In this Jan 2, 2018 file photo, Peter Fonda presents the Desert Palm achievement award at the 29th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival, in Palm Springs, Calif. Photo: Invision/AP

'Easy Rider' star, 1960s swashbuckler Peter Fonda dies at 79


Actor Peter Fonda, the son of a Hollywood legend who became a movie star in his own right after both writing and starring in the counter-culture classic "Easy Rider," has died. His family said in a statement that Fonda died Friday morning at his home in Los Angeles. He was 79.

The official cause of death was respiratory failure due to lung cancer.

"I am very sad," Jane Fonda said in a statement. "He was my sweet-hearted baby brother. The talker of the family. I have had beautiful alone time with him these last days. He went out laughing."

Born into Hollywood royalty as Henry Fonda's only son, Peter Fonda carved his own path with his non-conformist tendencies and earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing the psychedelic road trip movie "Easy Rider." He would never win that golden statuette, but would later be nominated for his leading performance as a Vietnam veteran and widowed beekeeper in "Ulee's Gold."

Fonda was born in New York in 1940 to parents whose personas were the very opposite of the rebellious images their kids would cultivate. Father Henry Fonda was already a Hollywood giant, known for playing straight-shooting cowboys and soldiers. Mother Frances Ford Seymour was a Canadian-born U.S. socialite.

He was only 10 years old when his mother died. She had a nervous breakdown after learning of her husband's affair and was confined to a hospital. In 1950 she killed herself, slashing her throat with a razor. It would be about five years before Peter Fonda learned the truth behind her death.

Fonda accidentally shot himself and nearly died on his 11th birthday. It was a story he told often, including during an acid trip with members of The Beatles and The Byrds during which Fonda reportedly said, "I know what it's like to be dead."

John Lennon would use the line in the Beatles song "She Said She Said."

Fonda went to private schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut as a child, moving on to the University of Nebraska in his father's home state, joining the same acting group — the Omaha Community Playhouse — where Henry Fonda got his start.

He then returned to New York and joined the Cecilwood Theatre, getting small roles on Broadway and guest parts on television shows including "Naked City" and "Wagon Train."

Fonda had an estranged relationship with his father throughout most of his life, but said that they grew closer over the years before Henry Fonda died in 1982.

"Peter is all deep sweetness, kind and sensitive to his core. He would never intentionally harm anything or anyone. In fact, he once argued with me that vegetables had souls (it was the '60s)," his sister Jane Fonda said in her 2005 memoir. "He has a strange, complex mind that grasps and hangs on to details ranging from the minutiae of his childhood to cosmic matters, with a staggering amount in between. Dad couldn't appreciate and nurture Peter's sensitivity, couldn't see him as he was. Instead he tried to shame Peter into his own image of stoic independence."

Although Peter never achieved the status of his father or even his older sister, the impact of "Easy Rider," which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, was enough to cement his place in popular culture.

Fonda collaborated with another struggling young actor, Dennis Hopper, on the script about two weed-smoking, drug-slinging bikers on a trip through the Southwest as they made their way to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

On the way, Fonda and Hopper befriend a drunken young lawyer — Jack Nicholson in a breakout role — but raise the dander of Southern rednecks and are murdered before they can return home.

Fonda's character Wyatt wore a stars-and-stripes helmet and rode a motorcycle called "Captain America," re-purposing traditional images for the counter-culture.

Actress Illeana Douglas tweeted her condolences Friday with the hashtag "RIPCaptainAmerica."

"'Easy Rider' depicted the rise of hippie culture, condemned the establishment, and celebrated freedom," Douglas wrote. "Peter Fonda embodied those values and instilled them in a generation."

Fonda had played bikers before "Easy Rider." In the 1966 Roger Corman-directed "Wild Angels," in which he plays Heavenly Blues, leader of a band of Hells Angels, Fonda delivers a speech that could've served as both a personal mantra and a manifesto for the youth of the '60s.

"We wanna be free!" Fonda tells a preacher in the film. "We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man! And we wanna get loaded!"

Fonda produced "Easy Rider" and Hopper directed it for a meager $380,000. It went on to gross $40 million worldwide, a substantial sum for its time.

The film was a hit at Cannes, netted a best-screenplay Oscar nomination for Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern, and has since been listed on the American Film Institute's ranking of the top 100 American films. The establishment gave its official blessing in 1998 when "Easy Rider" was included in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

In 1969, he told The Associated Press that, "As for my generation, it was time they started doing their own speaking. There has been too much of the 'silent majority' — at both ends of the generation gap."

