The party never seemed to start until Peter Fonda ambled onto the scene in the counterculture film of the 1960s, the classic Easy Rider. Of course, being the son of the legendary Henry Fonda and the kid brother to Jane Fonda, he had been born into Hollywood royalty, but John Q. Public remained largely ignorant of the man until he joined forces with fellow outlaws and mavericks Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson in the road movie that acted as a de facto tour guide to a tumultuous and weary United States that had been gutted by the war in Vietnam. As Wyatt (AKA “Captain America”), Fonda brought a psychedelic philosopher’s touch to a role that, in lesser hands, might have gone unnoticed and obscured by the more frantic and colorful Dennis Hopper or the scene-stealing Nicholson.
Peter Fonda’s acting never seemed like acting, per se. Instead, he genuinely seemed to inhabit and believe in the roles that he committed to perform on celluloid and he did so in such an easy and laid back style that you never felt confronted and assailed the way you might from other actors of his generation. His acing was like a pleasant whisper and you could not help but like a guy who routinely would issue bromides such as “I don’t trust anybody who didn’t inhale,” or “You don’t become the character.” Anyone who ever met him seemed to agree that he was entirely unlike anyone else on the face of the planet, not to say anything of the infinite and uncharted cosmos. Fonda was an American original at the height of hippiedom and Flower Power and perhaps he’s even more so now in an age where homogeny and conformity are more the rule than the exception.
Although most obits this weekend want to focus exclusively on Easy Rider (rightfully so; it is an amazing film) or his second Oscar nomination for the criminally neglected film Ulee’s Gold (Ditto), this admirer of Peter Fonda will forever be in love with him for his role in the 1975 Jack Starrett directed cheese-fest, Race with the Devil. Fonda teamed up with his great friend and frequent co-star Warren Oates in this story about two couples in a recreational vehicle who are terrorized cross-country by a very pissed off group of Satanists. The film was a lark for Fonda and Oates and it is clear watching this flick that was all but constructed and designed for a double feature at the local drive-in that the two friends are having a hell of a fun time racing motorcycles (Easy Rider homage/crossover time) and getting paid to hang out with one another. Their love of the material, despite its cheesiness, is infectious, and the movie has gone on to become a cult hit and something I subject my poor wife to at least once a year.
I always play a mental game where I ruminate on the writers and artists and scientists and musicians and actors that I think would be fun to have a cold beer with while we shoot the shit. Peter Fonda has always been at the top of my list not necessarily for anything more profound than the fact that his unique and unerring light always seemed so much damn fun. And, while his character in Easy Rider might have lamented to Hopper that they “blew it,” nothing could be further from the truth in real life. The party may have indeed never started until Fonda ambled onto the scene, but with the magic and the light that he’s left behind for family, friends and fans the party will never really end. He’ll always party on and stay so very cool in our hearts and in our minds.
Stay cool, man.
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