'Fresh Air' Remembers 'Easy Rider' Peter Fonda The Oscar-nominated actor and screenwriter, who died Aug. 16, spoke to Terry Gross in 1998 about Ulee's Gold, Easy Rider and his acting philosophy of "doing less — and making more of it."
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'Fresh Air' Remembers 'Easy Rider' Peter Fonda

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'Fresh Air' Remembers 'Easy Rider' Peter Fonda

'Fresh Air' Remembers 'Easy Rider' Peter Fonda

'Fresh Air' Remembers 'Easy Rider' Peter Fonda

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/753698477/753770475" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Oscar-nominated actor and screenwriter, who died Aug. 16, spoke to Terry Gross in 1998 about Ulee's Gold, Easy Rider and his acting philosophy of "doing less — and making more of it."

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Actor Peter Fonda died last Friday in Los Angeles. He was 79. Fonda was part of an intergenerational Hollywood family - the son of Henry Fonda, the sister of Jane Fonda and father of Bridget Fonda.

Peter Fonda had an acting career of more than 50 years, with two Oscar nominations decades apart. The first, in 1969, was for the screenplay for "Easy Rider," which he co-wrote with Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern. Fonda also starred in the film, which became a counterculture classic, as a free-spirited motorcycle rider. And he earned a best actor nomination for the 1997 film "Ulee's Gold," where he played Ulee Jackson, a Vietnam vet and beekeeper. That was the occasion for Terry's interview with Peter Fonda. And they began with a clip from "Ulee's Gold."

In the film, Ulee's son is in prison for bank robbery. His daughter-in-law is a drug addict who's abandoned the children and left them with Ulee. Two of his son's robbery partners think the son hid the money from the robbery on Ulee's farm, and they're determined to find it. In this scene, Ulee's visiting his son, who wants Ulee to track down his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ULEE'S GOLD")

TOM WOOD: (As Jimmy Jackson) That's why you got to go get her right now while we know where she is before Eddie or Ferris do something to her.

PETER FONDA: (As Ulee Jackson) Get her, and then what? She left your kids - your kids, remember? This is my busiest time. I'm supposed to risk everything to go bring back a - as far as I'm concerned, she can just stay gone.

WOOD: (As Jimmy Jackson) She's sick, Dad.

FONDA: (As Ulee Jackson) I don't know nothing about dealing with scum like Eddie and Ferris. Besides, you think she's going to let me go in there, take her off just like that?

WOOD: (As Jimmy Jackson) You're all we got, Pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Peter Fonda, welcome to FRESH AIR.

FONDA: Thank you.

GROSS: You're playing someone in "Ulee's Gold" who's very, very inward, very reserved - someone who's surrounded by people much more volatile than he is. You write in your book that this part demanded the kind of performance only actors like your father give. What do you mean by that?

FONDA: Very understated, putting very little spin on the line, letting the moment play for itself - but that means you have to know what the moment is, find it and fill it and then let it go.

GROSS: What does that mean - find the moment and then let it go?

FONDA: The heaviest line in the film was when my character says to Eddie and Ferris that meeting - the line is, meeting someone like you, Eddie, has done me a world of good. And he says, how's that? I said, it reminds me that there's all kinds of weakness in the world. Not all of it is evil. I forget that from time to time.

You read that line flat - no spin on it. The power of the line is still there. It's like when I said, we blew it, at the end of "Easy Rider." I threw that line away. Actually, you know what, Billy? We blew it, flatlined it. It allows the power to come through more than if you try to overdramatize it. This is what my father was famous for - and many other actors, in that - for that matter. It's doing less and making more of it.

GROSS: Has your role in "Ulee's Gold" led to other interesting offers?

FONDA: Yes. I just finished "The Passion Of Ayn Rand" with Helen Mirren, who is really cool.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. She's great.

FONDA: And she's - I love her. And I believe that the offer that came to me to play Frank O'Connor, Ann Ryan's (ph) - Ayn Rand's husband - and I - when I read the script, I said, God, I'm just a piece of furniture in the background. How come they're offering me so much money? Then I said, oh, well, I guess what I'll be is the most comfortable chair you can imagine...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FONDA: ...So everyone who sees me will say, we want to stop and sit in that chair. And I found out how to do even more with even less than I had in Ulee. I was in every scene in "Ulee's Gold," doing less (laughter). I wasn't in every scene. After all, it's not called "The Passion Of Frank O'Connor." It's "The Passion Of Ayn Rand."

