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Actor Peter Fonda, Headed West to 'Yuma'

Actor Peter Fonda is probably best known for his role in the cult-classic road movie Easy Rider. His recent roles include one in the film 3:10 to Yuma, a 2007 remake of the 1957 Western of the same name, which was itself based on the 1953 Elmore Leonard short story. The movie also stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Fonda, the son of actor Henry Fonda, is also the author of the memoir Don't Tell Dad.

44:44

Other segments from the episode on August 16, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 16, 2007: Interview with Peter Fonda; Commentary on sarcasm.

Transcript

DATE August 16, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Actor Peter Fonda on "3:10 to Yuma," his new film, and
his career
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "3:10 to Yuma")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RUSSELL CROWE: (As Ben Wade) So, boys, where we headed?

Mr. PETER FONDA: (As Byron McElroy) Taking the 3:10 to Yuma day after
tomorrow.

Mr. KEVIN DURAND: (As Tucker) Shouldn't have told him that one.

Mr. CROWE: (As Ben Wade) Relax, friend. Now if we get separated, I know
where to meet up.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: That's Russell Crowe and Peter Fonda from the upcoming western "3:10
to Yuma." It's a new take on the 1957 film based on an Elmore Leonard story.
The plot centers on a desperate effort to get captured outlaw Ben Wade, played
by Russell Crowe, to a prison train at the town of Contention. The film is
directed by James Mangold and also stars Christian Bale and Ben Foster. Our
guest, Peter Fonda, plays a veteran bounty hunter named Byron McElroy, who
harbors a burning hatred of the outlaw Wade. Peter Fonda has a special
fondness for Westerns, having seen his father, Henry Fonda, in so many. He's
directed two himself.

As an actor, Peter Fonda's played a wide range of characters in a long
Hollywood career. He earned two Oscar nominations nearly 30 years apart, one
as a writer for "Easy Rider," the counter-culture classic he also starred in
with Dennis Hopper, and the other for acting in "Ulee's Gold." Among his other
films are "The Wild Angels," "The Trip," "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry," "The
Passion of Ayn Rand," and "The Limey."

Well, Peter Fonda, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. FONDA: Thank you.

DAVIES: You're at a point in your career where I'm sure you can kind of take
your pick of a lot of projects. Why did you pick this one, "3:10 to Yuma"?

Mr. FONDA: Well, actually I picked James Mangold. I like Jim's work, you
know, "Girl, Interrupted," "Walk the Line," "Copland," his first film,
"Heavy." This is a director you want to pay attention to. I knew his "3:10 to
Yuma" and I knew the original Western itself, and I love Westerns.

But Mangold wasn't keen on me playing the role. As friends of mine who work
with him say, `He thinks you're too laconic.' I said, `Oh,' so I met him. I
went right away and met him and he saw I had lots of energy and I went for the
gusto. And I got the gig, and while we were prepping to shoot in Santa Fe,
New Mexico, I was in his office saying, `you dropped a line here, think it's
really kind of a cool line.' `Well, I wrote it in here, sure as hell can write
out.' I did like a John Wayne, `I wrote it here, pilgrim, and sure as hell can
ride out.' He looked at me, dropped his jaw and said, `Oh my god, that's
perfect. Play it just like that. Make sound come to you,' meaning in other
words, don't project for sound, make them come and catch you. Because I find
there's more power when you understate things...

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FONDA: ...than when you overstate them.

DAVIES: Right. You know, it's funny you mention that line, because as I saw
the film, I thought `wow, that sounded like a little echo of John Wayne
there.'

Mr. FONDA: Well, and also...

DAVIES: A John Wayne moment in the movie.

Mr. FONDA: And I hate to give it away but you can't miss it. When Charlie
Prince, played by Ben Foster--brilliantly played by Ben Foster--shoots me in
the gut, oh, no, he comes up to me, before he shoots me, he said, `Morning,
Pinkerton. Name's Charlie Prince. Reckon you've heard of me.' I said, `Well,
I've heard of a dolled-up whore named Charlie Princess. That you, missy?' I
mean, how much more Duke can you get without adding "pilgrim" to it?

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: And Mangold let it go. He put it in there. I thought it was so
cool.

DAVIES: And there were things besides words here. I mean, you get shot in
this stage robbery, which sort of sets the plot in motion...

Mr. FONDA: Well, you gave that one up.

DAVIES: Well, I think that's early enough that that's not a big revelation.
But your character is a guy who has felt a bullet before...

Mr. FONDA: That's true.

DAVIES: He gets taken to the town doctor in...(unintelligible)...or what
passes for a town doctor in...(unintelligible)...and I wonder if you want to
describe that scene because that's quite a moment.

Mr. FONDA: Well, it is a moment. It's kind of interesting, too, and let me
get ahead of that for a moment by saying, in some of the screenings, people
have asked me, `Well, you got gut shot. How come you can walk around and live
so long?'

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. FONDA: And I said, `Well, I've taken lead.' And I really have.

DAVIES: You, Peter Fonda, have taken lead?

Mr. FONDA: I, Peter Fonda, have taken lead. And while we were shooting, I
said to everybody, `Who else here on the set's taken lead?' Because Jim was
saying, `I want you to do this.' I said, `Unh-unh.' `This is as you wrote it,
he just grunts. It stings a bit and then your body goes into shock. And when
Alan Tudyk who plays Doc, he digs it out of me, it's not that deep inside me,
because the bullet hasn't done that much damage. Number two, I will bleed to
death, but not before I get Ben Wade on that train to Yuma.

DAVIES: Now, the real story here is--well, a story we've got to hear is Peter
Fonda taking lead. When did you take lead?

