine”? Look at that old geezer naked on a motorcycle. Shoot, I can do this until I’m in my 80s at least. What if I can’t walk? Well, Lionel Barrymore did it all in a wheelchair ....
I would like to hear it go down this way: “Cut. Print, OK, that’s a wrap on the film.” “What happened to Fonda?” “Oh he’s turning gray.”
The curtain drops, I drop. The curtain rises up again, I don’t get up. Whatever it is, I’d like to complete it, and then, “ack.” ... I don’t want to slip over the side without having done that.