A Rather Uneasy Ride

Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

For the past several hours, Peter Fonda has been trying to explain why he’s never cared what anyone thought of him. “I’ve always lived with being prejudged,” he says, working his way through a second carafe of chardonnay. “When I was a kid, I’d go to a party and have no idea who was there--but everyone thought they knew me. I was Henry Fonda’s son.”

He shrugs. “They didn’t know he was Col. Thursday.” That’s the domineering cavalry officer his father played in John Ford’s “Fort Apache,” whose men are slaughtered because they obey his orders.

“When my film students at Montana State ask what it’s like growing up with Henry Fonda, I always say, ‘Have you seen ‘Fort Apache’? Jane cracked up when I told her that. She said, ‘Geez, I never thought of it quite that way.’ ”


Talking with the 58-year-old actor about his family, which includes father Henry, sister Jane and daughter Bridget, it’s impossible to escape the tug of film history. In fact, when Fonda’s new movie, “Ulee’s Gold,” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, startled moviegoers were struck by how much his portrayal of a solitary beekeeper evoked memories of the flinty characters Henry Fonda used to play.

The film, which opens Friday at select theaters, has earned a bouquet of rave reviews. As Variety enthused: “ ‘Ulee’s Gold’ is a gem . . . graced by a completely unexpected performance from Peter Fonda that is by far the best of his career.”

The acclaim has been a tonic for Fonda, whose drug use and youthful escapades made him something of a pariah in Hollywood after the success of “Easy Rider.” He says he still “gets the looks until they see that my eyes are clear.” Though he’s worked steadily in low-budget films, he hasn’t had a major role in a studio film in 20 years. Eating lunch at a crowded Beverly Hills industry hangout, he goes unnoticed.

Not that Fonda seems to miss the attention. Owner of a 300-acre ranch in southern Montana--he often rides his Harley into Yellowstone National Park to fly-fish during the summer--he prefers to keep his distance. “I never searched for fame,” he says. “I was born famous, and it didn’t serve me well.”

On the outside, his bloodlines have served him well. His sinewy 6-foot-2 frame is still long ‘n’ lean enough to fit into 32-inch waist jeans. He has his father’s piercing blue eyes and the sweet, puppy-like fragility of a man who’s never quite grown up. When he recently met a pair of young actors, he introduced himself as “a baby disguised as a 58-year-old man.”

An incurable talker, Fonda is full of enthusiasm for everything from boating to photography, though his rambling monologues often drift off into a thick counterculture fog. Describing his passion for sailing, he refers to the ocean as “the big street.” His favorite meats are antelope and elk, because “they’re not tainted by additives.”

When he calls his actress daughter, Bridget, he barks into the phone, imitating one of their Labrador retrievers. Asked why he named one of the dogs Sting, he explains: “He’s a majestic dog and I named him after a majestic performer.”

Fonda gave up cigarettes and coffee ages ago, and wouldn’t dream of drinking Los Angeles water, much less wash his hair with it--he uses distilled water instead. He has a bottle of oatmeal stout before bed each night and still smokes marijuana, saying it soothes his sour stomach.

“Am I an alcoholic?” he asks, without any prompting. “I doubt it. This country is just nuts about sobriety. Look at how crazy everyone is about hemp. I’m like Woody Harrelson, except I’ve already planted the seeds.”

Pushing 60, he’s still grappling with a famously dysfunctional upbringing. His mother committed suicide when he was 10, his father ignored him, and his relations with older sister Jane have been rivalrous and rocky. “I’m damaged goods,” he says. “I was a very disturbed young man. Most of my family thought I was a live grenade, pin pulled, ready to blow.”

These days, Fonda finds joy in his own brood, boasting about Bridget and his sons, Justin and Thomas--he carries a pair of Thomas’ hand-made knives in the hip pocket of his jeans. After 22 years of marriage, he’s clearly devoted to his wife, Becky, phoning her every few hours when away from home.

They met when Fonda made “92 in the Shade,” a film directed by Becky’s then-husband, novelist Tom McGuane. “I not only got the part from Tom,” Fonda says with a laugh, “I got his wife, too!”

