Peter Fonda: Actor, Director, Rebel and Anti-Establishment Guru

The Fonda family represents some of the best actors in Hollywood


Back in the 1960s Peter Fonda seemed about as hip and popular as any actor in America. He’d starred in many popular motion pictures such as The Wild Angels, The Trip and Easy Rider, all of which made for the young audience that dominated American pop culture back in those heady times.

Into the 1970s Peter Fonda continued making cutting edge motion pictures, though often picking ones he thought needed to be made, rather than ones designed to reap box office profits. Peter liked money as much as anyone, though it wasn’t his reason for being.

Over the years and decades, Peter has also associated with celebrities such as Mick Jagger, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, the Beatles, David Crosby, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson and, of course, his older sister, Jane Fonda.

The following article is mostly based on the memories about which Peter wrote in his autobiography, Don’t Tell Dad, published in 1998.


Henry Fonda
Henry Fonda
Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda
With Nancy Sinatra in "The Wild Angels"
With Nancy Sinatra in "The Wild Angels"
Peter's famous biker poster
Peter's famous biker poster
Jane Fonda as Barbarella
Jane Fonda as Barbarella
Peter's daughter, Bridget Fonda
Peter's daughter, Bridget Fonda

Born in New York City


Peter Fonda was born in February 1940, the same year as Ringo Starr and John Lennon, incidentally. At this time, Henry Fonda, Peter’s father, was starring in the movie, The Return of Frank James.

* * *

When Peter was a young boy, he often did outdoor chores with his father’s movie friends and associates, guys like John Ford, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Ward Bond and Randolph Scott.

* * *

When people asked Peter what it was like growing up with his father, Henry Fonda, Peter would ask them if they’d ever seen the movie Fort Apache. In this western, Henry Fonda plays the part of Colonel Thursday, an “unsmiling, bitter, strict hard-ass,” as Peter describes the character in his book.

* * *

When Peter attended an all-boy boarding school in the early 1950s, he played a part in the female chorus for the musical, The Pirates of Penzance, and for this performance he acquired the nickname “Fairy Fonda.” Thereafter, Peter vowed to never again play the part of a woman.

* * *

By the summer of 1955, Marlon Brando had become a close friend of the Fonda family. On a flight to Europe, where Brando and Dean Martin would star in The Young Lions, Peter listened to Brando tell stories during the long flight, while Dean Martin slipped him beers.

* * *

While attending high school, Peter suffered from depression, nightmares and thoughts of suicide, for which the school doctor prescribed phenobarbital, a notoriously addictive narcotic. Peter also smoked cigarettes and drank vodka, both of which he often stashed in his room in the dormitory.

Then, one day, Peter simply quit school, though he later attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

* * *

While blitzed on the local wine, Peter Fonda took part in the famous Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Somehow, Peter beat the bulls to the arena without getting gored or killed!

* * *

For one of Peter’s first acting gigs, he played Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, a stage play production at the university.

* * *

Peter thought his mother, Frances Seymour Fonda (his father’s second wife), had died of a heart attack in 1950. Then Peter later learned in 1960 that she had actually committed suicide in an insane asylum. Peter was enraged because he hadn’t been told the truth about his mother’s demise for ten years!

* * *

Four days after Peter had opened in a Broadway play at the Morosco Theater in NYC, he married Susan Jane Brewer. Interestingly, they paid Peter $290 per week to act in the play, Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole, also starring Darren McGavin.

* * *

By the middle 1960s, Peter began acting in movies and TV shows. After looking good in an episode of the TV drama, Naked City, Peter tried out for the part of JFK in PT109, but he flunked the screen test, because he refused to play JFK with a Bostonian accent!

* * *

With the help of Jim Mitchum, actor Robert Mitchum’s oldest son, Peter smoked bhang (marijuana) for the first time. Peter liked the high very much. His wife smoked some too but didn’t like it.

* * *

When Peter was tested for the selective service draft, the psychiatrist asked him questions about his mother’s suicide. Becoming agitated whenever somebody even mentioned suicide, Peter spit in the psychiatrist’s face and left the building. He was given a draft status of 1Y, which meant he could be re-evaluated every year to see if he was suitable for military service and perhaps sent to fight in the Vietnam War.

* * *

While preparing for a role in the movie, The Victors, Peter got drunk with fellow actor George Preppard. And, at one point, Preppard, distraught, began talking about killing himself, and he had a loaded gun with which to do it. Peter suggested they both use the gun to kill themselves - one at a time - but Preppard refused.

* * *

Tragically, in 1965, Peter’s good friend Eugene Francis McDonald III, a.k.a. Stormy, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. The sheriff, suggesting that Peter and Stormy could have been homosexual lovers, suspected that Peter may have murdered Stormy, but Peter was never brought to trial on such a charge.

