Life & Culture

Remembering Peter Fonda, Easy Rider Star and Counterculture Sex Symbol

Paul Moody pays tribute to the film star, who died last week aged 79, whose iconic performance in Easy Rider gave the counterculture both a voice and a figurehead

Has there ever been a film star as cool as Peter Fonda in Easy Rider?

Steve McQueen might have looked the part in his A2 aviator jacket in The Great Escape, but his character, Virgil Hilts, was, ultimately, a baseball-obsessed member of the military. Clint Eastwood oozed grizzled machismo as the cigar-chomping ‘Man With No Name’ in A Fistful Of Dollars, but he still looked a bit daft in that green poncho. Even James Dean’s Harrington-wearing anti-hero Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause feels like a younger brother figure to Fonda’s character Wyatt, aka Captain America, in Easy Rider, the game-changing 1969 film Fonda produced and starred in.

A laconic figure dressed in embroidered Mexican shirts, motorcycle leathers and Ray-Ban Olympian sunglasses, Wyatt is both social revolutionary and hippie dreamboat, personifying the peripatetic, dissatisfied mood of America’s youth as the 60s faded out, summed up in the film’ nihilistic tagline: “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere.”

Unlike most successful film stars, however, Fonda wasn’t just acting. In November 1966 he’d been arrested during the ‘hippie riots’ on LA’s Sunset Strip, while when Easy Rider premiered in Cannes – where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or – he wore the uniform of a Union cavalry general to symbolise that America was embroiled in what felt like a Civil War between the young and the old, the hip and the straight. “As for my generation, it was time they started doing their own speaking,” he told The Associated Press in 1969. “There has been too much of the ‘silent majority’ – at both ends of the generation gap.” 

For Fonda, rebellion was in the blood. Born in New York on 23 February 1940, he was the only son of film star Henry Fonda and socialite Frances Ford Seymour. Kept at an emotional distance by his parents, his mother’s suicide and the breakdown of his father’s subsequent remarriage saw him banished to live with relatives in Nebraska as a teenager. Having quit an acting course in Omaha to become an actor he quickly made his mark, receiving the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Most Promising Young Actor in 1961.

Groomed to become a clean-cut star like his father, Fonda instead teamed up with maverick director Roger Corman to play biker gang leader Heavenly Blues in 1966 flick The Wild Angels. Here, Fonda’s iconoclastic streak was given free rein, with his character’s defiant courtroom speech – “we wanna be free to do what we wanna do...” – later sampled by Primal Scream for classic track Loaded. Having gained more success with Corman-directed follow-up The Trip – written by Jack Nicholson – Fonda decided to go a step further with his next project. “The idea for Easy Rider came to me while I was in Toronto promoting The Trip,” he later recalled. “I’d taken a couple of aspirins and was lying on the bed looking at a picture of Marlon Brando in his Wild One get-up. And then it came to me: a modern Western set on motorbikes.”

Hitting the road on Harley-Davidsons with the cash from a cocaine deal, Wyatt and sidekick Billy – a deranged Dennis Hopper – roar across America, all set to a groundbreaking contemporary soundtrack (Steppenwolf, Hendrix, The Byrds). Rather than the hippie stereotype, Fonda’s character is both ultra-modern and sizzlingly sexy. Short-haired and dressed in a tight, black leather suit with a star-spangled banner appliquéd on the back (created by Clarice Amberg at ABC Leathers in California), Wyatt is physical proof that a love of country needn’t always equate with an obsession with the past. All of which made the film’s brutal final scene all the more shocking. With its reliance on improvisation, authentic locations and ultra-relaxed feel – the actors were almost perpetually stoned on camera – Easy Rider also eschewed established modes of filmmaking.

Made in a little over seven weeks for $350,000 – raised by Fonda – it eventually grossed over $60 million worldwide, sending shockwaves through the studios and paving the way for independent cinema as we know it today. “The impact of Easy Rider, both on the filmmakers and the industry as a whole, was seismic,” wrote Peter Biskind in his definitive history of the period, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. “It defined a sensibility, opened Hollywood to the counterculture.”

Fonda’s career never hit such dizzy heights again, but by the fade-out on Easy Rider’s unforgettable final frames, his work was already done. Godspeed, Captain America.