To hear him talk, “Ulee’s Gold” is more than a career plum--it’s an opportunity to heal the scars left by his desolate relationship with his father.


“I knew Ulee well,” Fonda explains. “He’s a recalcitrant man with a visage that shows no hint of kindness. I had breakfast across the table from that guy my whole life. I’d try to read the newspaper he kept up to his eyes, blocking his face from me.

“Oh boy, did I know that guy. Son of a bitch, it was my father.”

The heroic character everyone saw on screen was not the father he knew at home. “He needed a character to play to get out of himself,” he recalls. “The more we demanded of him, the more he withdrew. It’s very tough on kids when your parent pulls a disappearing act when you’re sitting right there in the room.”

Fonda says he’s saving his best stories for his autobiography, due next year from Hyperion, but they come tumbling out anyway. In the late 1970s, when Henry’s health began to fail, Peter attempted a reconciliation in a typical Fonda way--he cajoled his father into making a cameo appearance in “Wanda Nevada,” a film Peter was directing. Before filming began, he phoned his father, determined to goad him into showing a tiny flicker of emotion.

“It was always a one-way conversation, with me talking about my life and him listening,” Fonda recalls. “Finally I told him that I’d written a scene for him called, ‘I love you very much, son.’ Of course, my father was horrified. He went ‘Awwggrrhh!!’ and hung up the phone.”

Fonda says he repeated the routine several times until he wore his father down. “Finally he said to me, as fast as he could, ‘I love you very much, son.’ ”

Fonda has a sip of chardonnay and smiles. “And then he hung up the phone.”

Fonda’s hopes weren’t high when Victor Nunez first sent him the script for “Ulee’s Gold.” His image in Hollywood--riding Harleys, smoking pot, wearing his hair down to his waist--had made even the most iconoclastic filmmakers wary of hiring him. When David Lynch called to explore a possible acting job, he asked Fonda if he’d be willing to cut his hair.

“I figured if David Lynch is worried about me, I knew I’d better get back in circulation,” says Fonda. “Victor must’ve sent that script to every actor in their mid-50s. Lucky for me, Nick Nolte turned it down.”

Fonda had a long phone conversation with Nunez, then flew to meet him in Los Angeles. Fonda still had waist-length hair, but kept it pulled back in a long ponytail. Thirty minutes after their meeting, Nunez offered him the part.

“He had a great connection with Ulee,” says Nunez. “He said that Ulee was his father and he wanted to do the movie for him. There’s obviously been a lot of pain and animosity there, but Peter has been trying to gain an acceptance, which certainly resonated in the way he played Ulee in the film.”

Nunez recalls shooting a scene where Fonda approaches the camera, his face veiled by his beekeeper’s mask. “I was watching this look he had, the way he held his head,” Nunez says. “And I was stunned, because he looked just like his father. It wasn’t contrived at all--it came from inside Peter.”

Nunez shot most of the film in the tiny north Florida towns of Carrabelle, Wewahitchka and Apalachicola. “On the weekends, we’d sit at the beach, light bonfires and cook shrimp,” Fonda recalls with delight. “It was eight weeks in heaven. The crew was kind of moping when we went to Orlando for the last week of shooting--I mean, talk about treated water--but I told ‘em, ‘I’m not moping. For eight weeks, I had the best sex in my life.’ ”

Fonda doesn’t mind the comparisons between his father’s performances and his own. “I went to the well of Tom Joad and Wyatt Earp and Norman Thayer Jr.,” he says. “But I also went to my well. Some of the character is very similar, but when I needed to fill a moment, I went to my own experience.”

Of course, being a Fonda, Peter’s experiences are tied up in moviedom. His first job, as a boy, was running lines for his father. Henry paid him $2 an hour. “If he didn’t say his lines, I’d start to read what he was supposed to say and he’d bark at me, ‘I know the line!’ ”

Fonda’s imitation of his father’s parched Midwestern drawl is letter-perfect. “He couldn’t talk about acting with me--he didn’t know what to say. But it was a revelation for me to watch him work. He hadn’t forgotten his lines. He was thinking about where he was as the character, within himself.”