Mr. FONDA: I got shot on my 11th birthday. A stupid shooting accident, and
the bullet went off right in front of--right close by. It was a pistol...

DAVIES: Who shot it?

Mr. FONDA: Me. And a bullet hit my rib cage and tumbled through the tip of
my liver, blew the top of my stomach and then went through the middle of my
left kidney, and I knew I was dying. It did sting at first, then I went into
shock, didn't feel a thing. And as I was being taken care of at
the...(unintelligible)...Hospital in...(unintelligible)...New York, at that
time it was right next to Sing-Sing Prison, interesting. You know the phrase
timing is everything?

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FONDA: Here's the proof of that. As they were trying to trace the path
of the bullet, they kept running into my heart; and they felt, because there
was such much blood in my body cavity, that the bullet had pierced my heart,
or at least my abdominal aorta, and the heart being a muscle that pumps, as
the bullet was tumbling through, having hit my rib cage and, therefore, it's
starting to tumble, the heart was in the contracting mode and went tumbling by
the heart. Timing is everything. So I'm here telling you this story.

DAVIES: In a different timing of the heart stroke...

Mr. FONDA: Yeah.

DAVIES: The bullet catches the heart and you aren't here.

Mr. FONDA: Yeah, right. Yeah, well, you see--and my family thought I was
trying to commit suicide because my mother had just done that, the year
previous, not even a year before.

DAVIES: You were 10, but you didn't know at the time, I believe.

Mr. FONDA: No, I was told she...

DAVIES: She was living away...

Mr. FONDA: ...in fact, that she died of a heart attack. And they forgot
that they didn't tell me, and I didn't learn about my mother's death. Every
five years something new came up. And it was a pretty rough time for me, up
till I was 25 and found out the really gruesome details.

DAVIES: You know, I may mangle the quote here, but I think it was Teddy
Roosevelt who said something like, `there's nothing more exhilarating than
being shot without consequence.'

Mr. FONDA: Hm.

DAVIES: Do you think taking a bullet when you were 11 changed your life in
some fundamental way?

Mr. FONDA: No, but it changed everybody's life around me in a very
fundamental way, as...

DAVIES: The way they saw you and cared for you, you mean?

Mr. FONDA: No--well, probably that too. My maternal grandmother and my
sister were waiting in this very special little waiting room off the operating
room and the doctor, Charles Clark Sweet, came in, with all my blood over his
apron, and said, `I'm sorry, Mrs. Seymour, but there's nothing more we can do
for him. His heart stopped three times, and he's lost too much blood and he
stopped breathing.' So for 48 seconds my sister thought that her brother was
dead. And then one of his assistants stuck his head in and said, `No, we got
his heart started again,' and so hence I'm here talking to you in this
wonderful NPR radio show.

DAVIES: You know, I wanted to ask you, you know, your dad did Westerns. I'm
sure you watched them when you were a kid. I always find that when I watch a
Western it's a kind of film that really transports me to another place, I
mean, because we--you know, there's this gorgeous Western scenery, but it
takes us back to a time when there was more lawlessness, and you know, at
times, you know, capricious savagery...

Mr. FONDA: Was there more lawlessness than now? Or capricious savagery? I
don't know.

DAVIES: Well...

Mr. FONDA: I look at Westerns as I do some science fiction, if they're good
films, as a way of showing us today, showing ourselves without us knowing
we're looking in the mirror until maybe a few beats later, like maybe a couple
of weeks, maybe a year, where you see something and say, `My god, that was
like that scene.'

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: And then you might think about it a little further and say,
`That's how my neighbor feels about life. That's what's happening to this
fellow down the road.' And I've seen some pretty darn good Westerns. My dad
was in a couple of them, extraordinarily good ones, character-driven like
"Ox-Bow Incident"...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: Character-action, like "My Darling Clementine," one of my--two of
my favorite Westerns there, others being "The Searchers," "Red River," you
know, and people don't give John Wayne enough credit for his ability as an
actor. And so when he got the award, the Academy Award, he said, `You mean
all I had to do was put a patch over my eye?' I thought that was a very funny
gig, and he was honest. Because...

DAVIES: That was for "True Grit"?

Mr. FONDA: Yeah. But you know--and the Duke learned how to play his
character a gazillion ways, and it worked, and remarkably well, you know, to
play the kind of character that was not usual for his role in "The Searchers"
or "Red River," you know? Those are great, great Westerns, but they also
carry a certain amount of quality to today's life, of conflict of father-son,
you know?

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: All those types of things. The conflicts of character in "Ox-Bow
Incident"...

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FONDA: ...the injustice of men, the lawlessness of the group madness.
They say, `We're going to hang these people regardless because they looked
bad.' Well, what did we do in "Easy Rider"? We didn't get knocked off because
we smuggled some sort of...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: We never said what that substance was--across the border. We got
knocked off because they didn't like the way we looked.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: We represented something they couldn't understand so they had to
kill it. And these are the ways that we can take an idiom and bend it a bit,
tweak it a bit, shape it up a little bit more and make something different out
of it, because after all, a Western is a Western. And it fulfills certain
entities. There's a good and the bad. Well, we have the gray in here.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: And we're able to play that very well.

DAVIES: My guest is Peter Fonda. His new film is "3:10 to Yuma." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: If you're just joining me, my guest is Peter Fonda. His new film is
"3:10 to Yuma."

You know, after you made "Easy Rider," I mean, which was just this enormous
success and an iconic film, you kind of had the world by the tail and you
chose to direct a Western, "The Hired Hand," which has kind of had a bit of a
comeback. I mean, it's at film festivals and art houses...

Mr. FONDA: Oh no, huge comeback.

DAVIES: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. FONDA: I'm making money with the film now.

