WASHINGTON, December 22, 2013 – Peter Fonda’s 1969 movie classic, “Easy Rider” has been ranked second on Oliver Stone’s list of “10 Essential Boomer Movies” in the latest issue of AARP’s “The Magazine.” Stone’s pick hits appear in a sidebar to P. J. O’Rourke’s headline article, “How the Boomers Ruined Saved Everything.”
Asked by this reporter which of his film characters was his favorite to portray, Peter Fonda pauses and says, “Well, I can’t say it’s Captain America, because I wrote the character…”
The rebellious, fringe wearing, hell-raising, freedom loving, motorcycle riding, war hating Captain America—a character ironically inspired by Marvel’s iconic, clean-cut, ex-military comic book superhero—still comfortably resides in the actor, whose peppery language and easy laugh make it obvious he would likely be a most interesting dinner companion.
Not surprisingly, Fonda has opinions on a wide array of topics ranging anywhere from Washington, D.C. to Hollywood.
“This is the worst government money can buy,” Fonda declares. “It is a mess. Simply a bloody mess. We think of ourselves as civilized, we use this word ‘civilization.’ And the cynical part of me, well, as people on this planet we do not see what the word ‘civilized’ really means.”
While this characteristically outspoken Peter Fonda is the familiar rebel we might expect from the original Easy Rider, his art over the years actually reflects his quest for life’s meaning through the many individuals he has portrayed on the silver screen.
The most recent of these is Jacob Early, Fonda’s character in the faith and family-friendly film sequel to “The Ultimate Gift” (2007). Based on a story by James Stovall, this 2013 release, “The Ultimate Life,” continues the story of Jason Stevens, the central character in the 2007 film.
A young man raised in affluence and accustomed to living life as a shallow, callow playboy, Jason (actor Drew Fuller) is suddenly required to prove himself worthy before gaining his presumed inheritance from his multi-billionaire grandfather, Red Stevens (James Garner).
The life-journey he is forced to undertake leads him on an intensely personal voyage where he encounters eleven “gifts,” which are actually lessons learned from the ups and downs of the average life, including poverty, sorrow, laughter and tragedy. It is only then that Jason can achieve, give and receive that final twelfth gift: the gift of unconditional love.
The 2013 film is both a prequel and a sequel to the original, with its narrative initially traveling back in time to 1941, a world of post-depression poverty chronicled in a journal kept by Red Stevens that latter comes into the possession of Jason, portrayed in this film by Logan Bartholomew.
Through the journal we learn that young Red has left school and a family teetering on destitution in order to find his own way. True to the American Way, he actually does just that, enduring many trials on his way to becoming a billionaire.
We meet Jacob Early—Peter Fonda’s character—in this initial part of the film, when he shows up in a rail yard looking for six men to drive fence posts. Working for Early, Stevens also makes his first friend, Gus Caldwell, who becomes a lifelong friend.
“One of the things that drew me to the role [of Jacob Early] was that I played a 1941 Texas Rancher, driving an old pickup,” Fonda says. “I liked the idea of playing this guy who unintentionally becomes a facilitator to the lead character. And as Red comes to me and says, ‘I want to be like you.’ Well, I have people say that to me, so it struck a chord.
“In the film, it is just a few days before Pearl Harbor,” Fonda continues. When Red asks me ‘How can I be like you, successful?’ my character answers ’Be the bellwether, not the sheep.’ I used the scene to put some depth into Red, in how we can be ourselves.”
“Acting is not about memorizing lines, it is finding moments,” Fonda says. Over his long career, he has found many of those moments.
Peter Fonda is part of America’s most venerated movie family, along with father Henry and sister Jane. Peter Fonda recalls that he only worked with his father once, in the camp western, “Wanda Nevada,” another film he both starred in and directed.
The film also co-starred the then-14-year-old Brooke Shields.
The story is set at the bottom of the Grand Canyon where it is not only hot, but also very dusty. He and his father appeared on set together only once.
