Long before Marvel swallowed up Hollywood, Peter Fonda was the original Captain America in 1969’s Easy Rider, a revolutionary film that redefined cinema. That wasn’t his only remarkable film, however. He earned a richly deserved Oscar nod as a beekeeper in 1997’s gem Ulee’s Gold.
I had the privilege of chatting with the film’s iconoclastic writer-director, Victor Nuñez, for an upcoming tribute to Peter in Closer. I only needed a few quick quotes for the magazine, but we ended up talking for 45 minutes. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How did you think to cast Peter Fonda as Ulee? He called me out of the blue in the middle of the night. At the time, to be honest, he was not on the radar. He said, “Hi, this is Peter Fonda, and I read your script” — we hadn’t sent it to him—“and I want you to know my dad was a beekeeper.” So of course, I wanted to say, “Well, wasn’t he Henry Fonda?” (laughs) And I did look it up and there’s a photograph of Henry with four or five beehives in his backyard in Beverly Hills.
There was skepticism about casting Peter. We had somebody else in mind, and he bailed at the last minute. I called the casting director and said, “Well, we go to Plan B,” and that was Peter.
Peter and this movie were supposed to be together. The minute he walked in the door, the casting director and I looked at each other and said, “Well, where has he been?” What he didn’t show us is he had carefully tucked his long, long ponytail behind his shirt, and as we were talking, he said, “I want you to know, I’ll get this cut off.”
What was interesting was he knew, in some very instinctive way, that he was born to play this part. So many actors say that, but in his case, it was right. He was a perfect match.
When the film first screened at Sundance, I was very paranoid. Afterwards, I saw a very famous film critic, and she was in tears. I said, “What’s wrong?” She said, “Who would’ve thought Captain America would become a Granddad?” The ’60s generation had gone from being young and crazy to having to deal with things like being a grandfather. I just thought it was the neatest comment, and it came out of the blue.
What was he like on the set? He was a trooper. He was not some kind of a flake. Boy, did he show up for work. These were grueling days. He was an inspiration to be around, great fun, and very humbling. Everybody was lucky. He would be the first to say he was lucky, and obviously the movie and we were very lucky. I was reading an article about Peter later, and he said it was the most fun he’d ever had making a movie. I thought, “Well, that’s a pretty good compliment.”
I was born in 1966, so I didn’t see Easy Rider when it came out. When I saw Ulee’s Gold, I immediately thought that Peter resembled his dad in On Golden Pond. Was that intentional? Wow! What was more interesting to me was Peter trying to figure out who Peter Fonda was as an old man. I was struck when we did some screen tests by how much he looked like his dad as he’d gotten older. But I don’t think there was any moment when he was trying to act like his dad.
Peter said Ulee’s relationships to his kids and grandkids mirrored his distance from his own dad. Interesting. He didn’t talk about that with me. He did tell me he was so glad he got to see his father before he died, and he got to make peace. I did not know until I read it in the obits that the glasses Peter wore as Ulee were the same ones Henry wore in On Golden Pond.
Jane said the closest she came to reconciliation with her dad was a scene in On Golden Pond. At first, it seems almost grotesque, but if your life is so invested in being an actor, the only way that intimate moment—the reconciliation between a child and parent—could’ve happened is in front of a camera. For these folks, being in front of a camera is as real as you and I visiting somebody in the hospital. That’s part of their power and why when we watch them, we connect with them so. Those moments are not contrived; they are real.
He had two kids himself, and I would suspect he channeled as much the problematic nature of being an actor himself with children. He certainly connected to those two kids [played by Vanessa Zima and Jessica Biel].
How did he get along with the bees? If you notice, when he’s dealing with the swarm, he wore a short-sleeve shirt, like real beekeepers do. The bees sense hostility or fear. If you don’t have that, they’ll leave you alone. He never once got bitten. I got bitten the last day of shooting on my fingertip, and it hurt like hell!