So I learned how to do a scene with one word. It's just the way I inflected and the way I'd say it, like well or well. And it was, as a matter of fact, the word well at one point. And Helen was just acting her buns off, being Ayn Rand - spooky, very spooky, very cool. And she says all this stuff and jabbering away in the back of a limousine. And I say, well. And Chris Menaul, the director, said, OK, cut. That's fine. Check the gates. That was perfect. And Helen looked at me and started hitting me over the head with pages from the script. Damn, I am working my a** here, and you get away with just saying, well. And you steal the scene.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FONDA: Now, this is a wonderful compliment coming from...

GROSS: All right.

FONDA: ...Helen Mirren.

GROSS: The roles that you first really became famous for were biker roles. So before we get to some of those roles, how did you first meet Dennis Hopper, who was your collaborator?

FONDA: Right. I met Dennis at the reception to his wedding to a person named Brooke Haywardue (ph), whom I'd grown up with and was, like, kind of my older sister, like Jane, but not really like Jane in the long run. We all kind of got damaged together, you might say. And so...

(LAUGHTER)

FONDA: ...At her wedding, I was there. Their reception was held in my sister's apartment in New York in 1960, and that's when I met Dennis the first time.

GROSS: And what hooked you up together? I mean, what did you see in each other?

FONDA: A certain energy and frustration and the ability to collaborate to break through that and the ability to find ideas that were new and different. And fortunately for me, I got turned on to some of the great bits of American art, the artists themselves, their work, the pop art scene. Everything Dennis was into, I just absorbed like a sponge. So he was a gateway to lots of cool things that were happening in my life.

GROSS: Well, you wrote a screenplay together called "Yin And Yang," and I think it was that screenplay that led you to Roger Corman. And Roger Corman cast you in his film "Wild Angels," which was about bikers - about the Hells Angels.

FONDA: Notice how you had to stammer just for a second. It was about - what was it about?

GROSS: Yeah. Well, this is a, you know - you're, like, you know, the leader of a Hells Angels gang, a kind of real switch from previous roles that you had in movies like "Tammy And The Doctor" and "Lilith." What did you think of yourself as being the biker?

FONDA: Well, I mean, I liked the job I did in "Lilith." I thought I fit the bill well. And in my later years now, I'm enjoying hearing that from people. But I didn't want to be cast as the same sensitive roles all the time, and that's what my agents had in mind for me. They thought - they wanted me to become the next Dean Jones for Disney. I had other thoughts afoot here. I was a bit too radical for that. So I started to strike out in a different way.

GROSS: Now, why do you think Corman cast you in the biker role?

FONDA: I think he saw me as this very rebellious person who didn't give a rat's a** and went out there and just did what was most, I guess, obnoxious, or at least...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FONDA: ...Shook the cage - whatever would shake the cage the most into any kind of really set-in legislative morality. I really believe that there's - abstract morality has no place in our political or our everyday lives. And I mean, arbitrary morality - and abstract authority certainly doesn't. So he saw me as somebody who was always watching for something to step on that looked like abstract authority or arbitrary morality. It's been a long time since I've had to talk about arbitrary morality.

A very funny thing happened to me in my life. I came over to my dad's house post-"Easy Rider." You know, I figured it's a family house, so I'm part of the family. Truck on in. You don't have to call and ask for permission - and ran into my father and three of his agents and lawyer types, his business managers and lawyer types and his fifth wife Shirley. And I walked on in and sat down, just listening to what was going on. And somehow or other - and I really don't remember exactly how. I wish I did - the conversation turned against me about how, as I didn't believe in the laws governing the use of marijuana - did not give me the right to break that law. You know, laws were laws, and they were made to be kept. And there was a reason for laws. And I - you know, this - these guys just stepped on a landmine. They don't even know it. Wait till they step off and it clicks and they're gone - because I said, well, now, hold on, you guys. There is a law in the state of California on the books that forbids oral copulation. And...

