Childhood & Early Life
Peter was born in New York City on 23rd February 1939 to Henry Fonda and Frances Seymour Brokaw. His father was at the peak of his career when he welcomed a son in his family and as a result, it was big news and almost entire Hollywood celebrated his birth and a new born Peter remained in the news for several days post his birth. He had an elder sister Jane, who also went on to become a famous actor.
Peter’s mother committed suicide when Peter was just 10, and this shaped his childhood up as he became a rebel and questioned the established orders of the world around him. He was always a rebellious kid and never quite wanted to become an actor. In one such irresponsible action, he accidentally shot himself on his eleventh birthday, and bled so much that he could have died in case of a few more minutes of delay but somehow, he recovered.
To handle his troubled mindset, he was sent away to a beautiful hill station in India - Nainital - amidst nature and beautiful sceneries. He described the event of shooting himself later to his friends, John Lennon and George Harrison, while on drugs one day and told them that he knew what it was like to be dead. Inspired from this statement, Lennon wrote a song for his band ‘The Beatles’ titled ‘She said she said’.
His studied at Fay School in Southborough. Peter Fonda was an average kid when it came to academics and he studied acting in an institute in Nebraska University. While studying at the University of Nebraska, Peter joined Omaha Community Playhouse, which was known as the beginning stage of many great actors such as his own father and Marlon Brando.
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Peter Fonda’s acting career officially kick-started in the late 50s to early 60s as he found work in Broadway with a production of ‘Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole’ among others.
He was in his early 20s then, and despite being the son of Henry Fonda, he wanted to bag the acting roles based on his own credits, which he did with signing the film ‘Tammy and the Doctor’. The producer of the film, Ross Hunter, was looking for a fresh face for his romantic film when he came across Peter’s performance in the Broadway plays. The film was released in 1963 and was a small hit.
With his very next film, ‘The Victors’, which was based on the Second World War, Peter received a Golden Globe Award for his performance. He played the main role in ‘The Young Lovers’ in 1964 and the film was a moderate success, although Peter’s performance was appreciated.
During this period, Peter starred in a few other films and made guest appearances in several Television shows, but he wasn’t able to find his true calling as he got tired of playing straightforward roles in conventionally structured films.
And just like that, a personal transformation happened in the mid 60s with Fonda growing long hair, taking LSD, going on cross country bike trips with his hippie friends. He had become sort of a rebel; Hollywood alienated him and being the son of Henry Fonda didn’t help him then. The roles became scarce and the few films that he did were the reflections of what sort of life he wanted to live. He starred in small ‘hippie’ films such as ‘The Trip’ and ‘The Wild Angels’.
He came back strongly again with the release of 1968 film ‘Easy Rider’, which he himself co-produced and co-wrote. Directed by Dennis Hopper, the film became a rage among the youngsters and was a commercial and critical success. The film also starred Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson; the latter went on to receive an Oscar nomination for the best actor in the supporting role category. The film, made independently on a budget of less than half a million, was an international rage and made more than 40 million USD worldwide.
The success of ‘Easy Rider’ infused a new life in Peter’s career and he turned his focus towards directing. He wrote and directed ‘The Last Movie’, a jungle epic filled with drugs and hippie culture signatures. In 1971 came ‘The Hired Hand’, which although met with negative reviews and commercial failure upon its release, was later regarded as a cult classic. A few more obscure films later, Fonda finally resorted back to acting in the mid 70s in a time when action movies were the rage.
‘Open Season’, ‘Race with the Devil’, ‘Killer Force’, ‘Future World’ were some of the action films which he starred in during the 70s. Although Fonda’s performances were more often than not, good, he remained behind the stage and never quite became what his father was. Most of the films starring him in the lead roles remained unknown and the ones that did release on bigger scale were considered very average. In the early 90s Fonda turned to the low budget independent films such as ‘Deadfall’ and ‘Rest & Motion’. His performance was appreciated in a low budget vampire film ‘Nadja’, produced by cult filmmaker, David Lynch.
His career took another massive turn with the release of ‘Ulee’s Gold’ in 1997, where he played the role of a beekeeper father of a convict son. His performance received universal acclaim and Fonda came into limelight once again as he received an academy award nomination for his role. A couple of years later Steven Soderbergh signed Fonda on for a rock producer’s role in the film ‘The Limey’.
Over the next few years, Fonda kept working in different films such as ‘3:10 to Yuma’ and ‘Wild Hogs’. Most of his earlier films, which were ignored earlier, were re-released and started gaining a cult following, especially ‘The Hired Hand’. Fonda was slowly gaining an iconic status as he kept working in films like ‘Japan’ and ‘The Runner’ in the more recent years.
Peter Fonda had also written an autobiography back in 1998, titled ‘Don’t Tell Dad’, an account of his ‘troubled’ relationship with his father.
Family & Personal Life
Peter Fonda got married thrice during his life and his personal life has been kind of rocky since the beginnings of his career. His first marriage was with Susan Jane Brewer in 1961 which lasted for thirteen years. He then went on to marry Portia Crockett and divorced her in 2011, to marry Margaret DeVogelaere. He has a son, Justin Fonda, and a daughter, Bridget Fonda, from his first marriage.
Peter Fonda died on 16 August 2019, at the age of 79, from respiratory failure due to lung cancer, at his home in Los Angeles.
Peter Fonda was notorious for being a drug addict in his early years as an adult and he famously quoted once that he didn’t trust anybody who didn’t take drugs.