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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 family.

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 his father.

"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 FLIP."

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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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.' "


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