Easy Rider Star Peter Fonda Dies at 79

Peter Fonda was a counterculture film icon who gave John Lennon a bad trip but a great song.

Easy Rider Peter Fonda

Actor and director Peter Fonda died of respiratory failure due to lung cancer at his Los Angeles home on Friday, Aug. 16, his manager, Alan Somers, announced via Variety. The Oscar-nominated screenwriter and star of Easy Rider was 79.

“It is with deep sorrow that we share the news that Peter Fonda has passed away at his home in Los Angeles surrounded by family,” the Fonda family said in a statement. “In one of the saddest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our hearts. And, while we mourn the loss of this sweet and gracious man, we also wish for all to celebrate his indomitable spirit and love of life. In honor of Peter, please raise a glass to freedom.”

Peter Fonda was the son of Hollywood legend Henry Fonda, and the younger brother of the equally iconic Jane Fonda. His death comes just after the 50th anniversary of Easy Rider, which he wrote with Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern, and co-starred in as “Captain America.” Produced for about $384,000, the film about two bikers who score big on a drug deal and head off to Mardi Gras captured the free spirit of the times and the growing independence of filmmaking. The film, which also featured Jack Nicholson, was shot in seven weeks between L.A. and New Orleans. Nominated for Best Original Screenplay Oscar, Easy Rider lost out to William Goldman’s script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It was included in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1998.

Fonda’s other historically significant role was as an unwitting muse to a classic Beatles song. The young actor embraced the counterculture and visited the group along with his friends in the band the Byrds in Benedict Canyon in Los Angeles in August 1965. “Peter Fonda came in when we were on acid and he kept coming over, wearing shades, and sitting next to me and whispering, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead,’” John Lennon said in a 1980 Playboy interview. Lennon used the line for the song, “She Said She Said” on the band’s 1966 album Revolver.

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Fonda was arrested in the Sunset Strip riot in 1966, which inspired the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth.”

Peter Henry Fonda was born in New York City on February 23, 1940. His mother Frances Ford Seymour committed suicide in a mental hospital when he was ten. Fonda began his career as a Broadway actor, first recognized for his part in the 1961 play Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole, written by James and William Goldman.

Fonda guest starred on TV shows like Naked City, The New Breed, Wagon Train, The Defenders, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and 12 O’Clock High. He made his film debut playing Sandra Dee’s love interest in Tammy and the Doctor (1963). Fonda won a Golden Globe Award for most promising newcomer for his role in the World War II film The Victors (1963), directed by Carl Foreman. He played a supporting role alongside Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg and Gene Hackman in Lilith (1964). His first starring film was The Young Lovers (1964).

Fonda went counterculture in the 1966 Roger Corman biker movie, The Wild Angels (1966) which also starred Bruce Dern, Nancy Sinatra and Diane Ladd. He followed this up with Corman’s psychedelic cult favorite The Trip (1967), which was written by Nicholson. He acted against his sister Jane in the horror movie Spirits of the Dead (1968), directed by her husband Roger Vadim.

After the success of Easy Rider, Fonda directed himself in the 1971 Western The Hired Hand, which featured Warren Oates, Verna Bloom and Beat poet Michael McClure, He also directed the 1973 science fiction film Idaho Transfer, and directed and starred in the 1979 mystery comedy Wanda Nevada, which costarred Brooke Shields. Henry Fonda also appears in the film which is the only movie they acted in together.

In the 1970s, Fonda acted in the films Two People (1973) Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), Open Season (1974), Race With the Devil (1975), which co-starred Dark Shadows‘ Lara Parker and Loretta Swit from M*A*S*H.  92 in the Shade (1975), Killer Force (1976), Futureworld (1976), and Fighting Mad (1976), which was produced by Roger Corman and directed by Jonathan Demme. He closed out the decade in the films Outlaw Blues (1977), and High-Ballin’ (1978).

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In the 1980s, Fonda starred in the TV movie The Hostage Tower (1980), made a cameo in Burt Reynolds’ The Cannonball Run (1981), and played a cult leader in Split Image (1982), which also starred James Woods, Karen Allen and Brian Dennehy.  He acted internationally making Daijōbu, My Friend (1983), Dance of the Dwarfs (1983); Peppermint-Frieden (1983). He starred in Spasms (1983), A Reason to Live (1985), Certain Fury (1985), Mercenary Fighters (1988), Hawken’s Breed (1988), Sound (1988); Gli indifferenti (1989) and The Rose Garden (1989).

Fonda starred in Family Express (1991) and South Beach (1993), and played supporting roles in the independent films Deadfall (1993), Bodies, Rest & Motion (1993), Molly and Gina (1994), Love and a .45 (1994), and Nadja (1994). He also acted in John Carpenter’s 1996 film Escape from L.A. and Don’t Look Back, also made in 1996.

Fonda played Mephistopheles in Ghost Rider, which starred the Nicolas Cage, and played Cage’s father in the 2015 Louisiana political drama The Runner. He got back on the bike for the John Travolta/Tim Allen comedy Wild Hogs. Fonda played a bounty hunter in the 2007 remake of the western 3:10 to Yuma. Fonda will be seen in Todd Robinson’s upcoming war movie The Last Full Measure.

Fonda was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Ulee’s Gold (1997), for which he won a Golden Globe, and was nominated for the best-supporting actor Oscar for The Passion of Ayn Rand. He produced the 2011 documentary The Big Fix, about BP’s role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Fonda is survived by his wife Margaret, children Bridget and Justin, and his sister Jane.

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Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.