DAVIES: Oh, that's great and...

Mr. FONDA: But I didn't intend to direct it. It was a script that was given
to me in 1969 whilst I was dubbing "Easy Rider" into French, German and
Italian, and I read it and, as I was reading it, I saw all of it. And I
thought, `well, I'll produce this and star in it,' like I did with "Easy
Rider," except I wrote "Easy Rider," and Alan Sharp's script was just
beautiful. And as I saw each scene, I thought, how do I tell a director `this
is how I want you to shoot it,' because that kind of takes away the director's
gig. Stage is an actor's medium, film is the director's medium, and
television's writers-producer's medium, and how do I do that? How could I go
against the director? So I thought, `Well, I better direct it.'

DAVIES: And I wanted to play a scene from it which I think really illustrates
that well. Let's listen to this. This is from "The Hired Hand," directed by
my guest, Peter Fonda, and we're going to hear--just to set this up--you play
this adventurer Harry, who is sort of tired of life on the road and he and his
friend Archie, played by Warren Oates, go back. Your character Harry decides
he's going to go back to the wife and child he...

Mr. FONDA: Go home.

DAVIES: Go home.

Mr. FONDA: And we know already from literature you can't go home again.

DAVIES: Right. And she essentially says, `You can work out in the shed and
do some chores'...

Mr. FONDA: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...`and we'll see.'

Mr. FONDA: Yeah.

DAVIES: And then right before the scene we're going to hear, he has heard
talk in town that his wife, Hannah, who is played by Verna Bloom, that she had
been sleeping with some of the hired hands while she was out there living
alone. In this scene, you're in the kitchen and you confront her with this.
This is from "The Hired Hand." Let's listen.

(Soundbite of "The Hired Hand")

Mr. FONDA: (As Harry) They said you slept with all your hired hands.

(Soundbite of crickets)

(Soundbite of thump)

Mr. FONDA: (As Harry) You hired men to sleep with.

Ms. VERNA BLOOM: (As Hannah) God, what do you know about it?

Mr. FONDA: (As Harry) How many?

Ms. BLOOM: (As Hannah) Does it matter?

Mr. FONDA: (As Harry) Of course it matters.

Ms. BLOOM: (As Hannah) You were long gone before anybody got into my bed,
and don't think that's because I was hankering after you. I wasn't. That was
as long as I could stand it. I walked about this room on nights like this
going crazy for a man, any man, didn't matter. And sometimes when there was a
man out there, he knew about it and he'd come in. And sometimes I'd have him
or he'd have me, whatever suits you. But not all of them, and not every time
I wanted to. And when a season's work was over, I'd pay him off, no matter
how well he'd worked or how well he'd pleased me. Because the man that's in a
woman's bed thinks he's her boss. And sooner or later they'd have tried to
move their tackle out of the shed and in here, and I didn't want that.
Because I'd already had one man in here and I didn't want another.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that's Verna Bloom and my guest, Peter Fonda, from the movie
"Hired Hand," directed by Peter Fonda. It's a wonderful scene, and this film
really is about gender roles in the West...

Mr. FONDA: And never have you heard a woman face down a man in that way,
especially in the gender-driven West. That was remarkable stuff. That was
all on the page. We didn't change any of that stuff. It was just like
delicious.

DAVIES: Well, she is terrific. And, you know, there's another scene where
Warren Oates is sitting on...

Mr. FONDA: The back porch.

DAVIES: ...the porch.

Mr. FONDA: Yeah.

DAVIES: Right. Your buddy. And this is the scene where she's sort of again
mulling over this idea that women have physical needs, too, and she met her
needs, and Warren Oates kind of--they talk about this, and then the scene ends
and this is where the director comes in and we see that he has his hand on her
foot...

Mr. FONDA: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: Tell us a little about making that scene. What was going on there?

Mr. FONDA: Well, you know, once again a delicious scene. Once again about a
woman and her needs and a man. Warren played wisdom, as far as I was
concerned, and he deserved to be with her because he understood her better
than my character did, and in talking about them in this interplay between
them, she says, `You become hard, don't you? Well, I probably am.' And he
says, `Well, that's not for me to decide, ma'am.' And you don't see what he
does. You just see--his shoulder moves a bit, because I play it in a closer
shot, although we did it in a master. I didn't want you to see what it's
doing until the reveal is coming back out of that shot, you see him take his
hand off her bare foot, and that's a very tender thing to do. It's very, very
personal to touch somebody's bare foot, pull it off.

And interesting thing about that is we're shooting and you know, it was a long
scene, and I wanted to know we had enough film in the camera always, and there
was this music. And I yelled, `Would you just turn off the radio? We're
working out here. Who's listening to music?' It was rock 'n' roll. And then
we start again. And I was apologetic to the actors, and we'd start going
again. This very quiet, very intense scene, and then comes this rock 'n' roll
through. I said, `Dang it!' And of course, I used much heavier language.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: `Turn off those radios!' I can't--this is--mm, mm, mm, mm' and
then third time, I just listened to the music and I realized what it was. It
was the soundtrack from "Easy Rider."

DAVIES: Coming from where?

Mr. FONDA: About five miles away, across the river from us, was a drive-in
theater showing that movie, and the wind and stuff was just carrying that
music into us, and it was just like--that movie is paying for this one,
because I didn't pay myself anything to act, direct and produce the show. I
did it for free.

DAVIES: So what did you do about the "Easy Rider" score over this tender
interaction between these actors?

Mr. FONDA: I just waited till the show ended. Then we started working
again.

DAVIES: OK. My guest is Peter Fonda. His new film is "3:10 to Yuma."

