Sunday, June 12, 2011

Peter Fonda—A Long, Strange Trip

So they’re honoring Peter Fonda at the American Cinematheque. What a long, strange career it’s been! A famous father, a famous sister, and a Hollywood life that’s taken him from romcom (Yes, I saw Tammy and the Doctor) to Easy Rider to an Oscar nomination for Ulee’s Gold. And who helped him transform from a standard-issue leading man into a counterculture hero? Why, Roger Corman, of course.

Roger originally wanted Fonda for the sidekick role in his seminal biker flick, The Wild Angels. But (as Roger himself once told me) star George Chakiris, fresh off an Oscar of his own for West Side Story, demanded a stunt double to do his motorcycle riding for him. Fonda had no such qualms, and Roger moved him up to the leading role of Heavenly Blues, with Bruce Dern taking over Fonda’s slot. The raw and raucous film was, of course, a hit among young moviegoers, spawning at least two dozen additional biker quickies between 1967 and 1972. Roger was delighted to make the move from gothic horror into topics that touched the lives of young Sixties rebels, and it wasn’t long before Fonda was acting as his guide into the drug culture.

Before they worked together on The Trip, Fonda insisted that the fundamentally strait-laced Roger drop acid as a way of proving his connection to the material. In his usual methodical way, Roger researched LSD, and then arranged to sample it himself. At a New York press conference, he claimed his experiment had taken place under strict medical supervision, with a stenographer on hand to record the episode. In fact, Roger’s grand adventure occurred on a picturesque seaside cliff in Big Sur, California. There was no doctor in sight, and the “stenographer” was my good friend Frances Doel, a loyal Corman assistant, who had been told to prepare for the big moment by boning up on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This famous one-time-only Corman exposure to mind-bending substances is vividly described in his memoirs. Suffice it to say that a script on the subject, currently called The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes, has been floating around Hollywood for some years. Joe Dante, who badly wants to direct it, is still looking for financing, even though none other than Colin Firth has committed to playing Roger in his close encounter of the psychedelic kind.

As for Fonda, he has Roger to thank for the genesis of his biggest film ever. While lodging at a Canadian hotel for a motion-picture exhibitors’ convention, he happened upon publicity shot of himself and Bruce Dern riding their choppers in The Wild Angels. Staring at the iconographic photo, Fonda got an idea: “Man, yeah, that’s the image . . . a dude who rides a silver bike and turns everybody on and rides right off again.” As the movie’s plot evolved in his head, he decided, “Let’s get to Mardi Gras in the film, great time, we’ll have a lot of free costumes and shit like that, a real Roger Corman number where we don’t have to pay.” The rest, as they say, is history.


  1. Stories like this are why I recently picked Mr. Corman as my favorite (horror) director - well, it was an interview for a horror movie website - but I said then that I can't imagine a world without a Roger Corman in it...we'd be forced to invent him!

    Fonda's move into that counterculture was a good one at the time - it did take him a while to get back - but Ulee's Gold was a terrific movie and I'm glad he was recognized with the nomination.

    1. I chatted with Peter Fonda once, around the time of "Ulee's Gold," and found him gracious and sincere -- a genuinely dedicated actor. I'm glad he survived the counterculture period. Needless to say, not everyone did.