Although he did reflect later in a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter that it may have impacted his career prospects: "It certainly put a nail in the coffin of 'the next Dean Jones at Disney.'"

Fonda's output may have been prolific, but was not always well-regarded which he was acutely aware of. But he said that "Ulee's Gold," which came out in 1997, was the "most fun" he'd ever had making a movie. He wore the same wire-rimmed glasses his father wore in "On Golden Pond," although he said beyond that he was not channeling Henry Fonda in the performance. He lost out on the Oscar to Nicholson, who won for "As Good as It Gets."

Nicholson said in his acceptance speech that it as an honor to be nominated alongside "my old bike pal Fonda."

He remained prolific for the rest of his life with notable performances performances as the heel in Steven Soderbergh's "The Limey," from 1999, and in James Mangold's 2007 update of "3:10 to Yuma." He'd even play himself in an episode of the spoof documentary series "Documentary Now!" about life as "an Oscar Bridesmaid."

Fonda is survived by his third wife, Margaret DeVogelaere, his daughter, actress Bridget Fonda and son, Justin, both from his first marriage to Susan Brewer.

"In one of the saddest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our hearts," the family said in a statement. "As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy."

© Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

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When I was a kid, Peter Fonda in Easy Rider was the epitome of cool.

Some people think that movie was just a movie of the day, that it doesn't have much depth, that it's of no relevance today. In my opinion it was a deep and dark exploration of the American psyche that is still relevant today (watched it again just a couple of years ago) and it's certainly no idealization or glamorization of the hippie culture of the time. And Jack Nicholson was a standout in it.

All that, plus Dennis Hopper and a fabulous soundtrack - The Byrds, Steppenwolf, Hendrix...

Thanks for the movie, Peter.

14 ( +15 / -1 )

The real life 'Captain America'. iSad. RIP Peter. You and Dennis Hopper changed the way movies were made.

12 ( +13 / -1 )

You gotta be kidding. I mean, you know who this is, man? This is Captain America. I'm Billy.

RIP Mr Fonda!

10 ( +11 / -1 )

Yeah, I remember Easy Rider. I liked his father’s movies too, especially Grapes of Wrath from depression years. So, it was sad for me to learn from this that Peter’s mother had a nervous breakdown from learning of Peter’s father’s extramarital affair. And that she later killed herself with a razor blade to her throat. This was more shocking than the news of Peter’s death. He was only 10 when he lost his mother. Not sure if he knew why.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

"We wanna be free!" Fonda tells a preacher in the film. "We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man! And we wanna get loaded!"

RIP, dude.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Strange, last night Easy Rider came into my dreams. After watching a movie with Anjelica Huston---Jack Nicholson----Peter Fonda----Easy Rider.

What's one ride I would have liked to take.

6 ( +6 / -0 )


In my opinion it was a deep and dark exploration of the American psyche that is still relevant today

I'll plus 1 you on that. You are right. Although it used the metaphors of hippies and bikers it was not about them, it was about the American Dream and how it had gone bad. That was what the early interviews were always about.

Funny, the conservative elements within American biking are still out using it to hate Jane Fonda in public, even though her brother just died.

It was a tremendously seminal piece, specifically for its use of rock music in the score and broke the mould of Hollywood opening the doors for independent movies.

Two asides not generally discussed about it. The first was that motorcycle (choppers) were actually styled and created by African-American rider mechanics. That was hidden for many decades due to the racist nature of the American Harley riding market and they never got their credit.

Secondly, it was also a breakout role for Toni Basil who played Mary the Hooker and her career and influence is worth looking into. She's also never for credited for it. Basil was in Hopper's artistic circle and starred in the Bruce Conner short films that inspire him in Easy Rider. Basil deserves to be up there with the like of Yoko Ono for her cultural influence.

8 ( +10 / -2 )

Mr. Fonda shed light on some of the problems within American society.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

The comments here will probably show the typical division on JT.

No thanks to you Ms. Bahr and Mr. Dalton for droning on about a third rate actor and including comments from his 4th rate actress sister. If it weren’t for the skill and well merited fame of the great Henry Fonda, Peter would have spent his life flipping burgers if that.

He’s dead now and that’s a tragedy for someone. However, it’s no loss to the world of entertainment.

