Film / Feature

‘The day Peter Fonda blew my mind’

By robin askew, Sunday Aug 18, 2019

Interviewing film stars isn’t as much fun as you might think, largely because of all the bullshit involved. Often your name has to be submitted in advance for approval (there’s a blacklist?). Then you get a list of topics that are not to be discussed (usually the most interesting ones). A publicist or two may sit in on the interview, ready to intervene with their conversation-killing catchphrase: “Shall we get back to discussing the film?” Then the stars themselves may turn out to be depressingly over-cautious or dull, causing the interviewer to lose the will to live as they dribble on about being “in the moment” and how wonderful it was to work with everyone.

Just occasionally, however, you get someone who genuinely doesn’t give a fuck about playing by the rules. Such a star was the late Peter Fonda. Speaking to him back in 1998 was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had in the interviewing game. So in tribute to the great man, here’s that interview in full, as it originally appeared in Bristol what’s on mag Venue. A note about the context: Fonda was in the UK to publicise Ulee’s Gold, for which he received a well-deserved Oscar nomination. (He was beaten by his old chum and Easy Rider co-star Jack Nicholson for As Good as It Gets.) The autobiography he refers to, Don’t Tell Dad, was published later the same year. The Passion of Ayn Rand was broadcast on the US Showtime network in 1999. Fonda won a Golden Globe for his performance.

“When I was a boy/Everything was ri-ight/Everything was ri-ight/She said, I know what it’s like to be dead/Who put all that shit in my head?/You’re making me feel like I’ve never been born.”

Fifty-eight year-old sixties survivor Peter Fonda is singing at me, and it sounds about as twisted as those mangled lyrics, punctuated with a slightly scary edge-of-madness cackle that increases noticeably in frequency whenever Dennis Hopper is mentioned. Later, after a lecture on environmentalism which takes in discarded faecal matter, the importance of diatoms and the versatility of hemp, he will attempt to blow my mind, as they used to say back in the Summer of Love. ‘What’s he like?’ I’d enquired of Fonda’s publicist before my alotted half-hour. “Well, he’s Peter Fonda, you know?” came the reply. The next day, another publicist called to enquire how it went and to relay Fonda’s apologies for saying ‘motherfucker’ too often. I said that was perfectly OK as one can never have enough motherfuckers in Venue. Only when I came to transcribe the tape did I find that he hadn’t used the word at all.

Fonda, or Captain America to survivors of an earlier chemical generation, is holed up for four days in a plush Piccadilly hotel fielding questions about his starring role as a solitary Florida beekeeper in Ulee’s Gold, for which he has received a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination. It’s also his first decent part since, well, Race With the Devil in 1975. Yes, it is the role of his career, he agrees, and it’s complimentary to find himself compared to his late father Henry, who, he points out, was also well known for taking every role that was offered. No, he wasn’t frustrated waiting for a part as good as Ulee to come along because he’s lived a happy life and has never stopped working, making precisely 1.3 films a year all over the world, many of which haven’t been released here. So far, so straightforward. He’s probably been asked these questions ten times already today. But what I really want to know is whether it’s true that he was the inspiration for She Said She Said on the Beatles’ Revolver album. Suddenly, he brightens and the whole interview veers off in a far more entertaining, and often surreal direction.

“Well, everyone except Paul – everyone being David Crosby, Jim McGuinn, myself, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – took acid together in 1965. Apparently, George and John had been dosed earlier, and George was having a bad time at this particular moment. He said, ‘I feel like I’m dying’. And I said, ‘It’s alright. It’s part of the program. It’s your mind trying not to lose control. But the whole point is to wrest control from your mind and free it and see what happens. See what’s really in there, not what your mind tells you is in there. You know, I know what it’s like to be dead.  When I was a boy, I shot myself. I mean, everything was alright, you know? It was an accident. But I died three times on the operating table.  My heart stopped.  I lost too much blood. And I still made it through.’ And John Lennon said, ‘Who put all that shit in your head? You’re making me feel like I’ve never been born.’ And his eyes just lit up. It was several months later that he wrote the song, ‘cos he was still pretty much blasted on LSD.”

No one should under-estimate the importance of Easy Rider, which not only turned Fonda’s biker icon Captain America into a sixties poster boy to rival Che Guevara but also paved the way for the entire independent film industry we know today. But for Fonda personally, was it a millstone or a milestone? “Oh, it was a milestone for sure, never a millstone. But certainly, if I consider the difficulty of getting out from under the shadow of my father – being identified as Henry Fonda’s son, which of course is a biological fact, but not who I am  – I made myself a helluva lot bigger shadow when I made Easy Rider and had to try to step out of being Captain America. Nobody’s that cool. That’s just a character I wrote, you know.”

These days, there’s no love lost between Fonda and the film’s director Dennis Hopper. They fell out for good, he says, the second time Hopper sued him over the bread he claimed he was owed. “The first time he lost because we showed up with the contracts. The second time we got as far as having to make a settlement because my lawyers – foolishly, and against my advice – didn’t show up with the contracts in their hands, so the judge said, ‘Well, there must be some merit to this case, although I think it should be decided over a drink in a bar.’ Nevertheless, Dennis went out to say publicly that I cheated him out of, quote, millions and millions and millions of dollars, out of greed and envy. The greed was obviously for the money. The envy was that his career had taken off and mine hadn’t. Ha ha ha ha ha ha.” There’s that laugh again. “I want him to come up with one movie that made as much money as Dirty Mary Crazy Larry since he made Easy Rider. Just one. You know what? He can’t. Ha ha ha ha ha. What the fuck is he talking about? I don’t wanna see the man anymore. I have nothing left to talk to him about. I wanted to take it all the way out to the end and cost him a shitpile of money, but it was too much trouble and it took me away from things I have fun doing. So I settled it.”

