"I've had this puppy up to 189," Fonda said, not so much boasting as marveling at his own stupidity during a rest stop at Coldwater Canyon Park. "I never want to do that again. One road rut, and I would have been toast."
That was two years ago, during a break from filming the biker movie "Ghost Rider," opening Friday. In the Marvel comic turned film, starring Nicolas Cage as a stunt rider who makes a deal with the devil, Fonda doesn't ride. But he does play the ultimate badass, Mephistopheles, a part he probably wouldn't have been offered if not for "Easy Rider."
A few decades and more than a dozen motorcycles later, Fonda is still riding bikes and still riding on "Easy Rider's" mega-million-dollar success. In addition to "Ghost Rider," he's starring in three other films due out this year.
"I never stopped working, thanks to 'Easy Rider,' " said Fonda, who was game for a ride on Mulholland Drive.
Mulholland is Fonda's favorite route in the city, even though it's around this stretch of road where he had his "most foolish" accident. It was 1964, when Fonda, wearing nothing but a bathing suit and loafers, rode his Triumph over a speed bump and through a corner where he said a car was sloppily taking a turn. The result: a torn-up back and a hipbone poking through the skin.
"If you've never dropped a bike, you haven't been riding," said Fonda, who, three decades later, collided with a deer that confirmed a major lesson: Gear up.
If I hadn't been meeting Fonda for a ride, I wouldn't have known it was him on the MV, not only because of the bike but also because he was so well armored. His red Sidi riding boots and color-coordinated jacket were topped with a full-face helmet. On the back of his hat: a sticker telling Osama bin Laden exactly what he can do with himself.
Peeling off his helmet at the top of Coldwater Canyon, Fonda quickly replaced it with a black baseball cap that read "AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies" above the brim. AFI listed "Easy Rider" among its top 100 films of the last century, and the name of the movie was embroidered on the back of Fonda's cap.
As his graying temples suggest, Fonda will be 67 next week. And although his sideburns are a little shorter than they were in his prime, and his skin's showing the effects of time, Fonda still sounds the same, peppering his speech with words like "man," "dough" and other vintage verbal throwbacks that, coming from him, sound cool instead of dated.
He likes Mulholland Drive because "it's in the middle of the city, [but] there's not a lot of stoplights and stop signs," he said.
"I'll just go five or so sweeps up and down. Not every one of those is good, but maybe two out of the five or three out of the five I'm not sitting behind somebody," added Fonda, who spends his first run along L.A.'s most star-studded ridge checking for rocks, fresh asphalt and friends pulling out of their driveways.
On our ride, I was following Fonda, who was the perfect gentleman rider, taking his hand off the left grip to alert me to every stray rock in the road. He does the same thing when riding with the Uglies, a.k.a. the Ugly Motorcycle Club, which he's belonged to since the early '90s. Larry Hagman and former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) are also members of the club, which lives by two contradictory credos: (1) There are no rules and (2) you must make two mandatory U-turns each week.
Fonda: ever the rebel.
Fonda was born Feb. 23, 1940, in New York City. He was the second of two kids born to the film legend Henry Fonda and his wife, Frances Seymour Brokaw, who committed suicide when Peter was 10. Though Henry Fonda remarried less than a year later, he retreated from his children.
"We were abandoned," said Peter, who, a quarter-century after his father's death, often references him -- unprompted and, for the most part, unfavorably.
During our trip, when someone yelled, "Mr. Fonda," he responded by asking "Where?" and looking around.
"Peter," he said. "Mr. Fonda died in 1982."
It was his frosty relationship with his dad that prompted him to take up two wheels. "My father didn't want me to. It was like, in your face," Fonda said. "As soon as I could, I bought a Harley."
He was 18 when he purchased a used Sportster with winnings from blackjack.
"That was the beginning. Loved it. Never have stopped," said Fonda, who in the years since has owned a BMW R 27, multiple Triumphs, a Bultaco, a Montesa, a Ducati, 1977 and 1978 model BMW R 1200 RSes, two Harley-Davidson Fatboys, a Harley-Davidson Road King and, now, the MV Agusta.
"As I say, it's the freedom. The road has no fences, and you're out there and there's no cars and no towns, you see eagles, you see all kinds of wildlife."
