Hollywood actor, best known for Easy Rider

Born: February 23, 1940;

Died: August 16, 2019

Peter Fonda, who has died of lung cancer aged 79, managed to be both the face of hippie rebellion and the man who saved Hollywood when the film industry looked like it was on its last legs in the late 1960s.

Fonda had already had a hit playing a biker in the low-budget movie The Wild Angels (1966) when he came up with the notion of a western that would feature two anti-heroes riding across the country but instead of riding horses they would be on motorbikes, pursuing the drugs deal that would make them rich. And that was how Easy Rider (1969) began.

Convinced he was onto a winner, Fonda phoned his buddie Dennis Hopper at 1.30 in the morning. They agreed that they would write it together, they would play the two bikers, Fonda would be the producer and Hopper would be director.

Producer Roger Corman, who had made The Wild Angels, was not convinced, but Fonda managed to secure a modest budget of $340,000 from Raybert Productions, which made The Monkees TV show and had links with Columbia Pictures.

It was risky to say the least. Peter Fonda was Hollywood royalty, the son of Henry Fonda, but he had a reputation as a maverick, while Hopper had a reputation as a complete madman.

The two fell out during the making of the film, there were physical fights on set and the shoot was by all accounts total chaos.

But the concept was sound, the film looked good and had a major distributor behind it and the soundtrack was great. Easy Rider tapped into the zeitgeist and grossed 100 times its budget.

It turned established Hollywood thinking and economics upside down, proving that the studios did not need to spend a fortune to make a profit. It also convinced them there was a huge market for counter-culture, rock music, drugs (on screen) and youthful rebellion.

Fonda and Hopper had their pick of projects. Hopper went off to Peru to make The Last Movie (1971), which proved an expensive and incomprehensible mess, while Fonda linked up with the Scottish writer Alan Sharp and directed and starred in the “hippie western” The Hired Hand (1971). It was a commercial flop at the time, but is now regarded as a minor classic.

Fonda’s subsequent output was distinctly uneven, though Easy Rider’s iconic status ensured multiple offers to play bikers, often as a direct nod to his iconic Easy Rider character Wyatt (a name that echoed his father’s role as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine). Wyatt, aka Captain America, was the epitome of cool with his chopper bike and long hair, dark glasses and leather jacket with the Stars and Stripes on the back.

Fonda shared his elder sister Jane’s outrage at perceived injustices and wrongs and caused outrage last year when he railed against the Trump administration’s policy of separating children and parents apprehended at the Mexican border. He suggested Trump’s own son Barron should be taken away and stuck in a cage with paedophiles. He later apologised.

Peter Henry Fonda was born in New York City in 1940, two years after Jane. His father Henry was already a major star. His mother was the socialite Frances Ford Seymour. She committed suicide in a mental institution when Fonda was ten.

On his 11th birthday Fonda accidentally shot himself in the stomach and was “technically dead” for a short while. Years later he shared an LSD trip with John Lennon and George Harrison, insisted on showing them his scar and told them “I know what’s it’s like to be dead”.

Lennon thought Fonda was very “very uncool” and asked him to leave – this was before Easy Rider. However Lennon later used the conversation and Fonda’s line “I know what it’s like to be dead” in the song She Said She Said.

Tall, slim and handsome, Fonda had been appearing in guest roles in television series, such as Wagon Train, since the early 1960s. He had a supporting role in the war film The Victors (1963), a major role as a patient in a mental institution in Lilith (1964) and a starring role in The Young Lovers (1964), before teaming up with Roger Corman on Wild Angels.

Wild Angels has acquired cult status over the years and his character’s speech outlining his philosophy has been quoted and sampled in subsequent works, including Primal Scream’s Loaded. “We wanna be free,” Fonda’s character tells the preacher at a biker’s funeral. “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do… We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man.”

Fonda played the Gary Cooper role in a TV sequel to High Noon called The Clock Strikes Noon Again (1966) and co-starred with Hopper in Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967), the title being a reference to drugs rather than tourism. It was written by Jack Nicholson.

Quite apart from turning Hollywood thinking upside down, Easy Rider was instrumental in changing the direction of Nicholson’s career after Fonda and Hopper cast him as as a drunken lawyer who joins up with the two main characters. Nicholson was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and Fonda and Hopper were nominated for the script, along with Terry Southern.

Fonda never found another role to rival that of Wyatt in Easy Rider though he won critical acclaim and was Oscar-nominated for his performance as a widowed beekeeper in the family drama Ulee’s Gold (1997).

Easy Rider’s iconic status ensured a steady flow of offers to play bikers, including the aging founder of a biker gang in the John Travolta movie Wild Hogs in 2007. It was a good year for Fonda, who was also seen as the supervillain Mephistopheles in Ghost Rider and a bounty hunter in the remake of the classic western 3.10 to Yuma.

Fonda was married three times and divorced twice. He is survived by his third wife Margaret DeVogelaere, two children from his first marriage Justin Fonda and actress Bridget Fonda and by his sister Jane Fonda.

Brian Pendreigh