Were you surprised by the acclaim he received for such a subtle performance? Peter never complained about the fact that it was such a low-budget movie or asked for perks. He said, “Victor, I know I’m going to get mine on the back end.” So somehow Peter understood what was going on more than any of us. What we didn’t know was the incredible goodwill Peter had with a lot of folks.
There was something about his elan. As we get older, if we could only channel some of Peter’s presentness and appreciation for being where he was. Now he was not Mr. Perfection; none of us are. Part of what was amazing about him was he carried his history as a flawed, troubled human being with him, and he was still glad to be alive.
And he brought that to his performances, especially as Ulee. Exactly. That’s why it was a good part for him. I was friends with a lot of Vietnam vets, and they were mad at the world. But slowly, circumstances and their underlying decency brought out their better soul. Peter did an outstanding job with that.
When he won the Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar, how did he react? In one way, he was Hollywood royalty and in another, he was the ultimate outsider. It was something he wanted probably more than he could ever have admitted, even to himself. People ask if he was heart-broken to lose the Oscar. The only thing I ever heard him say was, “I knew Jack [Nicholson] was going to get that thing [for As Good As It Gets].”
It’s funny he lost to Jack, who stole Easy Rider from Peter as an actor. But Peter could’ve stopped that if he wanted to as Easy Rider’s producer. If you ever see Jack in a pre-Easy Rider movie… there’s some horror movie…
Little Shop of Horrors? Yes! He is terrible in that film. Who would ever believe that man would become one of the great actors of his generation? It was because of Easy Rider. It was a perfect fit for him. For Peter to be on the same stage with him at the Oscars was enough. And Jack did say something very nice about Peter in his speech.
What Jack was good at was becoming a self-caricature, and elevating that to a remarkable level. I’m not sure Peter was interested in that concept. He could certainly make fun of himself, though, like he did in Escape from L.A.
It’s funny how Peter could resonate with different generations. When Peter died, my son, who’s 23, said, “Oh my God, the grandpa from Thomas and the Magic Railroad died.” It was a silly kids’ movie, but Peter was wonderful in it. Well, it’s obviously not a silly movie, because your kid connected with it. By the time Peter did movies like that, Hollywood was already shrinking. When you think about the introduction of Marvel Comics…
But he was the original Captain America! Yes, he was. He always talked about how damn hard that chopper was to drive in Easy Rider. It was not something you would choose to do.
It was not an easy ride! Exactly. Isn’t that funny?
Do you remember the last time you saw him or spoke with him? The last time I saw him in person was at the opening of the 3:10 to Yuma remake in 2007. I said, “Boy, Peter, just as I was getting to like you, he picks you up and throws you over.” For Peter, that was a part. He just loved to work.
Then we talked on the phone a few times. I sent him an email in May. He had a mode he called “Deep Dive,” when he was really working on something. He wouldn’t answer his email. He just sent back a link to a newspaper article that didn’t make sense. I took it to mean, “I’m in the middle of something.” What I didn’t know was that he was in the middle of dying. He had his family and those closest to him around him.
Did he ever talk about Jane? Oh yeah, he loved her. I was puzzled by Jane’s line in her tribute to him about how Peter was her “sweet baby brother.” I would call Peter many things —generous, vital—but not sweet. Yet when I heard it, I understood.
What kept him working so hard right up until the end? I had tickets to see him speak at a screening of Easy Rider at Radio City Music Hall next month. What was amazing was the man didn’t age. He had a technique he was very willing to share with everybody. He would take two top-of-the-line leather shammies and soak them, then put them in the refrigerator. Then just before it was time to shoot, he’d put the shammies on his face. He said, “That’s why I look so good on screen.” He had the shammy method. He could’ve made a fortune selling it!
And he drank a lot of water. Long before it was fashionable to do it, he was always carrying a liter of water. He said, “I never have to pee. I sweat it out.”
What would you say Peter’s legacy is as an actor and a man? He’s always been there in the back of our minds. And in this era when pop-culture is on a 24/7 cycle, that’s kind of phenomenal and encouraging. Maybe he is just a reminder that there is the good stuff, and it’s important.