Film News: Peter Fonda, Forever the ‘Easy Rider,’ Dies at 79

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LOS ANGELES – Peter Fonda, part of Hollywood acting royalty, had many memorable roles in his long career. But he will forever be known as the “Easy Rider,” the 1969 feature (coincidentally, the film was the number one film exactly 50 years ago today) that ushered in a new wave of filmmaking. Portraying a biker named Captain America, his character was “born to be wild” as he motored across the country. Peter Fonda died in Los Angeles due to complications of lung cancer. He was 79.

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Peaceful, Easy Rider: Peter Fonda in Chicago, January 28, 2010.
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com

Peter Henry Fonda was born into the family of film star Henry Fonda, three years after his sister Jane. He studied acting at the University of Nebraska Omaha, starting in the same community playhouse where his father started. He moved onto Broadway in the early 1960s, and began doing episodic television during the era. His film debut was in “Tammy and the Doctor” (1963), and was nominated for a Golden Globe (Most Promising Newcomer) the same year for “The Victors.”



Coming of age in the mid-1960s, it was clear that Fonda would not follow his father into conventional leading man roles, as he joined the counterculture that was emerging, was open about his drug use and grew his hair long. In 1966, he famously gave John Lennon a key lyric inspiration for his song, “She Said She Said,” when he told the Beatle – while they were tripping on LSD – that he knew “what it’s like to be dead” … he was referring to a childhood incident when he was accidentally shot.

His film work began to reflect his attitude, as he joined forces with producer Roger Corman to shoot “The Wild Angels” (1966, an early biker film), “The Trip” (1967) and a film with sister Jane “Spirits of the Dead” (1968, directed by Jane’s then-husband Roger Vadim). But it was “Easy Rider” that broke through. This seemingly simple film about bikers finding America revitalized the careers of co-stars Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, and launched a cinema movement that continued into the 1970s, with emerging directors tackling themes of questioning both authority and the American Dream.

Throughout the rest of his career, Fonda emerged as a director (“Wanda Nevada”), cult action star (“Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry”) and spoofer of his image (he portrayed a biker in “Cannonball Run”). He moved into more independent film in the 1980s and ‘90s, scoring a major comeback with “Ulee’s Gold” (1997), portraying a beekeeper within sensitive circumstances. He won a Golden Globe for Best Actor, and was nominated for an Academy Award (he previously had been nominated for Best Original Screenplay for “Easy Rider”).

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Hollywood Royalty: Peter Fonda, with Father Henry and Sister Jane in the 1960s
Photo credit: File Photo

Peter Fonda continued to work to the end, most notably “The Limey” (1999), “3:10 to Yuma” (2007) and “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” (2017). He was married three times, lastly to Margaret DeVogelaere, and is survived by two children, including actress Bridget Fonda.

Patrick McDonald of HollywoodChicago.com got the honor of interviewing Peter Fonda in 2010, before he made an appearance introducing “Easy Rider.” The interview is divided into three specific stories and a final commentary regarding Peter Fonda’s famous family. Go to Page Two.

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