GROSS: (Laughter) This is a great way to endear yourself to your family.

FONDA: Oh, by this time, my family...

GROSS: Too late.

FONDA: Yeah, you got it.

GROSS: Right.

FONDA: And they'd all skated. I was the family.

GROSS: So listen. When you were cast in "Wild Angels," were you already riding a motorcycle?

FONDA: Yeah. Yeah. I'd been riding around a lot with various other glitterati - McQueen and Brando, myself, Ted Markland - people that...

GROSS: Oh, boy. It would've been fun to see you and Brando, who had also played a biker, riding around together.

FONDA: Oh, yeah. Actually, I...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FONDA: He asked me to come by his house one afternoon. He said, come by my house. I left my motorcycle down at Wally Cox's, and I want you to take me down there. I said, sure, Bud. We called him Bud because that was what he was known as as a young man in Omaha. I said, yeah, Bud, I'll come by. He said, but bring your Bonneville. I had a Triumph Bonneville. You know, I thought maybe a car would suffice, but oh, sure. You can ride in the back of my motorcycle. As we were driving down Ventura Boulevard trying to beat the rain, Marlon leaned forward and whispered in my ear, did you hate your father? (Laughter) I thought to myself, that's the strangest question to ever come from this dude...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FONDA: ...Who's holding on - his arms around me. I'm wondering, why does he have his arms around - what am I in for with Marlon here? (Laughter).

GROSS: What'd you say?

FONDA: I just said no.

GROSS: Right.

FONDA: In the long run, Marlon, no. And I knew that I loved my father. I was confused and wondered whether he loved me.

DAVIES: Peter Fonda speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1998. Fonda died last week at the age of 79. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE POLITICIANS SONG, "FREE YOUR MIND")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to the interview Terry Gross recorded in 1998 with Peter Fonda. Fonda died last week at the age of 79.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I think it's time to hear a scene from "Wild Angels"...

FONDA: Uh-oh.

GROSS: ...Your first biker film.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And - now, in this scene, you're at the funeral of a biker - a biker played by Bruce Dern - and his coffin is covered by a Nazi flag. There's a minister delivering a eulogy, which you think is really phony. So you interrupt the eulogy to say this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WILD ANGELS")

FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) Yeah, we don't want nobody telling us what to do. We don't want nobody pushing us around.

(CHEERING)

FRANK MAXWELL: (As Preacher) I apologize. But tell me - just what is it that you want to do?

FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) Well, we want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride, and we want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the man.

(CHEERING)

FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) And we want to get loaded.

(CHEERING)

FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) And we want to have a good time.

(CHEERING)

FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) And that's what we're going to do.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Away, baby - let's go.

FONDA: (As Heavenly Blues) We're going to have a good time. We're going to have a party.

(CHEERING)

GROSS: And as you can hear, they are totally tearing apart the church.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Peter Fonda, your thoughts listening back to this scene?

FONDA: Far-out.

(LAUGHTER)

FONDA: That's...

GROSS: Groovy would be the other alternative.

FONDA: No, no, not groovy - just far-out. And you know, what the heck? You would have to pick that scene...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FONDA: ...Which - I didn't write it.

GROSS: Who did?

FONDA: I can't remember (laughter).

GROSS: How did those lines sound to you at the time? You want to be free to not be hassled by the man.

FONDA: I thought I had a better way of saying it, but I was reminded that I was playing the leader of a motorcycle gang and didn't necessarily have that larger vocabulary.

GROSS: Now, there is a poster of you from this movie that you say sold - what? - 16 million copies in America or something like that.

FONDA: Easily, yeah.

GROSS: How seriously did you take yourself at the time as a biker icon?

FONDA: I didn't even put those two things together. I was brought into Corman's office. He was over at 20th Century Fox - had a deal making films over there. And he said he wanted to make - and my hair was rather long, and I was considered a weird hippie. And he said he wanted to make a motorcycle movie - a movie about the Hells Angels that wasn't making a statement, which I found to be rather far-out because I think any time you make a movie about the Hells Angels, you're covering statement all over the place.

