“They’re gonna make it. Dig. They’re gonna make it.” — Captain America
Reading the news of Peter Fonda’s passing brought a number of memories to my mind. Chief of these is the image of Fonda as Captain America in the 1969 film Easy Rider. Reading the obituaries unearthed all kinds of other thoughts, a few of them which I wanted to briefly note here.
The detailed New York Times obit contained numerous bits of insight that I’d not been aware of. This quote by his sister was interesting, “He was my sweet-hearted baby brother. The talker of the family,” Jane Fonda said in a statement. This, of course, is especially amusing in light of the role he assumed as a strong quiet type in Easy Rider.
I also hadn’t known Fonda performed in more than a hundred films during his career. Jack Nicholson’s career certainly took off after Easy Rider, as did Dennis Hopper’s. Fonda was never the “name” that his father had been.
Another detail that surprised me was that his mother committed suicide when he was young, and that a year later he shot himself in the stomach, purportedly by accident.
As it turns out the senior Fonda had five marriages and was not the nicest man on the planet, described in various places as cold, heartless, and Narcissistic. And yet, many of his most famous roles deal — The Oxbow Incident, Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men — deal with justice and selfless concern for others.
Digging deeper, I discovered that when Henry was 14 his father brought him to witness the 1919 lynching of Will Brown. The event must have seared something into his heart, prompting him to produce 12 Angry Men years later and choose several roles that spoke out on behalf of the defenseless.
People are complicated, and fame makes life especially so.
Easy Rider’s success surprised a lot of people. The return on investment for this $400k film was $60 million worldwide.
The flick’s power lay in its instant connection to disenfranchised youth coming of age in a period when cities were burning and an irrational war was raging on the other side of the world. Fonda purportedly told the L.A. Times in 2018, “It was a market that had never been played to. Nobody had sung their song to them.”
More than the film itself, which I saw at the time, it was the album that came afterwards that sank it’s hooks into many young people’s fiber. The Easy Rider soundtrack enabled its message, a commentary on the times, to be effortlessly imbibed.
Several of the songs especially pierced me including Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” with its declaration, “I’m gonna wave my freak flag high.”
Most significant was Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” which was a scathing commentary on our times. I’ve several times written about the impact this song made on me, especially after seeing the film.
These were some of the thoughts and feelings triggered by the news of Peter Fonda’s passing.
On a lighter note, Peter Fonda was named Beekeeper of the Year by the Florida State Beekeeping Association.