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Peter Fonda Discisses His Life and Career.

Actor Peter Fonda. He's been nominated this year for an Oscar for his performance in "Ulee's Gold." The son of actor Henry Fonda, he's best known for his role in the cult classic "Easy Rider." He's written his memoir, "Don't Tell Dad" (Hyperion


Other segments from the episode on March 19, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 19, 1998: Interview with Peter Fonda; Review of the television show "Iron Chef."


Date: MARCH 19, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031901NP.217
Head: Peter Fonda
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Peter Fonda is hoping to get an Academy Award Monday. He's nominated for best actor for his role in "Ulee's Gold." He's followed up his movie comeback with a new memoir called "Don't Tell Dad." Although there's plenty about his family, the book also tells who he is outside of being Henry's son, Jane's younger brother, and Bridget's father.

Henry Fonda often played noble, even mythical American characters -- Abe Lincoln, Tom Joad, Wyatt Earp. In the '60s, Peter Fonda became famous for bringing a new American hero to the screen -- the hippie drifter -- in his film "Easy Rider."

Let's start with a clip from Ulee's Gold. Fonda plays a Vietnam vet and beekeeper. His son is in prison for bank robbery. His daughter-in-law is a drug addict who has abandoned the children and left them with Ulee. Two of Ulee's son's robbery partners think the son hid money from the robbery on Ulee's farm, and they're determined to find it. In this scene, Ulee is visiting his son, who wants Ulee to track down his wife.


ACTOR: That's why you've gotta go get her right now, while we know where she is, before Eddie (ph) or Farris (ph) do something to her.

PETER FONDA, ACTOR, AS ULEE: Get her? And then what'll happen? She left her kids. Your kids -- remember? This is my busiest time, and I'm supposed to risk everything to go bring back a (Unintelligible). As far as I'm concerned, she can just stay gone. She's sick, I'm telling you.

I don't know nothing about dealing with scum like Eddie and Farris. Besides, you think she's gonna let me go in there, take her off just like that?

ACTOR: You're all I got, Pop.

GROSS: Peter Fonda, welcome to FRESH AIR.

FONDA: Thank you.

GROSS: You're playing someone in Ulee's Gold who's very, very inward, very reserved -- someone who's surrounded by people much more volatile than he is. You write in your book that this part demanded the kind of performance only actors like your father give. What do you mean by that?

FONDA: Very understated; putting very little spin on the line; letting the moment play for itself. But that means you have to know what the moment is; find it and fill it; and then let it go.

GROSS: What does that mean? "Find the moment, and then let it go"?

FONDA: The heaviest line in the film was when my character says to Eddie and Farris that "meetings someone" -- the line is: "meeting someone like you, Eddie, has done me a world of good." And he says: "how's that?" He said: "it reminds me that there's all kinds of weakness in the world and not all of it is evil. I forget that from time to time."

You read that line flat, and the spin -- no spin on it. The power of the line's still there. It's like when I just said "we blew it" at the end of Easy Rider. I threw that line away. "And do you know what, Billy? We blew it" -- flat-lined it. It allows the power to come through more than if you try to overdramatize it.

This is what my father was famous for. And many other actors in that -- for that matter, is doing less and making more of it.

GROSS: Has your role in Ulee's Gold led to other interesting offers?

FONDA: Yes, I just finished "The Passion of Ayn Rand" with Helen Murrin, who is really cool.

GROSS: Yeah.

FONDA: And Eric -- really, she's dynamic -- I love her.

GROSS: Yeah, she's great.

FONDA: And Eric Stoltz, who is my daughter's boyfriend, also a friend of mine. And we had a wonderful time working together. And I believe that the offer that came to me to play Frank O'Connor (ph), Ayn Rand's husband -- and I -- when I read the script, I said: "God, I'm just a piece of furniture in the background. How come they're offering me so much money?" Then I said: "oh, well, I guess what I'll be is the most comfortable chair you can imagine."


So everyone who sees me will say: "ooh, we want to stop and sit in that chair." And I found out how to do even more with even less than I had in Ulee. I was in every scene in Ulee's Gold, doing less.


I wasn't in every scene -- after all, it's not called "The Passion of Frank O'Connor." It's The Passion of Ayn Rand. So I learned how to do a scene with one word. It's just the way I inflected and the way I say it, like: "well?" Or "well." And it was, as a matter of fact, the word "well."

At one point, Helen was just acting her buns off, being Ayn Rand. Spooky, very spooky -- very cool. And she says all this stuff, and she's jabbering away in the back of a limousine, and I say "well." And Chris Menhall (ph), the the director said: "OK, cut. That's fine. Check the gates. That was perfect." And Helen looked at me and started hitting me over the head with pages from the script. "damn, I am working my ass. Here, you get away with just saying 'well' and you steal the scene."

You know, this is a wonderful compliment coming from Helen Murrin.

GROSS: Right. If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Fonda and he's written a memoir called Don't Tell Dad.

The roles that you first really became famous for were biker roles. So before we get to some of those roles, how did you first meet Dennis Hopper, who was your collaborator on early films? You even wrote a screenplay together before shooting "Wild Angels" and Easy Rider.

FONDA: Right. I met Dennis at the reception to his wedding to a person named Brooke Hayward who -- whom I'd grown up with and was like kind of my older sister, like Jane. But not really like Jane in the long-run. We all kind of got damaged together, you might say. And so...


... at her wedding, I was there. The reception was held in my sister's apartment in New York in 1960. And that's when I met Dennis the first time.

GROSS: And what -- what -- what hooked you up together? I mean, what did you see in each other?

FONDA: A certain energy and frustration, and the ability to collaborate to break through that. And the ability to find ideas that were new and different. And fortunately for me, I got turned onto some of the great bits of American art. The artists themselves; their work; the pop art scene -- everything Dennis was in to, I just absorbed like a sponge.

So, he was a gateway to lots of cool things that were happening in my life.

GROSS: Well, you wrote a screenplay together called "Ying and Yang" and I think it was that screenplay that led you to Roger Corman. And Roger Corman cast you in his film "Wild Angels," which was about bikers -- about the Hell's Angels.

FONDA: Notice how you had to stammer just for a second. It was about -- what was it about?

GROSS: Yeah, what could it possibly be about? Let me think.

FONDA: Nazi paraphernalia...


... raping somebody in a church. That's basically what the whole bottom line was.

GROSS: Well this is a -- you know, you're like the -- you know, the leader of a Hell's Angels gang; a kind of real switch from previous roles that you had in movies like "Tammy and the Doctor" and "Lilith." What did you think of yourself as being the biker?

FONDA: Well, I mean, I liked the job I did in Lilith. I thought I fit the bill well. And in my later years now, I'm enjoying hearing that from people. But I didn't want to be cast as the Sam Sensitive roles all the time, and that's what my agents had in mind for me. They thought -- they wanted me to become the next Dean Jones for Disney. I had other thoughts afoot here. I was a bit too radical for that.

And so I -- I started to strike out in a different way.

GROSS: Now, why do you think Corman cast you in the biker role?

FONDA: I think he saw me as this very rebellious person who didn't give a rats ass, and went out there and just did what was most, I guess, obnoxious or at least what shook the cage ...


... whatever would shake the cage the most into any kind of really set-in legislative morality. I really believe that there's -- abstract morality has no place in our political or our everyday lives. I mean, arbitrary morality and abstract authority certainly doesn't. So, he saw me as somebody who was always watching for something to step on that looked like abstract authority or arbitrary morality.

It's been a long time since I've had to talk about arbitrary morality. A very funny thing happened to me in my life, which is in the book Don't Tell Dad. I came over to my dad's house post-Easy Rider. You know, I figured it's the family house of a -- and I'm part of the family. Truck on in -- you don't have to call and ask for permission.

So I went on over there, and went through the back in the garden, 'cause I couldn't see anybody up in the front of the house, and ran into my father and three of his agents and lawyer-types; his business managers and lawyer-types. And his fifth wife Shirlee. And I walked on in and sat down, just listening to what was going on.