Go ahead, posters, and press your finger straight through the “-“ button.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

I saw “Easy Rider” with two long-haired, dope-smoking friends when it premiered. Talking afterwards through a haze from burning weed the comments - when more than a syllable or two long - were very favorable. They were mostly of the “my confrontations with rednecks” variety (and I know from experience there were such occurrences).

Less than ten years later these guys were laughing their behinds off at the pretentious of the story plus the terrible acting (except for Jack Nicholson).

”Easy Rider” a classic? Of sorts.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

I saw Easy Rider in San Francisco nearly a half century ago. In front of me was an older woman who was rocking back and forth with the music like a spaced-out hippie...As I remember it, the movie begins with the protagonists selling white stuff to a young and rich Middle-Easterner in a limo. The two take the money, toss their wristwatches, and head off on their motorcycles for adventure. I suppose that for almost everyone in that Bay Area audience, there was nothing immoral about peddling drugs. (Morallity? Nah, just be cool!) At the end, which I did not expect, the woman in front of me was weeping in rage and grief...Yeah, ya know, like, uh, total redneck fascism, man, total redneck fascism! I later heard that in the demonized South there was applause at the end, as though two Orcs had been dispatched...Even back then America was polarized. I was then a foolish man of the left. Now I'm an old man of the right--grateful to have spent most of my life in Japan.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Regardless of whether EasyRider was a "good" movie for you or not, it certainly defined an era with it's gritty soundtrack, out-of-bounds characters and dealings with themes such as drugs, discrimination, freedom, violence/peace etc. It was way cool before cool was way cool.

Although it could only have been made at that time - late 60s - it still packs a punch for US reality today. The superficialities may have changed, but much of the content still resonates within society today.

And it was made for a spit, setting up the way for the Indie Industry to grow.

Captain America and Billy.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Ooops - Capn America & Billy's link didn't show. The Original Trailer.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Alfie NoakesToday 11:32 am JST"We wanna be free!" Fonda tells a preacher in the film. "We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man! And we wanna get loaded!"

RIP, dude.

I just recently went on a long vacation, which I hadn't done in years. At the hotel I stayed in Quebec City, as well as Portland, Maine there were bikers galore - men and women. Going thru PQ, in the gorgeous state of Maine, thruout New England I saw biker clubs out on Route 95. They were not outlaw gangs but diverse clubs with their affiliation on their backs - New York, New England, Harley-Davison etc. Multi-racial clubs, bikers riding with their women, veteran bikers, gay bikers, you name it. What was it all about? When I arrived in Boston there was a huge biker rally at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough to honor the 6 bikers who were killed by a DUI semi truck driver in New Hampshire. Those 5 biker men and one 'chopper chick' were riding free and were killed by an irresponsible truck driver with a record of several drunk driving offenses.

The biker culture lives on and the legacy continues. RIP PETER FONDA

4 ( +4 / -0 )

If it weren’t for the skill and well merited fame of the great Henry Fonda, Peter would have spent his life flipping burgers if that.

Sure. It could have been that way. But then people play the cards they're dealt with, don't they? If it wasn't for who their daddies were, George W Bush would have spent his life selling cars, and Donald J Trump would've been a real estate salesman. You can go round and round playing that game.

Peter Fonda, along with Dennis Hopper, made a great movie that affected many people and continues to be well-regarded to this day. That's an achievement to be proud of, whether or not you're the son (or daughter) of a famous person.

Oh, and I haven't "-" buttoned you, man. That wouldn't be cool.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

ER was a pioneering indie that showcased the weary, disenchanted young generation's rejection of the morality and values of war-mongering Amerika. I still remember walking out of the cinema as a young man exhilarated and thrilled by this iconic Road Movie with its rebellious, counter-culture soundtrack of music "sacred" to my generation. This fresh, novel experience of cinema simply overpowered the indisputable ham-acting of all but Jack Nicholson, the break-out star. The sudden, shockingly violent ending graphically depicted the curse of America's gun violence and the cultural fault-lines of a divided, polarized society that to this day continue to characterize the USA of the corrupt mega-corporations, the NRA and Trump's bleating minions. And yes, in the end, Peter Fonda "blew it", too, as we all do.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Its been years since I've seen Easy Rider. Always found it quite shocking, the denouement. Seems apt, now more than ever.

Also liked Fonda in The Limey. Although his character was a sleaze.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

"I am very sad," Jane Fonda said in a statement. "He was my sweet-hearted baby brother. The talker of the family. I have had beautiful alone time with him these last days. He went out laughing."

Can't ask for more than that.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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