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The Rebel Within

March 22, 1998|IRENE LACHER

Peter Fonda looks like the enemy.

He's wearing a gray pinstriped suit from the Chairman of the Board collection, and his once flowing blond locks are shorn in a tidy 'do suitable for a lawyer.

OK, maybe a drug runner's lawyer.

Could this be the only person we can think of offhand who still spells establishment with a capital "E" and means it?

"Abstract authority gets my hackles right up."

Yep. That's the guy.

"I mean, U.S. Customs in Toronto will be hearing from me. I bought a 1920s Art Deco clock which has a long bronze figure of a man with his hand cupped to his ear, listening to the clock. It was fabulous. It was too heavy for me to carry on the plane so it was shipped to me, broken by the United States government. They tore apart the clock like it could have drugs in it."

Which it didn't, by the way. We're not talking about Fonda's "Easy Rider" rebel days, when the establishment would have had to have been on drugs not to think he was on drugs. This happened about a month ago, after his stint in Toronto filming "The Passion of Ayn Rand" with Helen Mirren.

A month ago.

When the 58-year-old Fonda was already an official grown-up.

Which made it really annoying. He leans closer, to about conspiratorial distance, and smiles a lizard smile.

"[The Treasury Department] did it to me before. I'm not surprised, so they shouldn't be when I start blowing up in their faces. Self-detonate in their desk. Self-immolating. I know it's the end of me, but it surely would be an impressive ending to them."

Did we use the word "grown-up"? Whatever.

"I've matured, but I still love acting like an 8-year-old," says the puppyish actor. "And I get paid to do it."

Actually, we're chatting over coffee at the Four Seasons in part because he was paid--and highly praised--for his comeback performance as a super grown-up reminiscent of his often hard-boiled father, Henry Fonda, in the elegiac "Ulee's Gold." And just as the Oscar bug is biting, the younger Fonda's new "Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir" (Hyperion) is hitting the shelves.

Of course, his No. 1 reason for flying in from Montana and dressing up was to talk to nous, naturellement.

OK, so he also went to the Oscar nominees' luncheon. Maybe he was hungry.

Anyway, when Fonda was a young buck working as a summer stock apprentice in Fishkill, N.Y., a million years ago and, later, when he was a starving actor in Greenwich Village, he liked to sit at the feet of actor's actor and fellow best actor nominee Robert Duvall--who was Robert Duvall even then. And still is, for that matter, although Duvall didn't think Fonda was still Fonda.

"I said to Bobby, 'You know when we first met?'

"He said, 'Fishkill. Oh my God, you've changed.'

"I said, 'Thank God. I weighed 10 pounds and I was 6 feet, 1 inch tall, so I was the skinniest actor of the bunch, but I listened to everything you said. And guess what? Look where it's brought me? I'm here with you.' "

Fonda knew the dog-wagging Dustin Hoffman back in Fishkill, too. And Jack Nicholson was one of the first people Fonda met socially when he moved to California soon after. All of which makes this year's slate of best actor nominees Fonda's old posse (with the exception of that screenwriting moppet, Matt Damon, who's an honorary member). "I'm so thrilled to be in with these people. Not against them."

Fonda likes to like people. Better still, he likes to gift them, with cuddly things like guns and knives. Firearm replicas inscribed with the title of the western he directed for the crew. Little silver knives from Tiffany for the other nominees.

"They're little Swiss Army knives with each of their names engraved on it, so they knew it wasn't something I did yesterday."

If Fonda likes to freeze-dry the past with personalized weaponry, not everything about the old days makes him feel so sentimental. He hasn't spoken to co-Easy Rider Dennis Hopper since he saw him at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995. They recently settled a lawsuit in which Hopper accused Fonda of cheating him out of profits from the wildly popular film.

Fonda says they co-wrote the film based on his idea. Twenty-seven years after "Easy Rider" was made, Hopper was still trying to get Fonda to sign a declaration saying Hopper was the sole author.

"He truly believes, obviously, that I have cheated him," Fonda says. "And there's nothing I can do or say that will ever change his mind."

But, hey, a little tit for tat never hurt anybody. In the book, Fonda writes that the original "Easy Rider" bikes were stolen by bikers, natch. That didn't stop Hopper from hawking a replica made by Columbia for $9,000 several years ago--claiming it was "the original 'Easy Rider' motorcycle"--because "he needed money for drugs," Fonda writes.

Hopper denies selling the bike for drugs. He says through a spokesman that he bartered his replica in 1976 in exchange for an elaborate southwestern belt, never telling the jeweler who made the trade that the bike was an original.

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