And somehow or other, and I really don't remember exactly how -- I wish I did -- the conversation turned against me, about how -- as I didn't believe in the laws governing the use of marijuana; did not give me the right to break that law. You know, laws were laws and they were made to be kept, and there was a reason for laws.

And I said, you know, this -- these guys have just stepped on a land mine. They don't even know it. Wait 'til they step off and he clicks and they're gone. Because I said: "well now hold on, you guys. There is a law in the State of California on the books that forbids oral copulation."


And, you know, all these guys kind of start looking towards the floor, and Shirlee, God bless her -- what a wonderful straight man she was at the moment -- she says: "what -- what does it mean -- oral copulation?"


So of course, this is NPR and I can't go into everything that I said to her, but in fact I explained what it was and I said: "the difference is these guys here are just -- they're talking -- they think it's OK because it's an arbitrary moral, and so for them to go out and get a little oral sex, it's -- you know, it's OK." And I said: "now, that's how I find the rules governing the use of marijuana in my pursuit of happiness. It's arbitrary and immoral."

GROSS: Well, this is a great way to endear yourself to your family.

FONDA: Well by this time, my family...

GROSS: Too late.

FONDA: Yeah, you got it.

GROSS: Right.

FONDA: They'd all skated. I was the family.

GROSS: So listen, when you were cast in Wild Angels, were you already riding a motorcycle?

FONDA: Yeah -- yeah, I'd been riding around a lot with various other glitterati -- McQueen and Brando, myself, Ted Marklin (ph) -- people that...

GROSS: Oh, probably it would have been fun to see you and Brando, who had also played a biker, riding around together.

FONDA: Oh, yeah, actually I -- he asked me to come by his house one afternoon, and he'd say: "come by my house. I left my motorcycle down at Wally Cox's and would you take me down there?" I said: "sure, Bud" -- we called him "Bud" because that was what he was known as as a young man in Omaha; a "junior" in the midwestern term is always known as "Bud" instead of "Marlon, Junior" or "Junior," he was called "Bud."

And I said: "yeah, Bud. I'll come by." He said: "but bring your Bonneville" -- I had a Triumph Bonneville. And you know, I thought maybe a car would suffice, but oh sure, you can ride in the back of my motorcycle. As we're riding down Ventura Boulevard trying to beat the rain, Marlon leaned forward and whispered in my ear: "did you hate your father?"


I thought to myself: "that's the strangest question to ever come from this dude" whose holding on -- his arms are around me. I'm wondering: "why does he have his arms around me? What am I in for with Marlon here?"


GROSS: What did you say?

FONDA: I just said "no."

GROSS: Right.

FONDA: In the long-run, Marlon, "no." And I talk about it in that way in the book as an example. And in fact, I knew that I loved my father. I was confused and wondered whether he loved me.

GROSS: I think it's time to hear a scene from Wild Angels...

FONDA: Uh-oh.

GROSS: ... your first biker film.


And -- now in this scene, you're at the funeral of a biker -- a biker played by Bruce Dern. And his coffin is covered by a Nazi flag. There's a minister delivering a eulogy which you think is really phony, so you interrupt the eulogy to say this:


FONDA: Yeah, we don't want nobody telling us what to do. We don't want nobody pushing us around.


ACTOR AS MINISTER: I apologize. But tell me, just what is it that you want to do?

FONDA: We want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride and we want to be free to ride on machines without being hassled by The Man.


And we want to get loaded.


ACTRESS: Second the motion.

FONDA: And we want to have a good time.


And that's what we're gonna do.

ACTRESS: Away, baby. Let's go.

FONDA: We're gonna have a good time. We're gonna have a party.



GROSS: And as you can hear, they are totally tearing apart the church.


FONDA: I warned you about that one already.

GROSS: Peter Fonda, your thoughts listening back to the scene?

FONDA: Far out.


GROSS: "Groovy" would be the other alternative.


FONDA: Oh, no, not "groovy." Just "far out" and you know -- what the heck. You would have to pick that scene...


I didn't write it.

GROSS: Who did?

FONDA: I can't remember.


GROSS: How did those lines sound to you at the time? You want to be free to not be hassled by "the man."