Peter remembers watching his father and James Stewart spend an afternoon together, building a huge model airplane for him. For hours they pieced together the balsa wood model, never speaking.

“Every so often, Jimmy Stewart would say, ‘Ah, Hank, I’ve got a B-14 here. Where’s that go?’ And my father would say, ‘The B-14 piece. That must go in A-24.’ And for five hours, that’s all they’d say. No stories, no kidding around. Nothing about when they were young and tunneled under Claudette Colbert’s house.

“They couldn’t have been happier--they were working on something where they didn’t have to talk.”

In 1960, while still in college, Fonda met Warren Beatty at a party, who told him he should pursue acting. “He was incredibly charming,” says Fonda, who later worked with Beatty in Robert Rossen’s “Lilith.” “He said, ‘You should go into movies. You have what it takes.’ It meant a lot to me, because he didn’t have a hidden agenda--I knew he wasn’t after my sister.”

Fonda’s early roles weren’t memorable. But in 1969, he tapped into the rebellious spirit of the time with “Easy Rider.” Produced by Fonda and directed by Dennis Hopper, it made the two friends counterculture icons and launched the career of Jack Nicholson, who’d met Fonda making biker movies for Roger Corman.

The film also made Fonda a rich man, but it didn’t buy him happiness. Preferring to sail with friends on an 81-foot ketch called Tatoosh, he left his first marriage behind and thumbed his nose at Hollywood. Years later, he fell out with Hopper, who sued Fonda in a dispute over “Easy Rider” profits. Fonda says the two are negotiating a settlement, but the bitterness remains. “I just want him out of my life,” he says. “My wife won’t even allow his name to be spoken in our house.”

For the last 20 years, Fonda has appeared in a variety of B-movies, including such clinkers as “Spasms,” “Fatal Mission” and “Dance of the Dwarfs,” a 1983 film where he plays a drunken helicopter pilot in search of a lost Pygmy tribe.

Fonda admits his career ambitions have been thwarted by his vestigial outlaw image. “I haven’t helped myself very much by the way I’ve lived my life, have I?” he says with a frown. “I’m too independent. I’d show up at Lew and Edie Wasserman’s 50th anniversary party, but I’d be the only one with long hair.”

When “Ulee’s Gold” screened at Sundance, festival founder Robert Redford--who had the same agent as Fonda when the two were young actors in the early 1960s--introduced the film himself, saying how happy he was to see Fonda back in the spotlight.

“I was really moved,” Fonda recalls. “After all these years of getting the finger from Hollywood, now I can spend the rest of my life without people thinking about me just as the guy who smoked a joint and rode a motorcycle.”

Looking for a new career model, Fonda finds himself studying his daughter, who has carved out a cozy niche making both studio and independent films. “I remember walking arm and arm with her at her high school graduation when she told me she wanted to be an actor. And I said, ‘Never say that again. It’s a verb, not a noun.’ But she acts wonderfully, doesn’t she?”

He reflects on that long-ago moment. “You know, I went to all my kids’ graduations,” Fonda says. “Because I always remembered that my father never made any of mine.”

Fonda’s fondest memory of his father involves their flying glider kites together. “Actually, he’d fly the kite and I was allowed to retrieve it,” Fonda dryly recalls. “It was our bonding moment. He’d get frustrated with me, because I wasn’t much help getting the kite up. But when it was up flying, he had a smile of serenity on his face that I’d never seen before.”

When the wind was just right, the kite scudded high in the air, sailing off toward the ocean. Father and son would leap into Henry’s Ford Woody wagon and roar off in pursuit.

“He’d say, ‘Did you see that, boy? I’ll be damned, did you see that?’ I guess now that I’m older I’ve realized that he was so happy because that glider did exactly what he always wanted to do--it had flown away.”

Hearing Fonda share these personal stories, you feel like a voyeur, rummaging through a hidden family photo album. You steer the conversation back to “Ulee’s Gold,” sensing he might want to leave his family struggles behind and talk about acting.

“It’s so personal,” he says. “But it’s my work, my life.”

You wonder if he means his acting or his family. Peter Fonda starts to laugh. “It’s hard to separate the two, isn’t it?”