You know, you got an Academy Award nomination for "Ulee's Gold," which is just
a terrific film, and if anybody in the audience hasn't gotten around to it
yet, it's a wonderful video rental.

Mr. FONDA: Thank you. Thank you very much.

DAVIES: You play a beekeeper and a widower whose son is in jail--his wife has
died, obviously. His son is in jail, and his son's wife is strung out on
drugs, and the grandchildren are staying with him. It's a really kind of
powerfully understated performance, I think. Yeah.

Mr. FONDA: Interesting. That's what the critics were remarking about a lot,
this incredibly understated performance. I thought to myself, `Well, where
the hell were they when they saw "Easy Rider."' Because what did I do in that
film?

DAVIES: Well, it's exactly...

Mr. FONDA: Wow, man.

DAVIES: I was going to tell you...

Mr. FONDA: Far out.

DAVIES: I hear Captain America a little bit in that...

Mr. FONDA: Beautiful man. That's far out. Well, throwing away lines is the
way I like to do it. You know, punching up too much, you tend to overplay it
and it becomes predictable. And when you play it down low and slower, it
becomes less predictable. Something that John Wayne--we were talking
earlier--learned how to do very well. And he has that kind of voice and he
talks that way, but remember how he walks. He has a certain kind of walk. He
was taught how to do all those things. Because he was a beautiful young actor
when he was a young man and people saw that, and whoever it was that helped
him through that taught him how to walk a certain way by having him turn his
feet in just a little bit and put its toes down first. That gave that special
walk to him, and teach him how to speak slower. So all the notes I make in my
script, `Slow it down'...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: Play it stated. Don't ask a question, make a statement. All of
these little notes that I give myself, which is my trick as an actor that I
do.

DAVIES: Yeah, the pacing in those scenes are really great. You know, one of
the things--another thing that I like about that film is the way your
occupation as a beekeeper is a really important part of it. And what's
interesting about that is, you know, this is a film about difficult
interactions among very troubled characters but in real life, we spend a lot
of our time working. We don't just have these interior...

Mr. FONDA: True.

DAVIES: ...angst among people, and this film really shows your character,
Ulee Jackson, struggling with the physical and financial demands of his
beekeeping business, and you really learn a little bit about beekeeping.

Mr. FONDA: True.

DAVIES: I think that gives this a sense of context that really makes it all
work.

Mr. FONDA: Victor Nunez wrote a brilliant script. When I read that script,
I was in tears at the end, and I looked up at the roof of my cabin in Montana
and I literally said, `I'd like to thank the members of the Academy.' But I
said to Victor, I said, `Well, his name is Ulysses, isn't it? And Ulysses,
wasn't Ulysses' wife named Penelope?' And in "Ulee's Gold" my wife was...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: ...Penelope. And who was the young woman who was causing all of
the trouble? Helen, my daughter-in-law. Helen of Troy.

DAVIES: Of course.

Mr. FONDA: Well, see--this is--I said, if you're a conduit for that great
mythology from Greek history, if you're that bit of a thing, grab hold of that
braid and take onto it because that's where I'm going.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: And, you know, Ulysses has this long journey. It takes him a
long time to get back to his island where he lived. And...

DAVIES: Homer's Ulysses.

Mr. FONDA: ...Ulee's--yeah, Homer's Ulysses. And Ulee Jackson takes a long
time getting back from Vietnam. He spends 10 years in LA, you know, in the VA
hospital working on his bum leg and finally comes home. His wife's been dead
now. As I've said, his son's in trouble. His daughter-in-law Helen's causing
this, and he's got his two little grandchildren. He has to reinvent a life.
It's the hard work Ulee Jackson does just to make a living, and it's not a big
living.

DAVIES: Peter Fonda. His new film, "3:10 to Yuma," opens September 7th.
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with actor Peter Fonda. He's in a new Western with Russell
Crowe and Christian Bale, "3:10 to Yuma." He co-wrote and starred in the 1969
classic "Easy Rider" and got an Oscar nomination for his role in "Ulee's
Gold."

You know, I thought we should talk a little bit about the Steven Soderbergh
film "The Limey," which you starred in, which is a great film where you play
Terry Valentine, who's this very successful record producer, made a lot of
money from '60s records. Kind of an odious character, right?

Mr. FONDA: That's a nice way. I would have used the--"scumbag" is the
phrase I'd use. We can cut it out. It's no problem for me.

DAVIES: No, I think that will pass. But I thought we could hear a cut of
this, and this is a scene where you are--one of the things you do is date
women much, much younger than yourself.

Mr. FONDA: Yeah.

DAVIES: And here you're playing the stunning young woman played by Amelia
Heinle, who has this unusual name of Adhara, and she's popping out of the
swimming pool...

Mr. FONDA: Right.

DAVIES: ...in this incredible home you have in LA. So let's listen. This is
from the film "The Limey."

(Soundbite of "The Limey")

(Soundbite of splashing water)

Mr. FONDA: (As Terry Valentine) Adhara. I remember telling your parents,
`If you're looking for a name, you can't go wrong with a constellation.'

Ms. AMELIA HEINLE: (As Adhara) Well, I used to hate it. Now I like it.

Mr. FONDA: (As Terry Valentine) Well, it could be worse. They could have
called you Reticulum, Pleiades.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FONDA: (As Terry Valentine) God, you're beautiful. Is there anything in
this world that you want or need?

Ms. HEINLE: (As Adhara) Well, I want to know why you've got a scary man in
your house.

Mr. FONDA: (As Terry Valentine) Gordon? He's been with me for years. He's
not as tough as he looks.

Ms. HEINLE: (As Adhara) Then what good is he?

Mr. FONDA: (As Terry Valentine) Have you heard of loyalty?