FONDA: I thought I had a better way of saying it, but I was reminded that I was playing the leader of a motorcycle gang, and didn't necessarily have that -- a larger vocabulary.

GROSS: My guest is Peter Fonda. He's written a new memoir called Don't Tell Dad. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Peter Fonda. When we left off, we were talking about his biker film Wild Angels.

Now, there is a poster of you from this movie that you say sold -- sold what? -- 16 million copies in America or something like that?

FONDA: Easily, yeah.

GROSS: How seriously did you take yourself at the time as a biker icon?

FONDA: I didn't even put those two things together. I was brought into Corman's office. He was over at 20th Century Fox -- had a deal making films over there. And he said he wanted to make -- and my hair was rather long and I was considered a weird hippie -- and he said he wanted to make a motorcycle movie -- a movie about the Hell's Angels that wasn't making a statement, which I found to be rather far out because I think intending to make a movie about the Hell's Angels, you're covering "statement" all over the place.

So I thought: "well, let's see if he can do it." I said: "I'm in." And the next day, I was called. Actually, the first time I was called, I was called to play Bruce Dern's part.

GROSS: The loser.

FONDA: The loser, yeah. And I said, well I can do this one easily.


Anyway, it turned out that the fellow who was cast to play the part that I ended up playing didn't know how to ride a motorcycle. So I got the gig, but at the same price I got to play for being the loser, who's a stiff for about a third of the film.

GROSS: Right. Now, it's funny -- when you were young and going to boarding school and private school, you write that you had the image of being a sissy, and for a while you were even called "Fairy Fonda." That was in part because you had to play the role of a fair maiden in "The Pirates of Penzance" at an all-boys school.

FONDA: Also the fact that I weighed probably 82 pounds.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, you were real like Skinny Marink (ph) at the time, not that you ever put on a lot of weight in later life. But anyways, it's a kind of far cry from that image, you know, from the sissy image that you had to, you know, "the biker."

FONDA: Mm-hmm. Worked.


GROSS: Did you like that change? Did you find it amusing? Or did you take it really seriously?

FONDA: Well, I -- that particular part of the change I found very amusing, and even writing the script with Dennis, it was a lot of fun and it -- an amusement to it. I was definitely bent to do something different in my life, and I went for it.

GROSS: Let's...

FONDA: Next film -- oh, yeah -- what are you going to do next to me? We'll find out if I should chain myself to this chair -- handcuff myself so I don't come crawling to the mike.

GROSS: Well, I have a question about Roger Corman's "The Trip," but you'll be spared from any clips.

FONDA: Oh, it's -- roll the clips. I can handle it.

GROSS: OK. This is an LSD movie with lots of like swirling psychedelic colors intercut in the trip scenes. Now, were you already -- I imagine you were already tripping a lot yourself when you shot this movie?

FONDA: No, no. You couldn't really do that. I think I'd end up looking at the camera and just starting to crackup, thinking these guys are really serious, aren't they?

GROSS: No, I don't mean while making the movie, but I mean -- I don't mean you were high during the shooting of the movie necessarily, but you already knew a lot about acid trips by the time you made the movie, right?

FONDA: Not a lot.

GROSS: Not a lot?

FONDA: I think probably -- I only took -- my reputation for consumption far exceeds the actual amount of controlled substances that I ever attempted or tried. But I knew what it was -- I knew what it was. I had had an altered state several times before Roger and I talked about making a movie about that thing.

And I tried to get Roger to go for it, too, so he'd know what an altered state was because I was very specific. And I said: "it's not, you know, about flashing lights and swirling things overlaid on images on film. That's what you see in the discotheques 'cause they don't know how to -- to recreate it."

And Jack Nicholson wrote the script and Jack's script was absolutely brilliant. He did it all with stock footage -- some footage that we would shoot -- in a cutting matter. In other words, he made the rhythm of the cuts and what the visual image was against your eyes into an altered state. It was a brilliant thing.

And Roger got to the flashing lights and swirling things, overlaid images of the rest of us, which rather disappointed me. But the good part about it all was first that I got to work with Dennis Hopper, who was in the film in a supporting role, by telling Roger, who was not going to shoot some of the images that were really necessary to make something out of it.

