Peter Fonda, son of one of the great stars of the classic Hollywood era and a key player in the cinematic revolution that was “Easy Rider,” died Friday at his home in Los Angeles at age 79. The cause of death was given as respiratory failure due to lung cancer.
Son of Henry Fonda, brother to Jane Fonda and father of Bridget Fonda, Peter Fonda truly made a name for himself with “Easy Rider,” the 1969 countercultural road trip saga, which he starred in, co-wrote and produced. The film, directed by Dennis Hopper, captured the uneasy moment of late ’60s America and is widely seen to have helped usher in a new era for Hollywood.
“Easy Rider” became the fourth highest-grossing movie of 1969 at the U.S. box office and was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1998.
It also earned Fonda his first of two Academy Award nominations, for the film’s original screenplay co-written with Hopper and Terry Southern. His second came in the lead actor category for the 1997 independent film “Ulee’s Gold.”
Although, unlike his father and sister, Fonda never took home an Oscar, he did win two Golden Globes — for his supporting performance opposite Helen Mirren in the 1999 television film “The Passion of Ayn Rand” and for “Ulee’s Gold.” He received three additional nominations over the years.
In a statement on Friday, Jane Fonda said, “I am very sad. 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.”
A separate statement from his family read, “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. … And, while we mourn the loss of this sweet and gracious man, we also wish for all to celebrate his indomitable spirit and love of life. In honor of Peter, please raise a glass to freedom.”
Fonda was married three times, first to Susan Brewer, the second to Rebecca Crockett and the third to Margaret DeVogelaere. He had two children, Bridget and Justin, with Brewer.
Born in New York City on Feb. 23, 1940, Fonda made his film debut in 1963’s “Tammy and the Doctor.” He would later star in Roger Corman’s 1966 biker movie “The Wild Angels” before also appearing in Corman’s drug-themed 1967 movie “The Trip.”
The success of “Easy Rider” was cataclysmic, both at the box office and as a cultural force. As Charles Champlin wrote in The Times in December 1969, “It is the mark of an extraordinary movie that discussion about it will not die. ‘Easy Rider,’ more than any other movie this year, is one which people can’t let alone, whether they like it or (even more) whether they don’t.”
Fonda would go on to direct a few films himself, beginning with the 1971 western “The Hired Hand.” His acting roles in the 1970s included films such as 1974’s “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry,” 1975’s “Race With the Devil” and 1977’s “Outlaw Blues.”
While Fonda was a steady presence onscreen, few of his films broke through with critics or audiences. But he experienced a notable career resurgence with “Ulee’s Gold,” directed by Victor Nuñez.
Playing a Vietnam-veteran-turned-beekeeper, Fonda delivered a performance of quiet power. As Times critic Kenneth Turan wrote in June 1997, “‘Ulee’s’ is built around a compelling performance by Peter Fonda that unmistakably echoes the work of his father, Henry, while serving as the capstone of the son’s long career as well.”
Acknowledging the large shadow his father had over his life, Fonda published an autobiography in 1998, titled, “Don’t Tell Dad: A Memoir.” He continued to act right until the end of his life, appearing in such films as 1999’s “The Limey,” 2007’s “3:10 to Yuma,” 2018’s “Boundaries” and many more.
Yet there was one film that largely continued to shape his career and public persona. In a 2018 interview with The Times, Fonda reflected on the legacy of “Easy Rider.”
“That audience was not something that the establishment knew anything about or how to reach,” he said. “They thought it was a small little market. But it was a market that had never been played to. Nobody had sung their song to them. They had their poetry. They had their artwork. They had their music. They had their dress. They didn’t have their movie.”
“Easy Rider” went “right into that movement. It was their movie.”