Ms. HEINLE: (As Adhara) Yeah. I'm loyal to things that make me happy.

Mr. FONDA: (As Terry Valentine) Am I a thing?

Ms. HEINLE: (As Adhara) Well, you're certainly not a person.

Mr. FONDA: (As Terry Valentine) I'm not?

Ms. AMELIA HEINLE: (As Adhara) No. You're not specific enough to be a
person. You're more like a vibe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FONDA: (As Terry Valentine) God, I'm glad we're having this little chat.
Come here. Get out of the pool.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that's Peter Fonda and Amelia Heinle from the film "The Limey."

Fascinating little look at this character you're playing. The interesting
thing, of course, is that he knew her parents...

Mr. FONDA: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...and helped named her. And now he's dating her.

Mr. FONDA: Right. Is that sick? That is truly sick.

DAVIES: But, you know, I read so much about just what a loathsome guy this
is. But when I actually saw the film, you know, you play him with this easy
charm. I mean, he could be likable.

Mr. FONDA: Actually, the fellow who wrote this script, Lem Dobbs--and he's
married to one of my daughter's best friends--I took all the kids out to
dinner quite a few years before we shot that film, and Lem reached across
table and said, `You know, I'm writing this screenplay for you.' And I thought
in my mind, `Oh, yeah, well, I'll believe that when that script crosses my
desk.' And when it finally came across my desk, I said, `Whoa!' And I came to
Lem and I said, `Lem, is this how you see me, as this scumbag record producer,
this guy who's just totally evil in a way?' He said, `Oh, no, no, no. That's
not it. But I've seen you go through stuff that's so bad and you come out
like the rose and you just do it with such grace even--no matter how bad it
is, you can take it through and come out gracefully.' And I thought, `Well,
I'll go with that,' you know. I'll take that bit of the character and run
with it.

DAVIES: Right. Well, in this film, the limey is not you. It's this English
ex-con who comes looking for you, because you had dated his daughter who has
died, and he...

Mr. FONDA: At my hand, basically.

DAVIES: Yeah. At least, that's certainly his suspicion and wants to--it's
about a kind of gathering confrontation with you. And, of course, he's played
by Terence Stamp and is just so effective and scary...

Mr. FONDA: Sure.

DAVIES: ...and real. Just talk a little bit about your interaction with him.

Mr. FONDA: Oh, there's a foreground of that that's just absolutely
hysterical. I met Stamp--I was in Rome. My oldest sister was getting
married, and I went to Rome, the only member of the family to go there, to
give her away, to, you know, to be here, like her father. And after that
wedding I was just cut loose for a while, and somebody came up to me and said,
`Look it. There's this festival in Taormino, Sicily. And Fellini's going to
be there and Terence Stamp and we'll pay you $10,000 cash to go down there.'
And, wow, you know. In 1965 10 grand was a lot of dough. It's still a lot of
dough. And I thought great. And Fellini and Terence Stamp on top of this,
this is a good show.

Well, Fellini didn't show. Terence and I were there, and of course we got
smashed every night. And we would do this little crawl. I'd call it the
swimming--my version of the swimming man. And we would go from one person's
backyard to another, just crawling over walls and falling into it, and these
people would have those little roll-away bars they would come out by the pool
in the daytime and be rolled under something at night. And they all had, you
know, booze on there, wine and stuff. We'll roll them away and just drink
their stuff and sit on the wall looking at the eastern Mediterranean with the
sun...

DAVIES: Unbeknownst to the property owners.

Mr. FONDA: Oh, absolutely.

DAVIES: Wandering in and helping yourself.

Mr. FONDA: Yeah. Helping ourselves and getting smashed. And then, in that
one moment, watching the sun come out of the eastern Mediterranean, we
promised each other we would make a film together. I just didn't know it
would take 38 years.

DAVIES: And you did, right?

Mr. FONDA: No, 33 years actually. Thirty-three. Yeah, we did it, and they
were delicious characters for both Terence and myself. And Steven used
stuff--Steven Soderbergh, the director--used stuff...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: ...from our own pasts and put them in the present of this...

DAVIES: Actual flashbacks of old movies, right? An old film that he had
done, right?

Mr. FONDA: Yeah, "Poor Cow," and for me an actual story from my book, "Don't
Tell Dad," about hitting a deer on the highway on my motorcycle. And it
was--being able to do those things inside that character and tell that story
inside the character's own idiom, that was a tremendous thing. It was a
revelation to me and I loved it. That was--you don't often get to do that.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting that you tell the story with Terence Stamp
back the mid-'60s and recall it so vividly, because, you know, in a lot of
ways you are an iconic figure of the '60s. I mean, "Easy Rider," we're coming
up on the 40th anniversary of that. And it's, you know, it's just a huge part
of American culture. And you know, you don't look so different. I mean,
you're still really thin and you're wearing the shades. How much is the guy
that made that film...

Mr. FONDA: Well, actually...

DAVIES: ...still in you? I mean, how much of you changed?

Mr. FONDA: These are corrective lenses.

DAVIES: OK. That's one difference.

Mr. FONDA: But from way back when, I was wearing them because my father
hated me wearing these dark glasses. They were aviators, just like these, and
so I would wear them just to bug him. And having done that then in life and
then putting that in film, like "Wild Angels" and "Easy Rider," I have no
vanity about having to wear glasses. So I need to wear glasses now, but
people recognize me with the glasses, and if I smile, it's a dead giveaway.
If I don't have the glasses on, they don't see me, but I feel more comfortable
behind the glasses. When I'm on screen, I don't get to do that, unless I've
written the role.