And Dennis and I went off with a camera and film to the desert and shot stuff of me running through sand dunes and things like that -- that they didn't cut very well, but you could sure see the difference in the footage we shot compared to the footage that Roger shot.

GROSS: Now, how did you and Dennis Hopper decide to do Easy Rider -- your own version of a biker film?

FONDA: Well as I said, I had been given as my daily lesson. What it was, I was in Toronto, Canada in September of 1967 attending a big convention of theater owners and exhibitors and distributors. And at the second day lunch with 1,200 people, I was up at a big table of glitterati.

Now, I had been through all this -- the normal stuff of selling a film; of talking to the press. So I had a very nice, custom-made double-breasted suit and a really cool shirt and tie -- and no shoes or socks, so everybody who would come into visit me to interview me just couldn't take their eyes off the fact that I had bare feet. And they'd just stare at the bare feet -- which was of course, the desired effect.

And (unintelligible) to the day before, when I was given my lesson by Jack Valenti, he looked right at me as I was sitting down on the floor with the rest of the plebes, and said: "we have to stop making movies about motorcycles, sex, and drugs, and start making more movies like 'Dr. Doolittle' which cost $27 million."


And I went back to my room. OK, no more sex. (unintelligible) motorcycle, sex and drug movie. But I had come up with the story the night before I said that line, of Easy Rider; called Dennis on the phone -- it was 4:30 Toronto time on the 27th of September, 1967, and 1:30 in L.A. time, and I called Dennis, told him the story that I'd made up. And he said: "that's far out. You gonna do it?" I said: "well, I thought you'd direct and I'll produce and we both write it and act in it. We could save some money." And I believed we'd make a movie that would be commercially successful. And that's how it started.

GROSS: Peter Fonda -- he'll be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called Don't Tell Dad.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Peter Fonda. He's nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Ulee's Gold. And he has a new memoir called Don't Tell Dad. When we left off, we were talking about his movie Easy Rider, in which he and Dennis Hopper played two hippies traveling across America on motorcycles.

What did you want your motorcycle to look like for the movie?

FONDA: Well, just what it looked like -- all that steel and all that engine between my legs, and that red, white, and blue and star-spangled gas tank. I thought it was like a huge phallic symbol that I'd be riding across the country.


GROSS: And that's the effect you wanted.

FONDA: Exactly. And Dennis wanted me in white leathers, and I said: "no, no, no, this isn't Evel Knievel. We stay in black leathers."


We don't want to count out the S&M crowd from this movie. We want to get as many people in here as possible, and black leather plays a lot better, believe me, Dennis. And so you know -- and then I put spurs on, even. Very few people realize I was wearing spurs during that movie. I was trying to tell you that we were making a western, that happened to have sex and drugs and motorcycles in it.


GROSS: You say in your book that as soon as you had your motorcycle and your leathers, you started riding the L.A. freeway at night to practice, I guess. But you were stopped every night by the police. What would that -- what were those encounters like?

FONDA: Well, I was stopped because I was wearing the flag on the back. I had the costume on. You know, I had the flag on the back of my jacket. And they thought I was degrading the flag.

So they would arrest me, and of course I made sure I didn't have any money with me. I had my driver's license and platinum American Express card, but no money. And they would bust me for vagrancy and take me down, and eventually they'd have to let me go and bring me back to my motorcycle, and off I'd go riding around.

After the success of the film in 1969, by 1970 every cop car had a flag on its fender; every cop had a flag on his sleeve. And it suddenly was hip to wear flags wherever you wanted them, all the time. It was more of an homage than it was something against the country.

I got the idea, by the way, from John Wayne in "Flying Tigers," only I decided the national Chinese flag wouldn't really work too well in Easy Rider.

GROSS: Now time for another scene.

FONDA: Uh-oh.

GROSS: In -- in this scene...

FONDA: This noose is getting tighter every time you do this to me. But I can handle it. I can handle it.


GROSS: This -- this is one of your scenes in Easy Rider with Jack Nicholson. And Jack Nicholson is an alcoholic lawyer, and in the scene you're giving him his first joint -- you're convincing him ...


