Film: It hasn't been an easy ride

Peter Fonda's success as Captain America has been even more of a handicap than his famous father, writes James Mottram

When Peter Fonda lost Best Actor at last month's Oscars for his role in Ulee's Gold to his "old bike pal" Jack Nicholson, he had a smile on his face. He'd probably just got out of the biggest stretch limo he could find - sons, nephew, wife, daughter in tow - and told a reporter that these were Bruce Willis's bodyguards. At least, that's what he promised me he'd do.

He was back in the glare, after years in the wilderness. The ceremony was like an old boys' reunion, with Fonda "up with" (not "against", he chides) Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall - an actor at whose feet, almost 40 years ago, Fonda would literally sit, while learning his craft in New York.

"It's weird, it's far out," he says. "Jack called me up and said [adopting a fine Nicholson voice] `Fonda, I'm real happy for you.' I said, `Jack, we gotta ride on stage together on a chopper, no matter who wins.'"

With the skill of a master storyteller, Fonda, who is as candid as he is likeable, has a habit of telling you what you want to hear. Whether it is talking John Lennon down from a bad trip, or getting Nicholson ripped on the set of Easy Rider, Fonda can spin a yarn with the same warmth with which he once played practical jokes on his daughter Bridget (a little before she carried on the family tradition by toking for Tarantino in Jackie Brown). He speaks in hushed, dope-drenched tones, and transfixes you with his piercing blue eyes, beckoning you closer, as if he's about to tell you the secret of alchemy. And you'd believe him.

Ulee's Gold, directed by Victor Nunez, sees Fonda in his best role for years. As Ulysses "Ulee" Jackson, a Florida Vietnam veteran turned bee- keeper, entrusted with his jailbird son's grandchildren and junky daughter- in-law, he puts in a poignant, understated performance that recalls the remoteness (as well as the bee-keeping) associated with his father. An emotional cripple, closed off to outsiders, Jackson is a cathartic experience for Fonda Jnr.

A light year away from his iconic role as Captain America in the grass- fuelled biker-odyssey Easy Rider almost 30 years ago, Fonda's portrayal is not so much the culmination of a distinguished career, more a tribute to his persistence in pursuing his path. "I'm the only one that's given myself a chance to play this sort of character," he says, and he means it.

Son of Henry, brother to Jane, father to Bridget; the pedigree was second to none, the recognition not so. Post-Easy Rider, and his credible directorial debut, the neo-feminist Western The Hired Hand, which suffered at the box office (it was falsely marketed as a cash-in on his biker movies), Fonda dropped out of Hollywood. After marrying his second wife, Becky (gaining himself a stepson, Thomas), Fonda spent the early Seventies on an 86ft houseboat named Tatoosh. The work he did was sporadic, eclectic, or, as he puts it, "some very forgettable movies, thankfully forgotten".

Partly there to indulge his passions (he sang on Outlaw Blues, "I wanted to be the Everly Brothers with one mouth") Fonda faded from view. Race with the Devil, the recent Nadja, Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry ("Quentin Tarantino's favourite movie") apart, Fonda's canon has been at best embarrassing (Spasms); at worst self-parody. Mocking the icon of Captain America in the likes of Cannonball Run, John Carpenter's Escape from LA and Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart were pitiful attempts to work off the albatross.

"Can you imagine? Most of the time it's, like, `Can you get out from under the shadow of your father?' The shadow created by Easy Rider, and that character Captain America, was much bigger than the one I had to get out of by just being Henry Fonda's son. Nobody's Captain America. Nobody's that cool. It was just an idea, a name. My enigmatic way of playing it."

While Henry Fonda was playing the murdered outlaw Jesse James's brother in The Return of Frank James, Peter, who was born in 1939, fought for recognition from his remote father. A frail child, who suffered slaps at the table if he didn't eat his food, he longed to live up to his father's expectations. He spent his youth in Connecticut in order that Henry could star in Mister Roberts on Broadway, and was taunted at school by children telling him that his mother was crazy.

"Dad didn't understand Jane or me, because he never got close to us. We wanted him to, but we misread his aloofness, his distance, his anger. We felt we had done something wrong, that we couldn't please him," he admits.

Fonda's mother, Frances Seymour Brokaw, was Henry's second wife, from 1936. By 1950, when Fonda was 10, she was estranged from her husband and had taken her own life, slashing her throat with a razor blade at a sanitarium. The boy was told she had suffered a heart attack, and did not learn the truth for several years.

"It affected me because of the way my family dealt with it," he says. "When I was preparing my book [his autobiography, Don't Tell Dad], I went back to my school. I found out I was pretty damn smart then. But there was a letter to the principal from my father. It said, `Thank you for helping Peter through this difficult period. He seems to have come through it beautifully.' It was written a week after my mother's death. It took me 25 years to get through it; my father thought, `Well, he hasn't killed himself, he must be OK.'"

Reconciliation came at his father's deathbed, as Henry told his son that he loved him; this was three years after they had made their only screen appearance together, in the comedy Western Wanda Nevada.

A year after that film, Henry married Elaine Scott. The daydreams the boy Peter had once had, that his mother would die and his father would remarry the schoolteacher, had been almost prophetic.

His own, subconscious attempt at suicide brought his father to his bedside from his honeymoon in the Virgin Islands. Fooling with an antique pistol - loaded, unbeknown to him - Peter had shot himself through his stomach, liver and kidneys. The near-death experience inspired the Beatles' song "She Said She Said".

Fonda soon had to cope with more brushes with death. In 1960 his stepsister Bridget, the daughter of Henry's now-remarried first wife, died of an overdose, aged 2l. This was a woman Fonda had been so close to that he had named his daughter after her. That was followed a year later by the suicide of a college friend. Fonda dropped out of university, and found solace in acting. He was perhaps the least driven of his family - his talent was not as evident as that of Jane, who had been on stage with her father in her teens - but persistence led him to Hollywood, where he debuted in unremarkable fashion in Tammy and the Doctor in 1963. Despite the birth of a son, Fonda's marriage to Susan Brewer crumbled as his career soared.

Hooking up with Roger Corman's low-budget exploitation factory, American International Pictures, he took the role of Heavenly Blue, leader of the then-notorious Hell's Angels, in The Wild Angels. The Trip, scripted by Jack Nicholson, came next, but it was Easy Rider, which Fonda wrote, produced and starred in, that sent him stratospheric. Spearheading the counter- culture, Fonda became the antithesis of his father's personification of Midwestern American values, though he was much less of a campaigner than his sister Jane. A publicised feud years on with Dennis Hopper - the one topic Fonda remains silent on - concerning the director's share of the profits from the film, may taint the memory, but his status was sealed.

Success, with Fonda living the lifestyle (the mansion, the cars) had a price. By 1971 he was divorced; his record of failing relationships was echoing his father's. But from this came a marriage that was to sustain him.

"That's my real success - having pulled out of the ashes of fame a family that works. They were all damaged goods. My son and daughter had to suffer a divorce, as did my stepson Thomas. But the union of Becky and myself sucked them back in. They still have things to work out in their lives. But they're not junkies; they don't run away from reality. They deal with it. And that's what I did."

Now a professor of media and theatre studies at Montana university, he still revels in experimenting with, as well as lecturing on, his profession. "I'm addicted to live performance."

Again perpetuating the enigmatic myth behind Easy Rider, Fonda leans forward, as if disclosing trade secrets to his pupils. "What did I mean by [the film's climactic] `We blew it'? We fucked up, all of us. We had a chance and we fucked up. And we haven't got it right, even today."

`Ulee's Gold' opens today.

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