“We were working in an area of the Canyon where we could drive in and out, and there was a sign “mind your weight” reminding people to slow down and not kick up a bunch of dust,” Peter Fonda says. “I get out of the car, and he is in makeup and he is really pissed, saying ‘this beard sucks.’
“Mr. Perfectionist was so upset and he was telling me ‘don’t get closer than a full figure shot,’ and I asked my cameraman ‘Did an actor just tell me where to put my camera and take my shot?’”
The younger Fonda also recalled that he’d purchased some black licorice for his father’s character to chew on rather than the real frontier deal.
“Dad loved licorice, but he was arguing with me that he was going to use real Redman chewing tobacco. So we are arguing over the beard, the tobacco and [I] chew some licorice up, lean over and drool the black juice down his beard, and dad is wild eye looking at me, and got some of that red dust and rubbed in into the beard. And in the end it looked pretty good and I got my close up.
“A couple of weeks after that day I got a letter, and it was the fifth letter he ever wrote to me, and he wrote ‘In my 41 years of making motion pictures I have never seen a crew so devoted to a director as I had on that set and you are a very good director.’” High praise indeed, not only from a famous dad, but also one of Hollywood’s all-time biggest stars.
Peter Fonda has always been fond of Westerns. “Westerns are a great way of talking about us today, to couch [things] in historical terms or in science fiction terms, and you can get away with so much more. And [the Western] is the mythology of America.” Westerns, he observes, are very character- and actor-driven “and the characters are extremely dynamic. “
Speaking of character-driven, one of Fonda’s favorite characters is the central character of Ulysses “Ulee” Jackson—a reclusive Vietnam Vet turned beekeeper—in “Ulee’s Gold” (1997), an independent film written and directed by Victor Nuñez. Fonda won a Golden Globe award for his role and was also nominated for an Oscar.
“When I was a boy of 14,” Fonda recalls, “Gary Cooper said to me that [as an actor], if I know what I am doing, I don’t have to act. “And there are scripts and directors that set the tone, that tell the actor who the character is, and Victor Nuñez writes that type of script. In reading the script for “Ulee’s Gold,“ he recalls, “one direction on the page is that [my] character ‘leaves the room with gentle sorrow.’ And I asked ‘what the [heck] is gentle sorrow? I can’t find that in a dictionary!’
“After I finished the script for ‘Ulee’s Gold,’ I was so emotional and I looked up and started saying ‘I would like to thank the Academy…” because I knew it was the type of film that the audience, the academy responded well to.” Which they did, appreciating his complex portrayal of this seemingly distant and widowed vet who struggles with the difficulties of his grandchildren who are trapped in lives of drugs and crime.
“The scene to watch in ‘Ulee’s Gold’ is when I am with the ‘bad guys’ Eddie Flowers and Ferris Dooley, and we are trying to get the money [to get my granddaughter’s release] and I looked at Eddie and say something like, ‘Meeting someone like you Eddie has done me a world of good. It reminds me that there’s all kinds of weakness in the world, not all of it is evil. I forget from time to time.’”
Perhaps it is movie moments like this one that lead Fonda to reflect back on his own rebellious youth, ruefully observing that when all is said and done, today’s young kids have no idea what we learned by, or our foundation of civil rights, of actively pursuing goals. Even if no one else is picking up the call to action,” he notes, acknowledging that today, we are truly living in a different time and place.
What’s next in Peter Fonda’s life and career? At 73, Fonda makes it clear he has no plans for retirement. “Security and retirement are two of the dirtiest words I know,” Mr. Fonda says.
Backing up his proclamation, he is currently working on a TV movie, “HR,” with Alicia Silverstone, which is being directed by Darren Star. He’s also in pre-production on another feature film, “Milton’s Secret,” with director Barnet Bain.
At the same time, Fonda is also looking ahead for what’s next. “Who would I like to work with? I just saw ‘Lone Survivor,’” a 2013 American film on the War in Afghanistan “with Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster, and everyone in this film was amazing … When you watch this movie you are going to get really pissed. Why are we still there?”
“I would love to work with Mark Wahlberg,” declares Fonda. “He is good and he has pulled himself from one place to another and he is really good at it.”
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