So how does a kid who buys a bike to spite his famous dad evolve from enthusiast into the face of motorcycling for a generation? It was another act of rebellion, this time against the Hollywood status quo. Instead of taking boy-next-door parts that would have made him into a copycat Pat Boone, he signed on for Roger Corman's Hells Angels flick, "The Wild Angels."
"I wouldn't really call that a motorcycle movie," said Fonda, "but there was a huge audience out there, and I got identified with that."
He took that rep and built on it with "Easy Rider," a concept he dreamed up on Sept. 27, 1967, a date Fonda remembers because "it was such a good idea," he said.
Fonda was in Toronto at a convention of theater owners, signing film stills from "The Wild Angels," which featured Fonda packing Bruce Dern on a raked Harley Springer. That's how he got the idea.
"It's not 100 Hells Angels on their way to a funeral. It's two guys cruising across the country. They're going to go from west to east," Fonda said. "I kept rolling with it: What are they going to find out? I went to the end first and backed up to make that work."
Then, at 4:30 in the morning, he called Dennis Hopper to ask him to co-write, costar and direct the movie.
Why it was such a hit, Fonda says, is "nobody knew how to approach the youth market. I knew it was there. No one was making movies for that group, but think about that time. 1967: the hippies, the love-ins. We had our own art, we had our own poetry, we had our own songs, we had our own clothing, our own attitude. All this stuff that was ours. It didn't belong to the older generation.... What didn't we have? We didn't have our own movie. 'Easy Rider' filled the void."
Gazillions of dollars later, Fonda still grumbles about Columbia Pictures and Harley-Davidson taking credit for bikes he says he designed. Four bikes were used in the film: two for Hopper and two for Fonda. All of them were bought at an LAPD auction, Fonda said, and chopped with the help of "seven guys from Watts."
"It was a bitch to ride that machine, especially slow," Fonda admits. "That long front end?"
To practice, Fonda says, he took it up Laurel Canyon -- the same road Fonda and I took to get to lunch at Le Parc Suites in West Hollywood.
There weren't any cars in front of Le Parc when we arrived. That's because no parking is allowed for longer than 15 minutes. Fonda pulled up to the curb anyway, killing the ignition under a sign that threatened a towing. There was no way we'd be out in 15 minutes, but Fonda didn't seem worried. Without greasing any of the palms that were extended his way, Fonda traded small talk with the hotel staff -- all of whom he addressed by name -- and we headed inside.
It turns out Fonda used to live at Le Parc. Since 1975, when he moved to Montana "for the love of a woman," he hasn't officially resided in L.A., though he rents an apartment here so he can go to meetings on a moment's notice.
"My career has been extraordinarily multilayered," says Fonda, who has appeared in 70 films, one of which ("Ulee's Gold") almost won him an Oscar. "Why stop? I don't have to stop. I get paid for being an 8-year-old."
Along for the ride
AMAZINGLY, Peter Fonda's speeding toward his 50th year on a motorcycle. Here's what Hollywood's biker icon has to say about his favorite rides in and around L.A., his wheels and the lessons he's learned in decades of easy riding.
Fonda doesn't pay attention to specific roads when he rides. He prefers to stay off freeways and ride the coastline as far as it goes, then cut inland. Some of his favorite riding areas are the countrysides around Hemet, Idyllwild and the Santa Ynez Valley, but his No. 1 spot is right here in town: Mulholland Drive. "It's in the middle of the city. There's not a lot of stoplights and stop signs.... You don't have to deal with a lot of traffic that doesn't make sense."
Fonda has owned Hogs, Beemers and Triumphs, a Bultaco, a Montesa and a Ducati, but his current fave is a 2005 MV Agusta F4-1000. "It's a hell of a motorcycle. I love it a lot. It goes faster, and I don't have the [wide-set] handlebars, dealing with traffic in L.A. ... Going up and down the canyons, it's like you're attached to a rubber band that nobody else is attached to."
* "Anarchist or not, I stop for stoplights, I stop for stop signs. I watch every car. I don't trust any car coming anywhere at any time."
* "If it's raining, I don't start riding, but if it's raining while I'm riding, I don't stop."
* "Don't ride unless you know how to pay attention. It takes focus."
* "I don't ride at dusk or later because there's the deer factor. I went head on [in 1993]. I don't want to do that again in my life. I do not ride at dusk or later, even if there's not a motel. I put my bike down, take out my bag, sleep outside. I don't want to hit a deer again."