DAVIES: A lot of us--I mean, I'm 54 and when I think about things I did in my
20s, I'm sort of connected with some of them, but they don't define who I am.
At age 28 you made this film "Easy Rider," which is this iconic film in
American cinema, and I'm wondering what it's like to kind of have so much of
who you are be associated with this thing you did decades ago.

Mr. FONDA: Well, you know, at first it was--well, at first, about 10 years
into it, I was a little bit bored about it and annoyed that they weren't
seeing these other things that I'd done. And then I'd realized it had gone
beyond what I thought it would ever do. I knew it was shaking the cage, and I
knew it would be successful. I did not realize it would become an icon. It
would become one of the top 100 movies of 100 years, that AFI award.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FONDA: That all kinds of things were put on that film around the world.
The motorcycle, which I built. I built the motorcycles that I rode and Dennis
rode. I bought four of them from Los Angeles Police Department. I love the
political incorrectness of that. But, you know, there's no subtitles that
says, `These are LAPD cop bikes, you know?' And five black guys from Watts
helped me build these. This is very politically incorrect, and Watts in 1968
was not a place for a white boy to be, let alone have them help me build these
motorcycles. And that motorcycle's become an icon. Me and that flag on my
back has become an icon. And, by the way, I got that idea of a flag on my
back from a John Wayne movie about the Flying Tigers.

DAVIES: Oh, really?

Mr. FONDA: And I thought, `That's a great image. Sometime I'm going to use
that.' And so many years later, I thought, that's when the image--but it's not
that flag. It's going to be the US flag. I'm going to carry this flag across
the country. This is going to be tough for the audience to try to get around
this, who I am carrying this flag. And that was a moment there for me to have
done that, and not realizing that that motorcycle, that image of the flag, and
then me carrying it and what I was in the film, that that would become iconic,
and I now have to live with it. In a way that's better than I thought it
would be...

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FONDA: ...because it means so much to so many people. Far be it from me
to say, `Oh, you know what? I've done--that was my eighth film, I've done 70
since then, you know?'

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: Give me a break. And there's people who say, you know, `Oh, I
loved "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry."' I mean, they have their special ones and
their favorite ones and it's great, too, but eventually most of the questions
will come out about "Easy Rider," and I can't get annoyed about that. That
means something to an actor, to a filmmaker, to a screenwriter, that that
which you've done when you were 28 still carries as much weight.

DAVIES: My guest is Peter Fonda. He's in the new film "3:10 to Yuma." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: If you're just joining me, we're speaking with Peter Fonda. His new
film is a Western, "3:10 to Yuma."

It's interesting, you know, you grew up in a Hollywood family and went into
acting...

Mr. FONDA: Not really.

DAVIES: Well...

Mr. FONDA: No, we did not know we were a Hollywood family...

DAVIES: Because your father was so distant?

Mr. FONDA: Well, not that part. We didn't know we were a part of Hollywood.
These people would come to the house--The Duke, Jimmy Stewart, Ward Bond,
Randolph Scott--you know, they were just people.

DAVIES: When you're a kid, you know don't.

Mr. FONDA: No, we didn't go to movies. The first movie I saw, other than
the little home movies of the Castle Films newsreels and stuff like that, was
a film my father did called "Chad Hanna." But I didn't--I mean, he looked like
my dad, but my dad couldn't be in a circus with Linda Darnell. He was out in
the Pacific fighting the second world war, so I'd wondered who was that guy
who sounded and looked like my father. So as a little guy I went pounding on
the screen, `Daddy, daddy, daddy,' and my mother had to take me out of the
screening room and explain to me that wasn't my father, that was Chad Hanna.
I went home. I wondered, `Why are all these pictures of Chad Hanna around our
house?' You know? Why is Chad posing as my father, you know? I don't get
this. This wasn't really something I could really put together, and we never
saw him in any of the family films. That was because Chad was operating the
camera.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: He wasn't in the shots. And at a break in school--his break from
the war, he came home on a leave. And he came to the school to pick me and my
sisters up, and I didn't know. I just saw the big black Buick limo that was
the family car and out stepped Chad Hanna. Well, I beat feet, dude. I hid in
the bushes, and I was such a skinny little kid, I could get way inside the
bush and nobody could get to me. Now, think about my father's point of view.
Even though he...

DAVIES: So you literally don't know that this guy is your father?

Mr. FONDA: He's Chad Hanna.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: And what about my father's come home and come to pick us up and
his only son refuses to see him or deal anything with him. But then I
thought, well, is this retribution for the fact that he never talked to us? I
mean, there were long, cold silences at those tables and I'd look at Jane and
I'd say, `What did you do?' `I do? What did you do?' You know, we didn't
know.

DAVIES: Well, I know that you've written about the difficult relationship
with your father in the book that you wrote, and I'm wondering, were you
determined--maybe this is obvious, but to have a different kind of
relationship with your kids, and...

Mr. FONDA: I thought about that, for sure, but I tried not to do the
comparative, because it would have been too easy for me to fall into just
overdoing it then, to overcompensate for what I didn't have. And
unfortunately, what I didn't have colored me more than what I wanted to do in
life.

DAVIES: What do you mean, what you didn't have?

Mr. FONDA: Well, what I lacked in a family was not something I could make up
for in my own family as well as I would have liked to have done. Having said
that, my father was not a mean person. No. He never hit me, really. He
spanked me once. He just didn't know how to show love. We didn't understand.
He was incredibly shy and so he would show love or anger through deep silence
with angry looks. And his background in religion was Christian Science, so
you know, if you have a problem, you don't have a cold. It's something wrong
with you and God. And, man, you know, we got measles and stuff like that, and
it was not that we really had an illness. It was something wrong with us and
God. That quickly shut me off organized religion right away.

