HENRY FONDA: AN EASY
RIDER HE WAS NOT
In the fall of 1970, when
I interviewed Henry Fonda for The New York Times, he seemed relatively
at peace--except for the fact that his famous son and daughter were
nearly causing him to lose his cool, and the mention of Dennis Hopper
drove him to the brink of madness. --Guy Flatley
65, Henry Fonda still resembles
that gawky, naïve, decent-to-the-core hayseed who stumbled
and stuttered and blushed a path through "The Trail of the
Lonesome Pine," "You Only Live Once," "Young
Mr. Lincoln," " Jesse James," "The Grapes of
Wrath," "The Lady Eve," "The Ox-Bow Incident,"
and "My Darling Clementine." True, he has been a sophisticated
star of the Broadway stage, owns a chic town house on Manhattans
East Side and a fancy home in Bel Air and is blissfully married
to a streamlined ex-airline stewardess named Shirlee (his first
four marriages were notably bliss-free).
But Honest Hank wouldnt look at all out
of place sitting and rocking on the front porch of a Nebraska farmhouse,
sipping a cool lemonade after a hot days harvesting. Of course,
his face is a bit wrinkled, and his hair is graying, but, holy cow,
what proper papa wouldnt have a few gray hairs when his two
frisky kids were constantly playing pranks and setting the tongues
of the townspeople to wagging? Like the time the impish Peter and
Jane horn-swoggled those nice elderly Hollywood folks into an intimate
screening of a wild and wooly Warhol erotodrama.
"Im sure sorry Im late,"
he says in his Tom Joad Twang as he comes loping into the sunken
living room, "but I was on a long-distance call from Washington,
talking with my. . . how should I say it? . . . with my erstwhile,
with my alleged daughter. Im afraid Jane got arrested again
today. These kids are always getting arrested. Theyre proud
of it. This time she was handing out leaflets, urging people to
write to their congressmen. She asked me if she could go to my house
in New York and bring her whole entourage with her -- for a week.
Gee, I would love to have been able to say, Darling, Im
sorry, but the house is all filled up, but I just couldnt
How many are there in her entourage?
its not how many; its how unattractive. But I dont
think Janes political activities will hurt her career. Unless
she winds up doing 11 years in Leavenworth. After all, being active
hasnt hurt Duke Wayne. And everyone
knows he is a reactionary type, carrying the American flag around
and doing all the things Im opposed to. And my politics havent
hurt me, and everyone knows where I stand , even though I havent
been as active as Jane. Some people feel that all her marching may
have hurt Janes chances of winning the Oscar [for "They
Shoot Horses, Don't They?"]. But I dont think so. I will
say this about the Oscars, though: if Liza Minnelli
had had her motorcycle accident three weeks earlier, she would have
won the Oscar [for "The Sterile Cuckoo"].
If Fonda is somewhat bitter about Oscar, it is understandable. He
has never won an Academy Award, and he has been nominated only once
in 1940, for his performance as Tom Joad in "The Grapes
of Wrath." Nevertheless, he has managed to keep busy, shrewdly
shifting back and forth between the prestigious and the potboiler,
the proud and the profane. He recently completed "Sometimes
a Great Notion," in which he co-stars with Paul Newman, and
"There Was a Crooked Man," a western directed by Joseph
Mankiewicz, is ready for release.
my agents have always told me, an actor cannot make a career out
of 12 Angry Men and Ox-Bow Incidents. Not
if you want to be known as a box-office actor. So Ive learned
to hold my breath for eight weeks while shooting Sex and the
Single Girls and Battle of the Bulges and Spencers
Mountains movies that Judith Crist puts down, and I
dont blame her. And I bide my time and dream of doing another
12 Angry Men. "
One of Fondas favorite films is, of course, "The Grapes
of Wrath," John Steinbecks epic of uprooted Okies traveling
across the country in search of human dignity. One of his least
favorite films is his son Peters "Easy Rider," the
story of a drug-smuggling duo who cycle-trip to some fairly far-out
places in their search for something called the real America.
"Easy Rider will not become a classic in the sense that
The Grapes of Wrath is a classic. But, of course, it
was the beginning of a type of movie. Not only because of the low
cost, but because Peter and Dennis went out with less than a script
and just ad-libbed their way through it."
Fonda meditates for a moment and then leans forward, his face surprisingly
hard-set, his voice firm. "But if you want to know what I think
of Dennis Hopper . . . the man is
an idiot! I will not work for Dennis, because I wont put up
with his shit. Hes a total freak-out, stoned out of his mind
all the time. Any man who insists on wearing his cowboy hat to the
Academy Award ceremonies and keeps it on at the dinner table afterward
ought to be spanked.
"I saw him the other night on the David Frost show, and I could
hardly believe my eyes. First, Peter came out and shook hands with
Frost, the way you or I would shake hands with somebody, and then
he sat down. Then Dennis came out, floating like this . . ."
Like a Rockette on a bum trip, Fonda drifts across the room, eyes
glazed, arms outstretched, head thrown back.
"And every time Frost asked him a question, he began giggling. Well,
let me tell you, that sort of thing is not attractive. And Im
not the only one who feels this way about Dennis. Everybody does.
Friends called me the day after the Frost show and said, You
must be terribly embarrassed for Peters sake. Why, even
Peter called me to say, I hear Dennis looked pretty bad last
night. I tell you, Dennis is stoned out of his mind. Hed
have to be to act that way. And I want you to put that in your story.
This is not off the record. Dennis Hopper is an idiot! Spell the
Editor's Note: For Dennis
Hopper's response to Henry Fonda's critique, click