So I thought, well, let's see if he can do it. I said, I'm in. And eventually, I was called. And actually, the first time I was called, I was called to play Bruce Dern's part.

GROSS: The Loser.

FONDA: The Loser, yeah. And I said, oh, I can do this one easily.

(LAUGHTER)

FONDA: Anyway, it turned out that the fellow who was cast to play the part that I ended up playing didn't know how to ride a motorcycle, so I got the gig, but at the same price I got to play for being the Loser, who's a stiff for about a third of the film.

GROSS: Right. It's funny - when you were young and going to boarding school and private school, you write that you had the image of being a sissy. And for a while, you were even called Fairy Fonda. That was, in part, because you had to play the role of a fair maiden in "The Pirates Of Penzance" at an all-boys school (laughter).

FONDA: Also the fact that I weighed probably 82 pounds.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. You were real, like, skinnymarink (ph) at the time. Anyways, it's a kind of far cry from that image - you know, from the sissy image that you had to - you know, the biker.

FONDA: Worked.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did you like that change? Did you find it amusing, or did you take it really seriously?

FONDA: Well, that particular part of the change I found very amusing. And even writing the script with Dennis, it was a lot of fun and amusement to it. I was definitely bent to do something different in my life, and I went for it.

GROSS: Let's...

FONDA: The next film - oh, yeah. What are you going to do next to me? Let me find out if I should chain myself to this chair and handcuff myself so I don't come crawling through the mic.

GROSS: (Laughter) I have a question about Roger Corman's "The Trip," but you'll be spared from any clips.

FONDA: Roll the clips. I can handle it (laughter).

GROSS: OK. This is an LSD movie, with lots of, like, swirling, psychedelic colors intercut in the trip scenes. Now were you already - I imagine you were already tripping a lot yourself when you shot this movie.

FONDA: No, no. You couldn't really do that. I think I'd end up looking at the camera and just starting to crack up thinking these guys are really serious, aren't they?

GROSS: No, I don't mean while making the movie, but I mean - I don't mean you were high during the shooting of the movie necessarily, but you already knew a lot about acid traps by the time you made the movie, right?

FONDA: Not a lot.

GROSS: Not a lot.

FONDA: I think probably - I only took - my reputation for consumption far exceeds the actual amount of controlled substances that I ever attempted or tried. But I knew what it was. I knew what it was. I had an altered state several times before Roger and I talked about making a movie about that thing. And I tried to get Roger to go for it, too, so he'd know what an altered state was because I was very specific, and I said it's not, you know, about flashing lights and swirling things overlaid on images on film. That's what you see in the discotheques because they don't know how to recreate it.

And Jack Nicholson wrote the script. And Jack's script was absolutely brilliant. He did it all with stock footage, some footage that we would shoot in a cutting matter. In other words, he made the rhythm of the cuts and what the visual image was against your eyes into an altered state. It was a brilliant thing. And Roger copped to the flashing lights and swirly things overlaid images of the rest of us, which rather disappointed me.

But the good part about it all was first, that I got to work with Dennis Hopper, who was in the film in a supporting role by telling Roger, who was not going to shoot some of the images that were really necessary to make something out of it. And Dennis and I went off of the camera and film to the desert and shot stuff of me running through sand dunes and things like that. They didn't cut very well, but you could see the difference in the footage we shot compared to the footage that Roger shot.

GROSS: Now how did you and Dennis Hopper decide to do "Easy Rider," your own version of a biker film?

FONDA: That was in Toronto, Canada in September of 1967, attending a big convention of theater owners and exhibitors and distributors. And at the second day of lunch with 1,200 people, I was up at a big table. I had a very nice, custom-made double-breasted suit and a really cool shirt and tie. I had no shoes or socks, so everybody who had come in to visit me to interview me just couldn't take their eyes off the fact that I had bare feet. And they'd just stare at the bare feet, which was, of course, the desired effect.

And back the day before when I was given my lesson by Jack Valenti, he looked right at me as I was sitting down on the floor with the rest of the pleebs and said we have to stop making movies about motorcycles, sex and drugs and start making more and more movies like "Dr. Doolittle," which cost $27 million.

