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Peter Fonda’s film career flashback

Peter Fonda is justifiably proud that he and Dennis Hopper turned the world of cinema on its ear with their iconic 1969 counterculture movie “Easy Rider.” But Fonda believes that before they did “Easy Rider,” they changed the fortunes of an old film that helped turn it into a cult favorite.

The 71-year-old Fonda recalled that Hopper called him one day and said, “Pick me up. We are going to a museum in Pasadena.”

The museum, Fonda related, was part of the Pasadena Playhouse and showed old movies. “He said, ‘We are going to watch ‘Duck Soup.’ I love the Marx Brothers, but I never knew about ‘Duck Soup.’”

The political satire, which had flopped upon release and had been out of circulation, featured Groucho playing Rufus T. Firefly, the president-dictator of a country called Freedonia. “It was totally anti-fascist,” he said. “It was banned in Spain and banned in Italy. The film was absolutely hysterical.”

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And they kept going back to the museum to see it, each time bringing more of their friends with them. “After that, the film got started to be shown around. I think a lot of it is due to the fact that Dennis got so excited, he got other people excited about it.”

Fonda is relaxing in the living room of his Spanish-style house in Pacific Palisades, a pair of Captain America sunglasses hiding his baby blues. He may be a septuagenarian, but he is still both effortlessly cool and capable of generating controversy, as evidenced by his off-the-wall rant about President Obama’s environmental policies at the recent Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps that’s the freedom that comes from being a member of one of Hollywood’s famed acting families that included father Henry, sister Jane and his daughter, Bridget Fonda.

On Thursday and Friday, Fonda is scheduled to be honored at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre. Screening Thursday is a double bill of “Easy Rider’ and the 1967 Roger Corman film “The Trip,” penned by “Easy Rider” costar Jack Nicholson. Fonda will appear in conversation Friday with “Ed Wood” co-screenwriter Larry Karaszewski after the screening of “The Hired Hand,” the elegiac 1971western Fonda starred in and directed, as well as the 1999 Steven Soderbergh film “The Limey,” in which he played a corrupt L.A. music producer.

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“Hired Hand,” along with Monte Hellman’s 1971 film “Two-Lane Blackstop” and Hopper’s 1973 ill-fated “The Last Movie,” was one of five low-budget youth films made under the auspices of Universal Vice President Ned Tanen. Almost all of them failed at the box office, including “Hired Hand.”

Fonda recalled visiting Tanen after the film was completed at Universal and getting into the elevator with studio heads Lew Wasserman and Jules Stein, whom he had known since he was 10 or 11. “Jules said, ‘Peter, I saw your movie. It’s the best western I have ever seen.’ Lew Wasserman said, ‘It is the best western I have ever seen.’ But the heads of the studio don’t control marketing the film.”

Fonda has directed only three films, though he said he has a project in hand that he wants to direct. Fonda got to work with his dad on the last of the three, 1979’s western “Wanda Nevada,” in which Henry Fonda had a cameo as a grizzled prospector. It was their only film together; Henry Fonda died three years later.

Peter recalled calling his dad and offering him the one-day part for which he would receive $1,500. “I sent him the script, and he said, ‘I’d be glad to do it.’ So the day comes. I am coming on set with the cinematographer and one of the assistant directors says, ‘He’s in makeup. He’s kind of mad.’

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The elder Fonda felt that his fake beard looked too phony. Peter Fonda agreed, so he took the chewing tobacco that his father was going to use in the film, put it in his mouth and began to spit on his beard to make it look more grizzly. Then Fonda spritzed his father down with mineral water and got handfuls of dust and threw it on him to add more color to his character.

“He loved it,” Fonda said, smiling. “I was hoping he would love it. He wrote me a letter afterward saying that in his 41 years of making motion pictures, he had never seen a crew so devoted to their director. He said, ‘You are a good director, son. I would like to be part of your company.”’

susan.king@latimes.com


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