Fonda, Peter Seymour

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FONDA, Peter Seymour

(b. 23 February 1940 in New York City), actor, producer, and director who began the 1960s performing in traditional Hollywood studio films and transitioned to countercultural roles in independent B movies, then revolutionized U.S. film by producing and starring in the phenomenally successful Easy Rider (1969), a low-budget project that heralded the American New Wave and spawned a new generation of filmmakers.

Fonda was born into one of the premier acting dynasties in American film. His father, Henry Jaynes Fonda, was a theater actor and Hollywood movie star, professions also taken up by Fonda's older sister Jane. Fonda's childhood was filled with insecurity and constant uprooting between California and New England. He was frequently separated from his father due to Henry's active career and World War II military service. In addition, his mother Frances Ford Seymour, who before her first marriage had been a teller at the Guaranty Trust Company of New York, then bank president, suffered from a continuing mental illness and committed suicide in 1950. Henry Fonda quickly remarried, and Fonda continued to shuttle between the extreme lifestyles of the East and West Coasts. His family's physical and emotional instability led Fonda to be perceived as a troubled youth. He once shot himself while target practicing with a friend. He had borrowed the friend's .22 pistol, and the trigger was released by accident, causing a bullet to discharge into Fonda's intestines. The shot was almost fatal. Fonda states this incident was an accident, although others have reported it as an attempted suicide.

Fonda began the 1960s by dropping out of the University of Omaha in Nebraska after his third year. He joined the family business, learning the acting trade in a season of summer stock at the Ceilwood Theater in Fishkill, New York. At the end of the season in 1961, Fonda landed the lead in the premiere of Amazing Grace, a new play by the oral historian Studs Terkel. Fonda's lanky good looks and laid-back persona were perfect for the role and the times.

Fonda moved to New York City, where he hung out with the actor Robert Duvall and became attracted to the East Coast counterculture centered in Greenwich Village. Fonda auditioned for the Broadway play Blood, Sweat, and Stanley Poole, but he was rejected for not looking enough like the popular stage actor Robert Morse. After spending time in Omaha in deep psychotherapy to repair his broken psyche, Fonda was called back to Broadway. The producers of Blood, Sweat, and Stanley Poole changed their minds, and in 1961 Fonda won the part that began his professional acting career.

Fonda married Susan Jane Brewer on 8 October 1961. She gave birth to their daughter, Bridget, another future actor, in 1964. The couple also had one son in 1966. Still a struggling actor, Fonda did guest shots on anthology television shows including Naked City (1962), The New Breed (1962), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1964), and Twelve O'clock High (1964).

Fonda's first role in a feature film was in Tammy and the Doctor (1963), where he gave Sandra Dee her first screen kiss in the goody-goody film series. He also appeared in the World War II drama The Victors (1963), and in The Young Lovers (1964). Screen roles were hard to find and Fonda began thinking about shaping his own cinematic destiny. He tried to purchase the rights to Lilith. When Fonda learned that the noted director Robert Rossen already owned them, he instead landed a role in the 1964 film. Fonda rebelled against the veteran film director, reacting in much the same way as he had to his father and to most authority figures, but he was given the opportunity to observe the editing process and the experience deepened his understanding of filmmaking.

By 1965 Fonda had begun his countercultural education. He met James Mitchum, another second-generation actor, was turned on to marijuana, and bought his first motorcycle, a BMW R27. Fonda befriended the musician Jim McGuinn of the band the Byrds, joined the Hollywood Sunset Boulevard psychedelic scene, and had his first LSD experience. Fonda also met the actor Dennis Hopper, another rebel who was interested in working outside the stifling Hollywood system. Together with Don Sherman they wrote the screenplay The Yin and the Yang (1966); Fonda began to accumulate funding, but was unable to get it into production.

The B-movie mogul Roger Corman directed Fonda in The Wild Angels (1966), the film that established the actor's persona as a hog-riding, drug-taking hippie. Fonda next starred in The Trip (1967), which connected him to the West Coast hippie scene and the spiritual quest energized by hallucinogenic drugs.

By the end of the 1960s, everything was in place for the production of Fonda and Hopper's joint effort. Fueled on psychedelics and the notion of a film about two men who go off in search of America, they began filming Easy Rider, which was released in 1969. Working independently of the industry, they brought in the screenwriter Terry Southern, who shaped the actors' endless, undisciplined raps into a shootable film. Fonda produced and cowrote the screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1970), and Hopper directed. Fonda played the iconic character Wyatt, or "Captain America," who, after a cocaine score, bikes across the country with his friend Billy, played by Hopper. On the road, the Captain and Billy experience the commune phenomenon, the country's changing family structure, deep prejudices, the murder of a liberal idealistic lawyer (played by Jack Nicholson), the Mardi Gras, and an acid trip, before meeting their death on the two-lane black-top. Fonda was responsible for the prophetic line, "We blew it," which predicted the dissolution of the hippie generation and its demise by the decade's end.

Easy Rider marked the end of classic Hollywood films and the beginning of a new era in U.S. filmmaking. The low-budget film changed the narrative and aesthetic methods of filmmaking and still managed to ring the box office bell. The audience was a new generation under thirty, who came of age during the 1960s and found themselves finally represented on the screen.

Fonda made his directorial debut in the 1970s with the mystical Western The Hired Hand (1971). Although he was instrumental in launching the American New Wave and led the way for young independent filmmakers, none of his films as a director received the success or acclaim of Easy Rider. In April 1974 Fonda and his first wife divorced, and he married Portia Rebecca Crockett McGuane on 11 November 1975. He continued to act during the 1970s and 1980s, but it was not until his performance as a remote beekeeper in Ulee's Gold (1997) that he finally earned respect as a mainstream actor with an Academy Award nomination and the Golden Globe award for best actor.

Fonda's lasting contributions to 1960s culture are his iconic roles as Heavenly Blues in The Wild Angels and Wyatt "Captain America" in Easy Rider. Both characters were maverick bikers steeped in the myth, legend, and symbolism of the road—the American rebel with the wisdom and spirituality of a Zen master. As one of the creators of Easy Rider, Peter Fonda seeded the American New Wave of the 1970s, a legacy that continues to resonate with the now middle-aged baby boomers and their creative offspring of cutting edge filmmakers of the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond.

Fonda's autobiography is Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir (1998). Biographies of the Fonda family include John Springer, The Fondas: The Films and Careers of Henry, Jane, and Peter Fonda (1970); Gerald Cole and Wes Farrell, The Fondas: Portrait of a Dynasty (1984, rev. ed. 1985); and Peter Collier, The Fondas: A Hollywood Dynasty (1991).

Vincent LoBrutto