And I went back to my room. OK, no more sex - motorcycles, sex and drug movies, but I'd come up with this story the night before I said that line of "Easy Rider." Called Dennis on the phone. It was 4:30 Toronto time on the 27th of September, 1967 (laughter) and 1:30 in LA time. And I called Dennis, told him the story that I made up. And he said that's far out. What are you going to do? I said, well, I thought you direct it. I'll produce it. We both write it and act in it. We could save some money, and I believe we'd make a movie that would be commercially successful. And that's how it started.

GROSS: What did you want your motorcycle to look like for the movie?

FONDA: Just what it looked like - all that steel and all that engine between my legs and that red, white and blue and star-spangled gas tank. I thought it was like a huge, phallic symbol, that I'd be riding across the country.

GROSS: And that's the effect you wanted.

FONDA: Exactly, and Dennis wanted me in white leathers. And I said, no, no, no, this isn't Evel Knievel. We stay in black leathers.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FONDA: We don't want to count out the S&M crowd from this movie. We want to get as many people in here as possible. And black leather plays a lot better. Believe me, Dennis. And so, you know, at any rate, I put spurs on even. Very few people realize I was wearing spurs during that movie. I was trying to tell you that we were making a western that happened to have sex and drugs and motorcycles in it.

DAVIES: Peter Fonda speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1998 Fonda died last week in Los Angeles. He was 79. After a break, we'll hear more of the interview. Also, Ken Tucker tells us about some of his favorite late summer songs. And John Powers reviews the new Netflix documentary "American Factory," the first in a series produced by the Obamas. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WASN'T BORN TO FOLLOW")

THE BYRDS: (Singing) No, I'd rather go and journey where the diamond crescent's glowing and run across the valley beneath the sacred mountain. And wander through the forest where the trees have leaves of prisms and break the light in colors that no one knows the names of. And when it's time, I'll go and lay beside a legendary fountain until I see your form reflected in it's clear and jeweled waters. And if you think I'm ready you may lead me to the chasm where the rivers of our vision flow into one another.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're listening to Terry's 1998 interview with actor Peter Fonda, who died last week at the age of 79. Fonda is best remembered for his role as a free-spirited motorcycle rider in the 1969 film "Easy Rider."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You say in your book that as soon as you had your motorcycle and your leathers, you started writing the LA freeway at night to practice, I guess. But you were stopped every night by the police. What were those encounters like?

FONDA: Well, I was stopped because I was wearing the flag on the back. I had the costume on, and I had the flag in the back of my jacket, and they thought I was degrading the flag. So they would arrest me. And of course, I made sure that it didn't have any money with me. I had my driver's license and Platinum American Express card, but no money. And they would bust me for vagrancy and take me down. Eventually, they'd have to let me go and bring me back to my motorcycle. And off I'd go and riding around.

After the success of the film in 1969, by 1970, every cop car had a flag on its fender. Every cop had a flag on his sleeve. And suddenly, it was hip to wear flags wherever you wanted them all the time. It was more of an homage than it was something against the country. I got the idea, by the way, from John Wayne in "Flying Tigers," only I decided that the national Chinese flag wouldn't really work too well in "Easy Rider."

GROSS: Now time for another scene.

FONDA: Uh oh.

GROSS: In this scene...

FONDA: This noose is getting tighter every time, but I can handle it. I can handle it.

GROSS: (Laughter) This is one of your scenes in "Easy Rider" with Jack Nicholson. And Jack Nicholson is an alcoholic lawyer. And in this scene, you're giving him his first joint. You're convincing him...

FONDA: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...To try marijuana. Let's hear the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EASY RIDER")

FONDA: (As Wyatt) Go ahead, George. Light it up.

JACK NICHOLSON: (As George Hanson) Oh, no, no, no, no. I couldn't do that. I mean, I've got enough problems with the booze and all. I mean, I can't afford to get hooked.

FONDA: (As Wyatt) You won't get hooked.

NICHOLSON: (As George Hanson) Yeah, well, I know. But, I mean, it leads to harder stuff. You say it's all right? Well, all right then. How do I do it?

FONDA: (As Wyatt) Here.

NICHOLSON: (As George Hanson) Well, it's got a real nice taste to it, though I don't suppose it'll do me much good, though. I mean, I'm so used to the booze and everything.

