Known in turn as Henry Fonda's son, Jane Fonda's brother, counter-culture icon Captain America, and Bridget Fonda's father, Peter Fonda finally got his due as an actor for his superb performance as a Florida beekeeper in Ulee's Gold (1997). Snaring an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for his work, Fonda was finally able to step out of his celebrated family's shadow, earning recognition for something besides his title as the black sheep of the Fonda clan.
Born in New York City on February 23, 1940, Fonda, by his own accounts, grew up trying to live up to his famous father's expectations. An exceptionally bright young man, he entered the University of Omaha as a sophomore at the age of seventeen, without even finishing high school. In Omaha, he broke into acting, appearing in the Omaha Playhouse's production of Harvey. He then went to New York to pursue his acting career, first working with the Cecilwood Theatre and then debuting on Broadway at the age of twenty-one in a production of Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole. His early career took shape under the specter of his famous father, with the young actor incurring comparisons to the elder Fonda with everything he did. His onstage success led to a Hollywood screen test for the part of John F. Kennedy in PT 109. The role in the 1963 film ultimately went to Cliff Robertson, but Fonda made his film debut that same year in the Sandra Dee vehicle Tammy and the Doctor.
Fonda continued to be consigned to romantic leads until he appeared in Roger Corman's The Wild Angels in 1966. A motorcycle enthusiast whom Corman cast after the film's original star, George Maharis, demanded a stunt double, Fonda seemed a natural for the role of a motorcycle gang leader. The film, which cast actual Hell's Angels and co-starred Bruce Dern, was a violent, drug-addled affair that catalyzed Fonda's reputation as his father's delinquent spawn and direct antithesis. This reputation was furthered by his starring role in Corman's The Trip, a 1967 film about the healing powers of LSD. Co-starring Dern and featuring a screenplay written by Jack Nicholson, The Trip, with its emphasis on sex, drugs, and societal estrangement, provided a preview of the film that would give Fonda both fame and notoriety.
In 1969, Fonda starred in Easy Rider, a film that he also produced. Directed by Dennis Hopper, it starred Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson as freewheeling, pot-smoking adventurers who find their counter-culture lifestyle threatened by the encroaching confines of the Establishment. One of the cultural landmarks of the late 1960s, tt was also an unexpected commercial success, grossing over $19 million at the box office, earning Fonda an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, and contributing to Hollywood's new interest in young audiences and socially relevant movies.
Following the film's success, Fonda, now both a cult hero and a millionaire, went on to collaborate with Hopper again on 1971's The Last Movie. The film didn't enjoy the acclaim of their previous collaboration, and Fonda's subsequent efforts of that decade also failed to live up to the stature of Easy Rider. One possible exception was the 1974 sleeper Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, a film in which Fonda appeared to finance his directorial projects, one of which was Wanda Nevada, a 1979 film that featured his father. Increasingly, Fonda became better-known for his activities off-screen than on: his status as an anti-Establishment figurehead was enhanced when John Lennon wrote the song "She Said She Said" about him. Reportedly, it was inspired by a bad acid trip the musician had taken, during which Fonda repeatedly told him, "I know what it's like to be dead, man."
Fonda's screen career continued its downward spiral during the 1980s, and towards the end of that decade it was once again overshadowed by that of a family member, in this case his daughter, Bridget. Fonda, who had exiled himself from L.A. in 1969 to live in Montana, seemed more aware of this than anyone: in an interview, he was quoted as saying, "I was Captain America and where....can you go with that? You can only ride so many motorcycles and smoke so many joints." But in the mid-1990s, Fonda's career began to get some much-needed resuscitation. After making a cameo appearance in Bodies, Rest & Motion, a 1993 film starring his daughter, he had a starring role in Michael Almereyda's Nadja (1994) and essentially parodied himself in John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. (1996). Fonda's true comeback was Ulee's Gold, Victor Nunez's 1997 exploration of loss and family ties. He won raves for his portrayal of the title character, and the Best Actor Oscar nomination he received for the film served as the industry's formal recognition of his re-emergence as a Hollywood player. The actor, always one to play by his own rules, next rejected mainstream Hollywood fare to star in Steven Soderbergh's The Limey in 1999, playing a shifty record producer, and earning uniformly excellent reviews. He also starred in The Passion of Ayn Rand as the author's long-suffering husband; the film premiered at that year's Sundance Film Festival.
He branched out into kids films with a leading role in Thomas and the Magic Railroad in 2000, and appeared in The Laramie Project one year later. He continued to work steadily, often taking smaller parts in bigger movies like Supernova, Ghost Rider, and Wild Hogs. He was a fearsome, grizzled, and authentic Western presence in James Mangold's remake of 3:10 to Yuma in 2007. In 2011 he paid tribute to the man who helped launch his career by sitting down for interviews in Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel.