Death’s Angel: Peter Fonda in Easy Rider

Death’s Angel: Peter Fonda in <em>Easy Rider</em>

Amelia Heinle, as an ingenue in Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 The Limey, gazing at a psychedelic concert poster from the 1960s: “I like the colors.”

Peter Fonda (1940–2019), as her older lover, himself a relic of that lysergic decade, gazing at his reflection in a mirror, checking his hair, checking his teeth: “We all did.”

In 1966, Fonda—actor, director, celebrity biker, heartfelt activist, hilarious stoner, and consummate movie star—was handcuffed in a riot of colors on the Sunset Strip. It was all a crazy trip: hippies and tourists clogging intersections, demanding their freedom to go-go-go past an idiotic 10 p.m. curfew recently implemented by local businesses and other community-group squares. All the kids wanted was to stay up late, and to rock and roll without getting hassled by the Man. The Man, by definition unhip to those energies and desires, moved in. As ’60s riots went, it was all pretty tame. Jack Nicholson and Sonny and Cher were there; Frank Zappa and Buffalo Springfield wrote songs about it. It’s easy enough to picture Fonda—son of Henry, brother of Jane—in the midst of that madness, detained by the Fuzz, smiling his blinding, perfect-toothed smile at all of it. He’d be back within a year to turn those visions into the penultimate spasms of Roger Corman’s pro-LSD 1967 masterpiece The Trip, and there was more shaking yet to come. In 1969, Fonda and his filmmaking partner Dennis Hopper set off a riot all their own with Easy Rider, a film about the colors and the chaos and the head-trips of a new generation, a film that would seismically shift the commercial bedrock on which Hollywood was built.

Fonda knew all about Hollywood chaos: born the year his father starred in The Grapes of Wrath, he had grown up in a house haunted by both celebrity and suicide, and by ’66 he was dropping all the way out. Or was it all the way in? His mother had slit her own throat ten days after her forty-second birthday, when Fonda was just ten. Years later, when asked to recall his young life with his father, Fonda would sometimes simply curl his smile and inquire, “Well, you’ve seen Fort Apache . . . ?” His reference to John Ford’s 1948 cavalry classic, in which the elder Fonda plays an insufferable martinet, was meant to say all the incautious interlocutor needed to know about those particular Oedipal straits.

Twenty-six at the time of the Sunset Strip riots, Fonda had spent the early ’60s passionately expanding a Hollywood bag of his own, with a fistful of episodic TV guest spots, a mild-mannered leading role across from Sandra Dee in some Ross Hunter fluff (Tammy and the Doctor [1963], photographed by Russell Metty and as such the closest the actor would ever get to working with Douglas Sirk), and finally some real flexing of his acting chops (as a suicidal mental patient, no less) for a high-profile director in Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964). His star was slowly on the rise, his sideburns progressively wider. The riots happened the same year he became a drive-in movie icon, as the nihilistic biker-badass-in-black-leathers named Heavenly Blues (only heads knew what that meant) in Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels. But when the cops cuffed the actor on the Sunset Strip, near the shuttered-in-’67 nightclub Pandora’s Box (seen, not unpleasantly anachronistically, still standing in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood’s “1969”), Fonda just smiled and claimed he was there filming a movie. The Man smiled back. The cuffs came off.

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