DAVIES: Mm

Mr. FONDA: And I didn't realize that my dad could sit next to somebody on a
bus and talk their ear off, a stranger, but when it came to us, he couldn't do
anything. He was most comfortable on the stage, creating character, because
in character, he could do all this talking that he couldn't do in his own life
with his own family.

DAVIES: You know, I was--if I've heard this--I've read that later in your
life, when you had an active and successful career in film, that he would
sometimes congratulate you but never in person, through an agent or through a
note?

Mr. FONDA: Well, yeah to a degree. When he came to see "Easy Rider," he was
not so sure about it. He said, `Well, son, I'm not sure this is going to
play. We don't know where you're going.' I said, `Well, Dad, yeah we do.
Dennis says "I'm going down to Mardi Gras. I'm going to get myself a Mardi
Gras queen. Oh I can't wait to get some hands on that food."' `Well, that's a
little thin, son, I don't know.' I said, `Well, Dad, why don't you just take
the trip with us? Why don't you just look--discover what we discover, because
that's what we're up to?' `I don't know, son. That's asking the audience to
do an awful lot.'

But he was from a different era of film, and he was used to a certain kind of
storytelling. Even though his films are remarkable, it was a different way of
doing it, because we didn't have these grandiose speeches or stuff. It was
just us. And, of course, it was a tremendous success. Tremendous success.
And he was proud of that, but he didn't know how to tell me.

Then he worked for me, one day, in a film I directed, another Western, but it
was a modern Western. Fifty one, "1951," with Brooke Shields. She was
tremendous. He worked one day for me, and about a week and a half afterwards
he said in a letter, maybe the fifth letter he ever sent me in his life, and
in that letter he was grousing about the beard he had because it wasn't as
good, and so forth and so forth, and he said, `You know, in my 41 years of
making motion pictures, I've never seen a crew so devoted to the director.
And you're a very good director, son. And I love you very much. Your dad.'

DAVIES: Mm.

Mr. FONDA: Now, I would not have gotten that letter had it not been for the
entire company, and that's my hallmark as a filmmaker. When I'm in charge
with it--producing, directing, whatever that is--if I'm in charge of it, I try
to develop a company because in a company forum, we can push what we have to
do. And they all have to be involved with it. There's no such thing as `not
my department.' That is not a phrase that happens on one of my sets.

DAVIES: And your dad saw that thing that you had with the crew, and that
meant a lot to you?

Mr. FONDA: Yeah. and then after that I realized he hadn't seen "The Hired
Hand," so I screened that for him, and his comment up there was, `Well, that's
my kind of western.' So that was great, you know.

And at the end of his life, he was dying, he opened up his eyes. He'd been in
some sort of another place and he looked at his fifth wife and, blinking his
eyes, one eye was closed, open, blinking like a drunk trying to find the right
part of the path to walk down, his big blue beautiful eyes. Didn't say a
thing to her. Looked at his first born, my sister, Jane, blinking his eyes,
didn't see a thing. And then, looked at her husband, then Tom Hayden, whom I
referred to as the "commie prevert." Didn't see a thing. And then looked at
me, both eyes opened up and he said, `I want you to know, son, I love you very
much,' and laid his head down and died. And that pretty much took care of any
problems I would have had with my father. They just passed, right away.

DAVIES: Huh. Wow.

Mr. FONDA: And it wasn't a problem in my life anymore. I mean, I can
remember and tell you about it, but I don't carry angst about it in my heart.

DAVIES: You know, I did want to ask about your daughter Bridget, who did
pursue acting and is really good at it and wondered, you know, having been
through the business, did you have any particular hopes or fears for her
getting into acting?

Mr. FONDA: Man, you were leading me into some of the best stories. You're
leading me right in. This is so cool. I promised my kids I'd be at all their
graduations because nobody showed up at mine. You know, what was I doing,
magna cum laude if nobody was going to show up, right? And so I was doing a
film in Germany. I'd rented a jet from Essen in Germany, just outside Munich,
to Paris, took the Concorde to New York, rented a jet from New York to LA and
showed up 45 minutes before her graduation. And she saw me and I could see
the relief and the wonderful look on her face. Afterwards we're walking arm
in arm and she said, `Dad, I want to be an actor.' `Don't you ever say that
again.' `Dad! `It's a verb, not a noun. Where are you going to study
acting?' `UCLA.' I said, `No, that's Tanning 101, and USC's Theory of Tanning
101. If you really want to get into this, you go to Princeton, Yale or NYU.
I'd advise NYU. Get into every student film you can. Take off-campus courses
in acting because this is a job. You work at this. It is a noun.' And she
did that. And she understood, this is work.

And later in an interview I read, the interviewer said, `Well, of course, this
is in your genes. It's in your genes.' `Oh no, I work at this.' I thought,
`All right!' Because it is something we do. It's not genetic. Just because
my father, my sister, myself, and my daughter--and my son's a cameraman--are
in this business, it's because of proximity. But proximity'll only carry you
so far. You have to have the goods. When you walk through that door, you
have two strikes against you. You have one shot to hit it out of the park, or
at least get on base, right?

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. FONDA: One chance, because if you don't, you're gone. You don't have a
shot at it, at getting the role.

DAVIES: Even if you're a Fonda?

Mr. FONDA: Nah. You know, they may say that's a great selling point to have
a Fonda in the film, but man, if you're not a good actor, no matter how many
films you've done or how many parents you've got in this business, you don't
get that shot. And Jane stepped up to that plate. I started working at it
when I was 13. I wrote my first play when I was 13 because I did not want to
play a fair young maiden in another show of the "Pirates of Penzance" because
I was at an all boys boarding school and somebody had to play a fair young
maiden. I was a skinny little effete-looking guy and I was so embarrassed
about this because I was almost 10 pounds when I was born. In my father's
movie--I can't remember what he was making--but he went hooping and hollering
around the set, I'm told, saying, `Oh boy I have a fullback for a son.' Well,
guesss what, I was almost 10 pounds when I was 20. So that was a
disappointment walking out the door.

