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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

At 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 Manhattan’s 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 wouldn’t look at all out of place sitting and rocking on the front porch of a Nebraska farmhouse, sipping a cool lemonade after a hot day’s harvesting. Of course, his face is a bit wrinkled, and his hair is graying, but, holy cow, what proper papa wouldn’t 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.

"I’m sure sorry I’m 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. I’m afraid Jane got arrested again today. These kids are always getting arrested. They’re 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, I’m sorry, but the house is all filled up,’ but I just couldn’t do that."

How many are there in her entourage?

 

"Oh, it’s not how many; it’s how unattractive. But I don’t think Jane’s political activities will hurt her career. Unless she winds up doing 11 years in Leavenworth. After all, being active hasn’t hurt Duke Wayne. And everyone knows he is a reactionary type, carrying the American flag around and doing all the things I’m opposed to. And my politics haven’t hurt me, and everyone knows where I stand , even though I haven’t been as active as Jane. Some people feel that all her marching may have hurt Jane’s chances of winning the Oscar [for "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"]. But I don’t 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.

"As 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 I’ve learned to hold my breath for eight weeks while shooting ‘Sex and the Single Girls’ and ‘Battle of the Bulges’ and ‘Spencer’s Mountains’ – movies that Judith Crist puts down, and I don’t blame her. And I bide my time and dream of doing another ‘12 Angry Men.’ "

One of Fonda’s favorite films is, of course, "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck’s epic of uprooted Okies traveling across the country in search of human dignity. One of his least favorite films is his son Peter’s "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 won’t put up with his shit. He’s 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 I’m 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 Peter’s 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. He’d 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 name right:
D-e-n-n-i-s H-o-p-p-e-r!"

Editor's Note: For Dennis Hopper's response to Henry Fonda's critique, click here.