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A Rather Uneasy Ride

Peter Fonda is downright Henry-like in 'Ulee's Gold.' But he's dealing with it.

June 08, 1997|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

For the past several hours, Peter Fonda has been trying to explain why he's never cared what anyone thought of him. "I've always lived with being prejudged," he says, working his way through a second carafe of chardonnay. "When I was a kid, I'd go to a party and have no idea who was there--but everyone thought they knew me. I was Henry Fonda's son."

He shrugs. "They didn't know he was Col. Thursday." That's the domineering cavalry officer his father played in John Ford's "Fort Apache," whose men are slaughtered because they obey his orders.

"When my film students at Montana State ask what it's like growing up with Henry Fonda, I always say, 'Have you seen 'Fort Apache'? Jane cracked up when I told her that. She said, 'Geez, I never thought of it quite that way.' "

Talking with the 58-year-old actor about his family, which includes father Henry, sister Jane and daughter Bridget, it's impossible to escape the tug of film history. In fact, when Fonda's new movie, "Ulee's Gold," debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, startled moviegoers were struck by how much his portrayal of a solitary beekeeper evoked memories of the flinty characters Henry Fonda used to play.

The film, which opens Friday at select theaters, has earned a bouquet of rave reviews. As Variety enthused: " 'Ulee's Gold' is a gem . . . graced by a completely unexpected performance from Peter Fonda that is by far the best of his career."

The acclaim has been a tonic for Fonda, whose drug use and youthful escapades made him something of a pariah in Hollywood after the success of "Easy Rider." He says he still "gets the looks until they see that my eyes are clear." Though he's worked steadily in low-budget films, he hasn't had a major role in a studio film in 20 years. Eating lunch at a crowded Beverly Hills industry hangout, he goes unnoticed.

Not that Fonda seems to miss the attention. Owner of a 300-acre ranch in southern Montana--he often rides his Harley into Yellowstone National Park to fly-fish during the summer--he prefers to keep his distance. "I never searched for fame," he says. "I was born famous, and it didn't serve me well."

On the outside, his bloodlines have served him well. His sinewy 6-foot-2 frame is still long 'n' lean enough to fit into 32-inch waist jeans. He has his father's piercing blue eyes and the sweet, puppy-like fragility of a man who's never quite grown up. When he recently met a pair of young actors, he introduced himself as "a baby disguised as a 58-year-old man."

An incurable talker, Fonda is full of enthusiasm for everything from boating to photography, though his rambling monologues often drift off into a thick counterculture fog. Describing his passion for sailing, he refers to the ocean as "the big street." His favorite meats are antelope and elk, because "they're not tainted by additives."

When he calls his actress daughter, Bridget, he barks into the phone, imitating one of their Labrador retrievers. Asked why he named one of the dogs Sting, he explains: "He's a majestic dog and I named him after a majestic performer."

Fonda gave up cigarettes and coffee ages ago, and wouldn't dream of drinking Los Angeles water, much less wash his hair with it--he uses distilled water instead. He has a bottle of oatmeal stout before bed each night and still smokes marijuana, saying it soothes his sour stomach.

"Am I an alcoholic?" he asks, without any prompting. "I doubt it. This country is just nuts about sobriety. Look at how crazy everyone is about hemp. I'm like Woody Harrelson, except I've already planted the seeds."

Pushing 60, he's still grappling with a famously dysfunctional upbringing. His mother committed suicide when he was 10, his father ignored him, and his relations with older sister Jane have been rivalrous and rocky. "I'm damaged goods," he says. "I was a very disturbed young man. Most of my family thought I was a live grenade, pin pulled, ready to blow."

These days, Fonda finds joy in his own brood, boasting about Bridget and his sons, Justin and Thomas--he carries a pair of Thomas' hand-made knives in the hip pocket of his jeans. After 22 years of marriage, he's clearly devoted to his wife, Becky, phoning her every few hours when away from home.

They met when Fonda made "92 in the Shade," a film directed by Becky's then-husband, novelist Tom McGuane. "I not only got the part from Tom," Fonda says with a laugh, "I got his wife, too!"

To hear him talk, "Ulee's Gold" is more than a career plum--it's an opportunity to heal the scars left by his desolate relationship with his father.

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"I knew Ulee well," Fonda explains. "He's a recalcitrant man with a visage that shows no hint of kindness. I had breakfast across the table from that guy my whole life. I'd try to read the newspaper he kept up to his eyes, blocking his face from me.

"Oh boy, did I know that guy. Son of a bitch, it was my father."

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