Peter Fonda was always the black sheep of the Fonda family. Sure, Jane caused consternation with her political activities, but she still made respectable films, which was probably more important. Peter, though, he was the rebel, the counter-culture legend who worked with Roger Corman and made movies about bikers and drugs and probably always caused a silent shuffling of feet at the “what work have you done this year?” bit of the imaginary Christmas family gatherings. It goes without saying that he was cooler, and his films much more interesting, than anything father Henry, sister Jane or even daughter Bridget ever did.
Fonda had a somewhat forgettable acting career in his early twenties, before America, the world and Fonda in particular turned on, tuned in and dropped out. He was a long haired, acid-tripping rebel and mainstream Hollywood didn’t know what to do with someone like that. He hung out with rock bands like The Birds, met the Beatles and allegedly inspired one of their most famous tripped out lines: “I know what it’s like to be dead”. He took part in the riot on Sunset Strip and recorded a single – now much sought after – of songs by Gram Parsons and Donovan. In short, Fonda was cool.
And he took this cool into his acting work, when a collaboration with Roger Corman first led to him starring in pioneering biker classic The Wild Angels and then the extraordinary LSD drama The Trip, written by Jack Nicholson and long banned by po-faced British censors because they claimed it was effectively an advertisement for the drug (it was far from that in reality). Around the same time, he co-starred with his sister in the Roger Vadim segment of Poe-inspired portmanteau film Spirits of the Dead – he might have been better off in one of Corman’s Poe movies.
A year later, Fonda permanently established his counter culture credentials with Easy Rider, the film that took the underground (briefly) into mainstream respectability. As star, co-writer and producer, Fonda could theoretically have used the success of Easy Rider to propel himself into a conventional career, but he always remained somewhat on the outside. He appeared in Easy Rider director Dennis Hopper’s tripped out vanity project The Last Movie, and directed a strange western, The Hired Hand, which baffled critics at the time. He later directed The Idaho Transfer, an equally off-centre science fiction film that sunk like a stone and effectively put an end to his directorial career for years.
By this time, the counter culture was over and people like Fonda were somewhat adrift, the curse of being so closely associated with a now dead movement. He found himself reinvented as an action star in vaguely anti-establishment movies like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, the occult road movie Race With The Devil, 92 in the Shade, Killer Force, Fighting Mad and the underrated Westworld sequel Futureworld. All of these films have their merits and their problems, but none really felt quite mainstream – Fonda was still somehow on the edge of respectability.
His exploitation career continued in the 1980s, with sometimes interesting, sometimes disposable films like Dance of the Dwarfs, Spasms, Split Image and Certain Fury, and by this time was already being asked to parody his own image in Cannonball Run. But the 1990s saw something of a career revival as he moved towards arthouse and independent movies. The decade saw him appear in Ulee’s Gold, the David Lynch-produced Nadja, Bodies, Rest and Motion, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Stephen Soderbergh’s The Limey and Love and a .45. He also appeared in John Carpenter’s regrettable Escape from L.A. This ‘elder statesman of the esoteric’ career continued in the next decade, as he flipped between art films, the odd mainstream project and lots of exploitation that probably paid the bills. He kept working up until 2019.
Throughout it all, Fonda remained a biker – no mere Hollywood Angel, he. In 2002 he was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, and remained the leather-jacketed, still cool as fuck biker throughout his life. And he was as forthright in his later years as ever – in 2011 he made the documentary The Big Fix about the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and told Barak Obama that he was a “fucking traitor” for his part in hampering the investigation. Not that he was a supporter of Trump – in 2018, he suggested locking the President in a cage with paedophiles as punishment for the US immigration policy. His tweets were virulent and violent enough to have him investigated by the secret services. Perhaps realising that he had gone too far, Fonda deleted his tweets and apologised.
But such outbursts are perhaps what we want from our rebels – a dontgiveafuckery that we can admire even if we might shake our heads at what is being said. Just as we can forgive the crappy films, the moments where he might have seemed to sell out and the public spats with Dennis Hopper over authorship of Easy Rider, we can allow Fonda the right to spout off because ultimately, isn’t that what we want from our rebels? Bucking the system, not doing what we might expect (or want), living life their own way and saying what they think, however, immediate and ill-considered it might be? Fonda remained the counter-culture hero throughout his life, and did things his own way. We rather admire that, and he will be missed.