FONDA, PETER : Ulee's Gold
It seems an eternity ago that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper
rode through America in their metaphorical 60s gem, Easy Rider.
As the song says, the times they are a changing. The world has
rediscovered Peter Fonda as his film about a beekeeper, Ulee's
Gold, continues to receive critical acclaim and box office glory.
He spoke to PAUL FISCHER.
Nobody is more surprised and genuinely thrilled at the
reaction that Ulee’s Gold has received than the unassuming
Peter Fonda. "I've gotten letters from people as diverse as
Gregory Peck, Eva Marie-Saint and Mickey Rooney which is very
gratifying," explains the 57-year old actor. Fonda plays
Ulysses Jackson, a stolid, taciturn beekeeper in Florida's tupelo
marshes who finds himself swarmed by family problems. His son,
Jimmy, is doing time for robbery, leaving two children who need
looking after. But Jimmy's junkie of a wife, Helen, has run off,
leaving Ulee with granddaughters. It seems Helen has got herself
into deep trouble with Jimmy's onetime crime partners, Eddie
Flowers and Ferris Dooley. Someone needs to pick her up and bring
her home. Ulee, who has no time for any of these irresponsible
lowlifes, reluctantly honours Jimmy's wishes. And Eddie and
Ferris have learned, from Helen, that there was a little money
left over after Jimmy's robbery attempt. Jimmy kept that secret
to himself, a fact with dangerous ramifications for Jimmy and his
If one looks at Fonda closely in this film, there are evident
similarities between the actor and his legendary father, a point
hammered home in so many reviews. Such comparisons, he recalls
affectionately, are nothing new. "When I was 21 I did my
first big Broadway play, and I was only too aware of the old
ladies who would come up from Philadelphia with their blue hair
on the train. And in the matinee shows I could literally HEAR
them muttering: he walks just like his father, looks just like
"I can't get away from
being his son"
"Earlier in my life I might have wanted audiences to
check ME out; today I consider it a great compliment. I mean,
it's not a bad thing to be compared to one of the better actors
in the world. I can't get away from being his son and I knew this
was going to come." In preparing for his role of the
introspective Ulee, Fonda does concede that he did recall his
relationship with his father. "As an actor, I USE him in a
way I knew him when I was a small child. I used the confusion
that Jane and I found in our lives to put into the character of
Ulee, and how it could confound these two grand-daughters. And it
worked like a charm."
"Yeah, I'm sad that he
is not alive to see this, because I know he'd just
Fonda knew when he first read Ulee's Gold, that this character
was meant for him. "I understood how he was withdrawing from
himself. He had been withdrawing from his community after his
wife died and refused all help. I saw Ulee as a man on his way
into the swamp to play with the bees, because they get along. Yet
there was something he had to pay attention to back home. I used
not only what was written on the page, but also what I knew about
the man who had been my father that was THIS kind of man at the
dining room table." Fonda regrets that his father could not
see what critics all agree, is his finest performance to date.
"Yeah, I'm sad that he is not alive to see this, because I
know he'd just FLIP."
"Fonda and father
Henry were always on excellent terms"
The son of Henry Fonda and socialite Frances Brokaw, bright
17-year-old Peter Fonda was able to enter the University of Omaha
even though he'd never finished high school; it was here that he
made his formal acting debut in a production of Harvey. By 21, he
was starring on Broadway in Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole,
earning excellent reviews. In films from 1963, Fonda was at first
consigned to romantic leads. A motorcycle enthusiast, he was
later cast as the second lead in Roger Corman's The Wild Angels
(1966), but was promoted to the lead when the original star,
George Maharis, demanded a stunt double. Wild Angels solidified
Fonda's popularity with the Now Generation, a popularity further
enhanced by his performance as an acid-dropper in Corman's The
Trip (1967). In 1969, Fonda co-starred with Dennis Hopper in the
definitive "dope 'n' cycles" film Easy Rider. In
addition to elevating him to icon status, Easy Rider made Fonda,
who owned 22% of the film, a millionaire. Two years later, he
directed his first film, The Hired Hand (1971). He continued
acting in other men's films (notably the 1974 sleeper Dirty Mary,
Crazy Larry) to finance subsequent directorial projects: these
failed to fulfil the promise of Hired Hand, though Wanda Nevada
(1978) is deserving of mention because it featured Fonda's father
Henry in a cameo role.
Despite their political and ideological differences, Fonda and
father Henry were always on excellent terms, with Henry never
missing an opportunity to express pride in his son's success.
Though Fonda's films of the 1980s and 1990s were mostly
unsuccessful, he was always worth watching. Formerly married to
Susan Brewer, the stepdaughter of Howard Hughes-associate Noah
Dietrich, Peter Fonda is also the father of actress Bridget
Fonda, of whom he is clearly proud.
Peter Fonda is now more passionate than ever about acting, a
passion reignited after making Ulee's Gold, a film and character
that have finally allowed him to come to terms with his father.
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HE TRIPPED, HE DIED AND
HE TOLD THE BEATLES
Fonda's life has often been reflected by the
characters he's played on screen, and will be revealed in his
upcoming autobiography, Don't Tell Dad. "It was a tough book
to write in many ways because so many of my stories were hard to
re-live." His was certainly a world of drugs and turning his
back on conventional society.
One of his classic recollections is
his famed meeting with The Beatles. "I was visiting The
Beatles while they were in California in 1965, in a rented house
in Benedict Canyon. They decided they were going to take LSD. And
David Crosby and Roger McGuinn from The Byrds were there. I was
invited in and we dropped LSD-except for Paul [McCartney]. At one
point George was having a tough time. He said, "I feel like
I'm going to die." And I said, "It's all right. It's
all right. It's what's supposed to happen. It's your body not
wanting to lose control over everything. It's your brain trying
to maintain control. It's OK, just let it go." Then he said,
"I don't know. It's very scary!"
I said, "Look,
it's OK. I know what it's like to be dead." And that got
Lennon's attention. I said, "You see, when I was a boy, I
shot myself by accident in the liver and the stomach and the
kidney. And I died three times on the operating table. And I can
tell you what it was - it was grey and then nothing, nothing at
all. No fear. No nothing. No music. No problem. So, it's OK. I
know it is." Lennon said, "Who put all that stuff in
your head? You're making me feel like I've never been born."
And out of that, emerged The Beatles' song 'She Said, She Said.'