It’s ironic I suppose that two MotorMouth columns ago I focused on the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Art and Music Festival. Ironic because July 14, 2019 was the 50th anniversary of another legendary counterculture event– the film Easy Rider. Sadly, the co-writer and star of the film– Peter Fonda passed away just a couple of weeks ago at age 79 so I thought a column tribute here was the least I could do. Next to my desk where I write this column each month, I have a framed poster of the film so it also has a personal connection to me. Easy Rider also starred Dennis Hopper (RIP) and Jack Nicholson and grabbed Fonda his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Though he lived to see the 50th anniversary of the film, he passed away at 11:05am on August 16th. Peter was of course the son of screen legend Henry Fonda, the younger brother of Jane Fonda and the father of actress Bridget Fonda. His family’s statement reads, “It is with deep sorrow that we share the news that Peter Fonda has passed away. He passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles surrounded by family. The official cause of death was respiratory failure due to lung cancer. In one of the saddest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our hearts. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy.”
Some things you may not know about Easy Rider are 1) that it helped usher in the ‘New Hollywood’ movement of the 1970’s and 2) that Peter was inspired to write the film in 1967 in response to a speech by Jack Valenti, who was the newly appointed head of the Motion Picture Association of America. Valenti was advocating for more family-friendly films and this struck a nerve with Peter. Fonda reacted with an idea that flew right in the face of this new proposed motion picture direction. In a 2013 Role Recall interview with Yahoo Entertainment Fonda said, “And like a TV evangelist [Valenti] says, ‘It’s time we stopped making movies about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll and more movies like Doctor Dolittle’, but he’s looking right at me.” Soon after that, the ever-rebellious Fonda began writing the story of two drug-fueled motorcyclists who embarked on an ultimately tragic cross-country odyssey. The film was nominated for two Oscars. If you ride a motorcycle and have not seen it yet, what the hell is wrong with you?! It is a true classic. Seriously though, even if you do not ride, this film is worth watching as a peek into the 70’s biker scene and the flack many riders got just for being motorcyclists.
Quick trivia question – What other motorcycle-themed film did Fonda appear in many years after Easy Rider? If you guessed Nicolas Cage’s superhero film Ghost Rider you would be right. Go check that one out too but mainly for the special effects. It’s a fun film of redemption but to me, it does not carry the heavy cultural significance of Easy Rider.
Fonda leaves behind two children with ex-wife Susan Brewer: actress Bridget Fonda, 55, and Justin Fonda, 53. He is also survived by his third wife, Margaret “Parky” DeVogelaere, whom he married in 2011, sister Jane, 81, and half-sister Amy, 66. Fonda’s family also added in their statement, “While we mourn the loss of this sweet and gracious man, we also wish for all to celebrate his indomitable spirit and love of life. In honor of Peter, please raise a glass to freedom!” I’ll drink to that! Cheers Peter and thanks for helping to create one of the most iconic moto-centric counterculture films ever.