DAVIES: (Unintelligible). Right. Right. Well, it's been great talking to
you, Peter Fonda. Thanks so much for coming.

Mr. FONDA: Thank you very much for having me on the show.

DAVIES: Peter Fonda's new film, "3:10 to Yuma," opens September 7th.

Coming up, Geoff Nunberg on sarcasm. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Linguist Geoff Nunberg opines on sarcasm
DAVE DAVIES, host:

What is it that brings out a sarcastic streak in people whenever they talk
about improper use of language? Our linguist Geoff Nunberg thinks he's found
the origins: in eighth grade English class.

GEOFF NUNBERG reporting:

Not long ago, Newsweek ran a guest column by an Alabama college professor who
was complaining about his students' sloppy writing. One of those familiar
language diatribes that seem to come with a system disc. Whenever he sees a
student writing, `It goes without saying' or `It's not for me to say,' he
says, he scribbles on their essays, `Then why say it?'

Nobody gets through life without having an English teacher like that, though
if you're lucky, you'll get yours of the way well before you reach college.
Mine was Mrs. Bosch in the eighth grade. Let somebody hand in a paper with a
sentence, `Having been thrown in the air, the dog caught the stick,' and Mrs.
Bosch would dispatch it before the entire class with pointed sarcasm. `Why,
the poor animal!' And we would crack up, partly out of sadistic pleasure in
the humiliation visited on our hapless classmate and partly because it pleased
us to be let in on the joke.

Mrs. Bosch's sarcasm was a crucial part of our education as writers, such as
it was. Her sharp voice was an inward presence as we scanned our sentences,
trying to make sure their meanings at least vaguely coincided with what we
were trying to say. And, of course, she had our eighth-grade number. That's
the age when kids are all going a little crazy with the discovery of sarcasm
as they realize the power of echoing somebody else's words or thoughts in a
way that makes them sound deluded or foolish. In the school yard, sarcasm
replaces brute insult as kids move from `You butthead retard,' to `Smooth
move, guy,' and it's their first line of defense against parental authority as
they learn to voice their grudging compliance in a tone that makes their
disaffection clear. `Yeah, right, Dad.'

Adolescent sarcasm can be irritating--that's what it's supposed to be, after
all. But we can look on it a little indulgently. After all, what else have
13-year-olds got going for them? But when grown people engage in sarcasm, it
can come off as a disconcertingly juvenile bit of nastiness. Yet, when the
subject of language comes up, a lot of people revert to a tone of keening
mockery that hasn't much deepened since they were in middle school. Earlier
this year, for example, Dick Cavett wrote a piece about the decline of English
in the Web-based New York Times Select. Cavett began by warning that we're
losing our grip on our glorious English language and then preceded to roll off
a series of familiar japes about things like the mispronunciations of heinous
and nuclear. Not to mention that chestnut about literally, that my Mrs.
Bosch performed for three generations of middle schoolers. `The Senator
literally exploded with laughter? And who cleaned up the mess?'

When a flight attendant announces, `We will be landing in Chicago
momentarily,' Cavett says, he enjoys replying, `Will there be time to get
off?' Actually, I have trouble imagining how that conversation could take
place. I mean, Cavett makes his little witticism and the flight attendant
gives him this look that says, `Excuse me?' And then he has to explain, `Oh I
was merely venturing a joking reference to the prescriptive grammarian's
insistence that the adverb "momentarily" should be used only to signify "for a
moment" and not "in a moment."' My guess is that Cavett actually replied to
that announcement, it was sotto voce to an imaginary companion.

But the gag tells better this way. As Mrs. Bosch understood full well, the
point of sarcasm isn't just to humiliate the clueless. It's also for the
benefit of an audience who are in on the joke. That's who teenagers are
appealing to with their eye rolls, as if they were glancing over to an
invisible homey in the other corner of the room. You could sense the same
yearning for solidarity among the 800 or so readers who posted online comments
to Cavett's piece, almost all of them with a sarcastic take on some usage that
sears their ears or has them screaming at their TV set. `What do you mean
"broad daylight"? Could it happen in narrow daylight?' `As for those who
"feel badly" I believe they refer to an impaired tactile sense.'

It's easy to find this sort of thing sophomoric, and even that might involve
skipping a grade or two. But it answers to a simple desire for communion with
others who know better. And in its own way, it leaves you feeling
reassuringly complacent about the state of English. These complaints may
always be bracketed by apocalyptic warnings about the imminent collapse of the
language, but if the greatest linguistic threats we're facing are things like
the confusion of prone and supine and a shaky grasp of the lie/lay
distinction, then we'll probably muddle through. It's like hearing somebody
warn of grave domestic security threats and then learning that he's concerned
about Canadian sturgeon poaching on the US side of Lake Huron.

In fact, the inconsequentiality of these issues belies the charges of elitism
that critics are always leveling at the word-inistas. Think of the way Lynne
Truss has ridden this shtick to the top of the best-seller lists. Her
operatic indignation draws millions of readers into a sense of confraternity
with everybody else who got the possessive rule down cold in middle school.
And what could be more democratic than that? Language may be infinitely deep
and mysterious, but when it comes to using the apostrophe right, you and I can
walk hand in hand with Henry James.

DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the school of information
at the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book, called "Talking
Right," is now out in paperback.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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