Right wing politicians routinely blame Fonda’s generation for everything that’s gone wrong with America. How does he respond? “I say, ‘You guys are full of shit!’” he explodes, suddenly angry. “It was the beatniks. They were the ones that brought  the self-sanctified, abstract and arbitrary morality to its knees. In motion pictures, when we had a bedroom scene both actors had to have one foot on the floor. Even though the camera didn’t see it. Does that make sense to you?”

Certainly not. “Well, then, that’s really arbitrary morality then, isn’t it? And on top of that, we couldn’t kiss with open mouths. What the fuck is going on? I’m not saying we ought to be having fuck movies everywhere, but what is going on with the morality of people who express and control their situations by instituting such insane rules? In Daffy Duck’s words, they’re despicable. They should be stomped on at every chance.”

I never expected you to cite Daffy Duck in support of your political views. “Oh, absolutely. I am Daffy Duck. Who else do you know that can stand in front of a shotgun, take both barrel blasts, and still be there full of attitude saying, ‘That’s despicable!’”

Er, right. Trivia freaks who want to impress their pals about the incidental detail in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown will need to know that the film Bridget Fonda is seen watching on TV is her dad’s, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Fonda admits he enjoys getting killed in his movies (“That way I don’t get to repeat the character”), but what’s it like watching your own daughter being shot on screen? “Oh, I was really pissed at Bobby De Niro. I told him, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ And then, of course, two shots later Sam Jackson says to Bobby, ‘Why didn’t you just hit her? You didn’t have to shoot her.’ And he says, ‘Well, she had a nice ass.’ Ha ha ha ha ha. Oh boy. That Tarantino. I love it.”

We chat some more about the advice he gave his own children about drug use (“I didn’t mystify it in any way. I didn’t make any false moralities about it. And they’re all fine and straight, no problem. Guess what? I’m a lucky person. I’m a good father.”) and whether he was worried that they might turn into conservatives (“Oh no. I made sure they were all radical. Ha ha ha ha”), before he comes over all weird again, announcing gravely: “I don’t think you ought to be talking to me about politics.”

An odd remark for someone who’s talked about virtually nothing else for the last 20 minutes. How come? “Because you’ll end up jumping out of a window.”

I don’t think that’s true. “I think that’s very true. When you find out what I know, you’ll say, ‘Oh fuck, I’m through. I’m outta here.’ And you’ll find the nearest exit. That’ll be the closest window. No matter if it’s 40 storeys or four feet. You’ll be outta there.”

So if you know all this stuff, how come you’re not splatted on the pavement? “Oh, I know all the stuff,” he confides. “I just know not to back up and suffer severe tar damage.”

You what? “Yeah, there’s a sign in many parking lots in the United States: ‘Warning. Do Not Back Up. Severe Tar Damage.’ Think about that as a philosophy of life.”

You’re getting your philosophical insights from car parks in America now, then? “Well I just like to find ‘em in small short-burst phrases that encompass enormous attitude.”

I never did find out what he was on about, because he started to whinge about his publishers bringing forward publication of his autobiography to cash in on the Oscar hoopla, giving him little rest before attending the ceremony “to see if I’m the lucky one who walks away with The Man”, as he puts it. Would this, by any chance, be the autobiography he’s supposedly been writing since 1989? He seems a little wounded at the implied accusation of sloth. “I signed the contracts in ’89. I found my voice in Milan in 1990. I started truly writing it in 1993, and I do other things besides writing, so it’s taken me a while. But it is from my fingertips to your eyeballs. It is the truth and it is what happened, and those tawdry poachers that have managed to make money peddling stories about my family will be slapped in the face of morality.”

Wow! Can we expect surprises then? “You can count on it. Lots of surprises in this book. Ha ha ha ha ha.”

From what direction might they come? “Every direction. Every direction that you can imagine. And then several that you never thought possible.”

You’re determined to blow my mind here. “I am blowing your mind.”

The interview almost gets back on track when he talks about The Passion of Ayn Rand, which he’s just finished filming with Helen Mirren. But then I make the mistake of bringing up Rand herself, whom, I suggest, is something of an interesting figure. Whoa! – hold onto your horses. We’re off again. “Oh, Ayn Rand was a fascist, but the interesting part is that one of her collective, Alan Greenspan, is head of the Federal Reserve in the United States. That’ll tell you a little something about how smart we are. Talk about arbitrary morality. You’re looking at it when you’re looking at Ayn Rand. And you’re looking at it when you’re looking at Alan Greenspan. And you’re looking at it when you’re looking at your Prime Minister . . . “

Our Prime Minister? Tony Blair? Surely not? “Yeah, and I bet you’re looking at it when you look in the mirror too. I know I don’t.”

You, sir, are talking cobblers. How can you be so sure? “How can I be sure? Because I’m free. And that’s one thing I can tell you. You’ve got to be free. So come together. Right now. Over me.”

Are you just going to recite Beatles lyrics for the rest of this interview? “Oh no. I’m just having fun with life. Ha ha ha ha ha.”

I’ll have what he’s on.

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