FONDA: (As Wyatt) You've got to hold it in your lungs longer, George.

GROSS: Your memories of shooting that scene?

FONDA: Well, you can't see me in my end of the world. I was running all the lines, lip-syncing them to the folks in our engineering room just for the heck of it. Yeah, I remember that. Of course, there's these long pauses, and you wonder what's going on. It's center-cutting between me and Jack and the looks I'm giving it because I don't really make a comment about whether the grass is good or bad or getting hooked. I just, you know, look at him and smile.

GROSS: Now what did your father, Henry Fonda, think of "Easy Rider" and your image as, you know, the countercultural movie star who rode a motorcycle and went on, you know, trips of both kinds - the acid and road kind?

FONDA: Well, I'm sure that he wasn't thrilled with the whole thing. But he knew that I was very serious as a producer, and that I had put this thing down as an original story and then co-wrote it with Dennis and Terry Southern into a screenplay.

GROSS: And in movie terms, it made a fortune. I mean, you know...

FONDA: Yeah, but he didn't know that yet.

GROSS: Right, right.

FONDA: I knew we would make some money, and therefore Dennis and I would have a track record, and we can make another motion picture. It was later into it that I realized how far out it would go.

And my dad - by this time, by the way, I realized we were going to go to a much broader audience than I figured originally. My dad said, you know, this is pretty thin here. I don't think people are going to understand what's happening. I mean, we don't know where you're going. I said, well, Dad, why don't you take the trip with us and find out what we find out, discover what we discover? He said, well, that's pretty thin. I mean, where are you going? We need to know so we can take that trip with you. And I said, well, Dennis says I'm going down to Mardi Gras. I'm going to get me a Mardi Gras queen in the first campfire. Dad said, well, son, that's a little bit thin. I don't think that'll hang in there. I don't - the audience I don't think will stay with you. And I'm worried for you because I know you've got all your eggs in this basket.

And he was entitled to his opinion, which was probably the way that most of the establishment, liberal or conservative, saw the particular movie. But what he hadn't factored in - in fact, I wish I was smart enough to say that I factored it in was as the flower children and hippies came into being, we had our own language. We had our own art. We had our own poetry, music, our whole morality, our customs. What we didn't have was our own movie. And when "Easy Rider" popped on, that became our own movie. And that transcended everything else and became the icon that it was.

GROSS: Now later in life, you were in a motorcycle accident. And you broke your back and broke your neck.

FONDA: The neck was the second time.

GROSS: The second time you broke your neck in a motorcycle accident?

FONDA: Just the second time I broke my neck.

GROSS: How'd you break it the first time?

FONDA: Oh, I was thrown out of a barn window when I was 6 years old at a boarding school in Topanga Canyon. I was sent away to first grade in order to make a man out of me. You try to put together the logic of a 6-year-old becoming a man (laughter). All I was was a target for the older boys who were kind of problem boys and sent to this farm school for that reason and beaten up, or sand was put in my bed. Basically, life was made real miserable for me. And it was the beginning of my understanding - understanding how society was going to treat Henry Fonda's son.

Anyway, these jokers threw me out of the barn window about 25 feet down onto some hard earth. And I hit it with my chin and the palms of my hand. And I would find out later in 1985 when I had my second bad motorcycle accident that I had broken my neck when I was 6 years old because the doctors looking at the X-rays - I was kind of strapped to this very straight chair, and the doctor is looking at the X-rays were saying look at over here, look at the ribs. And I said the ones on the left side, those are Jack Nicholson. He broke them by slamming his legs together when he thought the bike was getting out of control crossing Wantmor Bridge (ph).

And they said, look at the neck here. And I said ooh, gosh, the neck to myself, you know, looking at my toes and fingers and realizing I can move them, and I can move my head. So nothing's severed yet. Yeah, but look down here. And the radiologist said, well, that's a really old break. And all the doctors agree that it was an old break. And the lead doctor turned to me, and he said, do you remember having a trauma to your head when you were 6 or 7? Bang.

GROSS: Did you ride a bike again after you broke your back and your neck?

FONDA: Not for five years.

GROSS: But do you ride it now?