* * *

About the time Peter’s sister Jane Fonda was making the picture, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Jane had a Fourth of July party for which Peter arranged to have the Byrds play, just months before they became famous. Peter, a guitarist and singer of some note, soon became friends with guitarist/singer David Crosby of the Byrds.

* * *

Speaking of guitar playing, Peter sang and played the twelve-string guitar at Jane Fonda’s wedding to French director Roger Vadim. Peter sang Donovan’s song “Colors,” emphasizing the verse: “Freedom is a word I rarely use without thinking of the times when I been low.”

* * *

Peter took LSD for the first time, ingesting 500 micrograms of Sandoz liquid. A doctor had suggested Peter take the powerful hallucinogen to treat Peter’s manic depression. At this time, prior to October 6, 1966, LSD usage was still legal in the U.S.

* * *

In August 1965, Peter took LSD at the Beatles’ rented house in Benedict Canyon. Everybody seemed to be tripping, though Peter later discovered that Paul hadn’t taken any. Anyhow, George didn’t have a good trip - he thought he was dying. But Peter helped George deal with the experience by telling him he knew what it was like to die, and that it wasn’t a big deal. (On Peter’s eleventh birthday, he accidentally shot himself and nearly perished.)

Overhearing this conversation, John Lennon thought Peter was being pretentious and later used this incident as inspiration for writing the song, “She Said She Said,” found on the Beatles' Revolver album.

* * *

Presaging projects to come for the duo of filmmakers, Peter co-wrote with Dennis Hopper a screenplay entitled, The Ying and the Yang. Many actors and directors liked this comedic script, but it was never made into a flick.

* * *

Also in 1965, Peter starred as Heavenly Blues in one of his most iconic roles in The Wild Angels, directed by Roger Corman. Also starring Nancy Sinatra, a friend of Peter’s, the movie featured a supporting cast of real members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang.

* * *

In Los Angeles, Peter set up a photography lab and viewing room in a single-story business building. His plan was to use the place to process photos of rock groups and actors’ portraits. In this cozy little place, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds used their Moviela to edit 16-mm films. Musicians jammed in this place too.

* * *

Eventually cops raided Peter’s photo lab and found what they considered nine pounds of marijuana. Actually, almost all of this “grass” consisted of bags of pot seeds and a little burnable stuff belonging to Mama Cass Elliot. This drug bust helped make Peter a hero of the younger set, a situation which helped promote The Wild Angels, making the producers millions of bucks. A popular poster of the movie showed Peter astride a Harley-Davidson chopper, as he puffed on a joint.

* * *

In mid-September 1967, Peter began promoting The Trip, a movie directed by Roger Corman and based on a screenplay written by Jack Nicholson. Also, about this time, Peter began thinking about the plot of another biker movie, one that would eventually be called Easy Rider.

Captain America
Captain America
Famous scene at the end of "Easy Rider"
Famous scene at the end of "Easy Rider"
Peter in the 1970s
Peter in the 1970s
Do I smoke?
Do I smoke?

Easy Rider, the Counterculture Classic


When Peter told his wife Susan about Easy Rider, she declared, “That’s the corniest story I’ve ever heard!” Interestingly, Dennis Hopper’s wife Brooke called the story just another “biker druggie movie.”

* * *

Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, the producers of Easy Rider, had invented the Monkees, so they could easily afford the approximately $360,000 it cost to make it. In a way, Monkee money made Easy Rider.

* * *

From the beginning of the project, Peter insisted that Dennis Hopper would direct Easy Rider, and when Hopper officially got the job, he would exclaim to everyone: “This is my f***ing movie!”

* * *

The motorcycles used in Easy Rider have often been displayed, but the original bikes were stolen by a biker gang before the movie was even released! In the book, Peter theorized that the bikes were broken up and the parts scattered who-knows-where.

* * *

Peter and Dennis argued about how to express the famous line uttered toward the end of Easy Rider, when Peter’s character (Wyatt, nicknamed Captain America) declares to Dennis’ character (Billy), “We blew it, man.” Dennis wanted them to be more specific and explain how they blew it, but Peter insisted they leave the line as it was. (This was the last scene of the movie filmed, according to Peter.)

* * *

In 1970, Peter played the male lead and directed The Hired Hand, a moody western about a drifter who returns to his wife after seven years of roaming. Peter made the movie for free, so the producers could afford to hire character actor Warren Oates. The movie wasn’t popular, but recent audiences have liked it and some consider it a cult classic.

* * *

Peter played a cameo role in Dennis Hopper’s self-indulgent opus, The Last Movie, a story about a movie made within a movie. Produced in the rarefied air of the Peruvian Andes, Hopper partied endlessly as he acted in and directed this avant-garde flicker.

