“In my own country I am in a far-off land,” so begins the François Villon epigraph that opens Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal gonzo novel Hell’s Angels. In it, Thompson documents the lifestyles of the most radical offshoot of 1960s counterculture in the form of biker gangs. With this epigraph that dates back to the 1400s, he reminds us that although counterculture may have been christened with its own etymology and propagated its own recognisable set of iconography in a wave of propaganda, it was far from a new sensation.
As Villon poeticised centuries ago, a feeling of cultural indifference is nothing new. In Thompson’s novel, which was published in 1967 two years before the release of Easy Rider, he depicts the hoodlum circus straddled upon growling engines as disillusioned wayfarers looking to recapture ‘kicks’. ‘Kicks’ that they felt had sailed by them in an unspooling slow-motion drift of enforced mechanical oppression.
Counterculture was not some uproarious youth movement but rather the manifestation of mass disillusionment and a frustrated stand against the comatose upheaval of apathy and inaction. Up until Easy Rider, most pictures that tried to capture the zeitgeist failed on this front. As Quentin Tarantino puts it when discussing the movies of the swinging sixties online, the kids of the counterculture were able to identify Easy Rider as “a movie for us, by people like us.”
Tarantino takes this assertion a step further and calls the movie “the single greatest example of ’60s cinema in every way.” Easy Rider was the moment that “finally a movie and the counterculture hooked-up with each other.”
At the heart of Dennis Hopper’s motorcycle fable is one of the key proponents of bringing the ’60s demimonde to the big screen — Peter Fonda. His iconic performance alongside Jack Nicholson and Hopper himself launched the indie movie into the realm of mainstream success. Riding alongside the critical acclaim the film received was an unexpected surge of commercial interest.
Fonda’s gruff poster boy looks were a vital component of this. He fulfilled that all-important movie mantra of ‘looking the part’. It wasn’t just his stone-carved appearance that worked, but the fact that he didn’t look Hollywood. He wasn’t some moisturised mega-star with stick-on sideburns but a lead that seemed to embody the era’s aesthetic and attitude, at least on the surface. It was this intertwining kinship between cinema and reality that the counterculture had been craving, and when Hopper and Fonda delivered it, it struck a very profitable chord.
Easy Rider went on to make around $30 million at the time, a simply astronomical amount. Henry Fonda, Peter’s father, remarked that his son had inadvertently created a movie that made more money than all of his put together.
This outlaw notion of Fonda’s onscreen presence persisted throughout his career. No matter the role, there was always this emblematic undercurrent of a hippy rebel. The fact that his career followed an alarmingly erratic trajectory after Easy Rider almost serves as symbolic proof of this outsider embodiment.
He drifted away from the mainstream just like the vagabond characters he portrayed in the ’60s and then roared back into action with his 1997 performance in Ulee’s Gold, which earned him an oscar-nomination. For many, this wayward career path was an enforced dance to escape his fathers looming shadow. In his memoir, he described his father as “an unsmiling, bitter, strict hard-ass,” he added: “When people ask me what it was like growing up as Henry Fonda’s son, I ask them if they have seen Fort Apache.”
His troubled life was interwoven with pop-culture in more ways than one. Following his mother’s suicide, Peter and his sister Jane moved to an uncle’s house in Nebraska, where he almost accidentally killed himself. On his 11th birthday, he unintentionally shot himself in the stomach and nearly died. Years later, while tripping out on LSD with The Beatles, he told John Lennon, “I know what it’s like to be dead”, a line which John Lennon later worked into the ‘She Said, She Said’.
His life was caught up in pop-culture from the very start as those his crooked acting path had been woven into place by some mystic figures of fate, which makes the fact that he steadfastly strayed from the bright lights in order to go his own way all the more admirable.
Peter Fonda was a star who defied stardom, and in doing so, he encapsulated the raucous energy of a generation like no other.