What Peter Fonda Meant to Me

Last week, actor Peter Fonda died. He was 79 years old. I first encountered Fonda when I was a teenager and watched Easy Rider for the first time. (I’ve seen it many time since.) Though the film was made in the late 1960s, before I was born, and described an experience I’d never had – driving across the country on a motorcycle, going to Mardi Gras – I connected with it immediately, especially with Fonda’s character Wyatt aka Captain America.

Next to his high-strung and quick-to-judge sidekick Billy (Dennis Hopper), Fonda’s character was a true searcher, cool and collected, appreciative and open. When the two bikers stop to eat lunch with a family of ranchers, Wyatt silently takes in the man’s story about marrying, becoming tied to the land, and living a life he hadn’t anticipated. When they pick up the stranger on the highway who is heading to his hippie commune, Wyatt lets the man ramble about his vaguely idealism instead of showering him with suspicion like Billy does. At the commune, in response to Billy’s discomfited urge to get out of there, Wyatt simply admonishes him: “We’re eatin’ their food.” Wyatt is also quietly attentive as Jack Nicholson’s character, the ACLU lawyer George Hanson, explains the conservative “purify America campaign” and says, “Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.” Hanson was able to give this speech because Wyatt was the force of quiet that allowed it to come. In the midst of violence and chaos, Wyatt is the character who calms everyone around him, allowing the scenes to play out.

But it was Fonda’s display of the American flag on the back of his leather jacket, on the gas tank of his bike, and on his helmet that taught me something I’ve fully embraced: it is patriotic to exercise the freedom we have in America. Despite any and all efforts to co-opt patriotism and the American flag, I learned from Easy Rider, and from Peter Fonda in particular, that freedom is to be lived even in the face of animosity, that freedom that shouldn’t be hidden or hesitant, that freedom that is worth dying over. I learned from Easy Rider that American freedom belongs to everyone, even to the people some Americans say don’t deserve it. The subtitle of the film is: “A man went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere.” The caveat here is: there will always be people who want define America narrowly and push some people out of it— we see those folks in the Midwestern small-town jailers, we see them in the Deep Southern café, we see them in the backroad pickup truck at the end . . .

Some people will watch Easy Rider and see Fonda’s character only as a lawbreaking nihilist, nothing more. To me, that’s a shortsighted view. It’s what happens on the road that matters. Through Wyatt and Billy, we see an America that is diverse and varied, full of people trying to make their way, and we see what happens to two nonconformists as they make their way through it. In some cases, the two bikers are met with kindness and generosity, and in others, intolerance and violence.

Peter Fonda wrote this story with co-star Dennis Hopper and writer Terry Southern, and Easy Rider is just as American as his father’s Grapes of Wrath. They both show what happens to itinerant people who are viewed as problematic or dangerous. The movie came out the same year as Midnight Cowboy and Cactus Flower, the same year as Woodstock, but Easy Rider isn’t simply a hippie artifact. Notwithstanding the stellar soundtrack and the beautiful cinematography, it is an allegory about the reality of our complex nation, and if it is viewed as such, there is a great deal to be recognized and learned.

After that landmark film, Peter Fonda peppered the cinematic and cultural landscape for the next few decades. Fonda played the lead in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry from 1974, made a cameo as the leader of the biker gang in the 1981 comedy Cannonball Run, and starred in the underrated Ulee’s Gold in the late ’90s. He made several other good films (and a few clunkers), but it’s that one that remains my favorite. It will always be Easy Rider that defined Peter Fonda and that taught me early in my life that freedom wouldn’t be easy at all.

*Shown above is the poster of Easy Rider from the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, which hangs right beside my desk.

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