* * *

FBI agents showed up at Peter’s house, frightening his wife and kids. Later, the "fibbies" came to Peter’s office and questioned him regarding the whereabouts of black activist and fugitive, Angela Davis. Peter had heard of Davis – he considered her a Marxist - but had no idea where she was. Peter was furious with the FBI for terrorizing his wife and kids and he cussed-out the agents as if they had committed a heinous act.

* * *

Peter purchased Tatoosh, a ship he figured was one of the greatest sailing ships in existence. Over the years, Peter sailed in this superb vessel throughout the islands of Hawaii and the South Pacific.

* * *

While arriving in Stockholm to make a movie with Warren Oates, agents of the Treasury Department of the U.S. ripped through Peter’s luggage, which the agents thought had been sent to Argentina for some reason – perhaps for smuggling. The agents discovered no contraband, yet seriously damaged Peter’s luggage without offering to pay for the damage.

* * *

Peter liked socializing with legendary actor John Wayne, even though Wayne didn’t like to smoke pot, as Peter often did. But Wayne loved to quaff whiskey.

* * *

In 1974, Peter starred in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, a big hit at the box office. And then, at the rap party, as Peter often liked to do, cast members flung water balloons and pies at each other.

* * *

During the 1970s, Peter often appeared on TV talk shows, decrying what was popularly called the establishment or ruling elite. In this way, Peter seemed a kind of educator, mentor or guru and his passion for humanitarian, economic and ecological issues seemed sincere.

* * *

Peter made Diamond Mercenaries in South Africa with O.J. Simpson. This was during the Apartheid regime, when blacks weren’t considered equal to white people, and because of this O.J. wasn’t allowed to piss where he wanted. Anyway, after completing the movie, Peter burned one with “The Juice.”

* * *

Peter sailed Tatoosh to the Marquesas Islands, where painter Paul Gauguin lived for a time. Many of these islands are hard to visit because they’re surrounded by treacherous reefs, though Peter’s expert crew was equal to the challenge.

* * *

At the age of 38, Peter contracted chicken pox. He was covered in sores for two weeks and had a temperature of 104 degrees.

* * *

For the first and last time, Peter acted in a movie with his father, Henry Fonda, who played a tobacco-chewing prospector. A western, the movie was titled Wanda Nevada and was one of Brooke Shields’ first pictures.

* * *

In 1982, Peter’s father Henry died at the age of 77. Peter’s relationship with his father was a strained one, though they eventually became affectionate with each other in those final days of Henry’s life.

* * *

Per the testimony of an anonymous informant, the U.S. Treasury Department alleged that Peter was using Tatoosh to smuggle coca paste from Hawaii to Seattle. This charge was baseless, of course - the informant was simply trying to reduce his sentence. But, eventually, the government admitted it made a mistake and cleared Peter’s record.

* * *

Seemingly always battling the U.S. government in some way, IRS investigated Peter for undeclared income on some of his movies. Apparently IRS got the tip by reading an edition of the National Enquirer. But there was no such undeclared income, according to Peter. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to sell Tatoosh.

* * *

After downing tequila shooters, Peter wrecked his motorcycle and ended up in the hospital with numerous serious injuries, including a broken neck. He spent the next two weeks in the hospital and considered himself very lucky to still be alive and able to walk.

* * *

While dating Ted Turner, Peter’s sister Jane suggested the title to Peter’s upcoming memoir.

* * *

After 25 years, Peter directed another stage play, this one entitled, Southern Rapture.

* * *

In 1997, Peter starred in Ulee’s Gold, a performance for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Afterword

Peter Fonda continues his acting career and may direct something again, who knows? Interestingly, he recently appeared in an episode of Showtime’s hit series, Californication. Peter played an in-your-face old guy who doesn’t take crap from anybody. It seems, more times than not, Peter plays rebellious guys, who like to fire the finger at the establishment.

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6 comments

peachpurple profile image

peachpurple 3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

thank you for writing this article about peter fonda. All i know is jane fonda. The fonda family has the acting blood in their dna. Very professional actor and actress. Voted up


Tom London profile image

Tom London 3 years ago from London, United Kingdom

Yes, I have to agree with the previous comment. Insightful information!


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 3 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comments, peachpurple and Tom London. I like writing about actors from a bygone era - that is, the 1960s and '70s. Later!


Mike Robbers profile image

Mike Robbers 3 years ago from London

A nice hub, Kosmo. Peter Fonda is definitely one of the actors/directors that left their mark through their work. Thanks for sharing.


Tom London profile image

Tom London 3 years ago from London, United Kingdom

I'd love to see Spencer Tracy on here!


Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 3 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Mike Robbers. I grew up with Peter Fonda's movies. How about you? Later!

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