FONDA: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Now I want to go back to the very beginning, you know, when you were a kid. Where was your father in his career when you were a child - when you were, like, 5 or 6?

FONDA: That's a hard one. I remember we visited him on the set of - might not - "Fort Apache." It was the first time we saw him on a set - at least, the first time I saw him on a set. But otherwise, we were kind of not sure what he did (laughter). You know, we weren't positive about it. At least, I wasn't. I thought maybe my mom had all the money and dad was just having a good time. And as it ended up later, I found out what kind of work acting was really all about.

GROSS: Your father's movies kept him away from home and from you a lot of the time. Did you resent his movie career?

FONDA: Actually, I was the lucky one. After the debacle of the boarding school for boys up in Topanga Canyon, I was kept at home and tutored at home. So when my father was in between movies, I got to see him more often than my sisters did. And so I was the lucky one of the crowd. But he made a lot of money. I was born in 1940. Between 1940 and when he went off to fight in the Second World War in 1943, he made 12 movies.

GROSS: Wow. Was he a very strict father with you when he was around?

FONDA: He was strict. But, I mean, he didn't carry a bullwhip. But he was very critical of Jane and me, very quick to criticize. And...

GROSS: What was he down on you for?

FONDA: I suppose - well, as an example, I remember one night when - it's in the dining room table. God announced - because whenever dad would say something, it was like an announcement from God and - with an angry face at that. God announced, where is the salt shaker? Oh, man. I buried my hands, and I thought, oh, my goodness. I left it out on the lawn because I'd been told by my mother that the way to catch birds was to pour salt on their tails. And, of course, I spent many hours crawling across the grass on my belly with a salt shaker in my hand. It took me a long time to find out the euphemism was if you got close enough to the bird to put salt on his tail, you could catch the damn thing. (Laughter) But I didn't - you know? Meanwhile, I'd leave the salt shaker out there and have - suffer the...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FONDA: ...Consequences of such a very, I think, funny and childish thing. But there was a major no-no - like, who ate the apple (laughter), you know? God was asking, who ate the apple? One time, when he came home on leave, I went to look at his personal things. I always did that with my parents, wondering what they meant, what these talismans were in their life. And I went and looked at his dog tags and stuff and pulled a piece of candy out of this huge brandy snifter that was where he kept pennies and pieces of candy in his dressing room.

I came back out and sat on the couch next to him sucking on a candy. I think it was licorice. And he asked me, where'd I get the candy? But the way he said it was, like, who got the apple out of the tree? And, you know, I realized, uh-oh - I'm in for it big time. I just found it. Liar - and he - I jumped off that couch. Man, I was upstairs faster than Rafer Johnson could've made it upstairs, even at my weight and age, got into my bathroom and locked the door.

Of course, it was an early American lock, and it held only through two kicks to - for my father to kick in the door. And he spanked me with what I assumed to be the world's largest hairbrush. You know, there was a much better way to have dealt this story of not telling the truth or whatever it might be or not asking permission to have a piece of candy than breaking down the door to the bathroom. I never did that to my kids.

GROSS: When you and your sister Jane were kids, did you have any clue that you would actually pursue acting careers yourselves? Or did you both think as kids that you'd head in some completely opposite direction?

FONDA: How old are kids?

GROSS: So you went through different phases on this (laughter).

FONDA: No. I mean, I appeared in plays and stuff during school. I didn't realize it was a job till way late in the game. But it was 19 and in college that I discovered that's what I wanted to do. I desperately wanted to sing, but that's what I want to do. As for Jane and how she came to the decision, I don't know. I remember things happening in her life, but she never said to me, guess what? You know, I'm going to do this. She just was there doing it.

GROSS: Are you surprised that your daughter Bridget has become an actress, too?

FONDA: Yeah, except that she's extraordinarily beautiful. She has great presence, and she has talent and knows how to work it. See; these things aren't passed on genetically or I would have been manipulating my genes a long time ago.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, Peter Fonda, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

FONDA: My pleasure.

DAVIES: Peter Fonda speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1998. Fonda died last week in Los Angeles. He was 79.

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker shares some of his favorite late-summer songs. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MGMT SONG, "ELECTRIC FEEL")

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