... you're convincing him to try marijuana. Let's hear the scene.


FONDA: Go ahead, George. Light it up.

JACK NICHOLSON, ACTOR: Oh, no, no, no, no. I -- I couldn't do that. I mean, I've got enough problems with the -- with the booze and all. I mean, I can't afford to get hooked.

FONDA: Oh, you won't get hooked.

NICHOLSON: Yeah, I will. I know, but I mean, it -- it leads to harder stuff. In fact -- you say it's all right. Well all right then, how -- how do I do it?

FONDA: Here.


Hmm, easy.



NICHOLSON: Well, that's got a real nice taste to it, though. I don't suppose it will do me much good, though. I mean, I'm so used to the booze and everything.

FONDA: You've gotta hold it in your lungs longer, George.

GROSS: Your memories of shooting that scene?

FONDA: Well, you can't see me in my end of the world. I was running all the lines -- lip-syncing them to the folks in our engineering room, just for the heck of it. Yeah, I remember that.

Of course, there's these long pauses. You wonder what's going on. It's intercutting between me and Jack, and the looks I'm giving it because I -- I don't really make a comment about whether the grass is good or bad or getting hooked. I just, you know, look at him and smile.

GROSS: There's a great story you tell in your book about what happened right after you -- he lights up the joint, and he starts talking about UFOs and aliens who...


... aliens from Venus who he believes have come to Earth. And what happened during that scene?

FONDA: Well first of all, set the scene into its context. Dennis and I -- what did we say on film up to that point, more than "man," "far out,man," "wow, man, I mean I'm paranoid, man" or "that's beautiful, man." You know, depending upon which character you listened to, it was all like hippie jargon.


And here comes the lawyer. Well, the lawyers in the old gangster days were called the "mouthpieces" because they did the talking for you, and that was the purpose of George Hanson (ph). He was going to do the talking for Captain America and Billy and explain what was going on.

And Dennis brought in the aspect of the flying saucers, which at first I thought was lunacy. I thought, you know, we're getting way off the subject here until I realized what we were gonna do, of course, is get the establishment, i.e. George Hanson, though he was an alcoholic, we were going to get him stoned. And he was going to tell us, then, how the world was going to be saved.

In other words, give the technic -- the really obscure technocratic side of "don't worry, somebody's going to take care of it and make it better" idea. The fact that he says they come from Venus, I thought, was hysterical, which moved itself out of his being stoned and into a whole different realm.

I thought it was a beautifully written scene. Dennis did most of the writing of that scene, and Jack just delivered one brilliant speech, the way he -- and he'd studied very hard -- he worked very hard for about a week and a half to get to that one long speech.

And of course, during the takes, there was a long shot of the three of us, and I'm handing him the joint. And then the closer shots and this scene. And every time, I kept giving Jack heavier and heavier dope, you know, until I really knew I had him stoked up. And then we did his main dialogue on a closeup. And it's beautiful because he does exactly what a stoner would do.

In the middle of his speech, one of the phrases trips him up. I think it was "people from all walks of life." And just think about image-wise -- what does "all walks of life" look like. And it caught him and he went up, and he laughed.

And Dennis did a print and a pickup, which is you stop the camera, get the actors back together again, and start the rolling just where they broke -- they broke the line or they went up, whatever went wrong with the scene. Because we know we'll be editing it around. We don't need to start from the top again.

And Jack, of course, was pleading to do it from the top -- "Please, Dennis, let me do it from the top." "Nope -- no, we'll keep rolling and (unintelligible) camera (unintelligible), and then Jack's just kind of caught dead there. He says: "well, uh, where should I start?" in the character of George Hanson, you know. "Where should I start?" And Joey (unintelligible) says: "Meeting people from all walks of life." And Jack repeats the line again, then goes off and finishes the speech.

Well, that's how Dennis edited it, and it was brilliant because it really was somebody who was telling -- losing a thread of thought and going up and laughing about it. And I thought it was one of those little fits and details in the picture that made it authentic. It really was -- it was very funny to me.

Matter of fact, if you look at it, it's supposed to be a funny scene, even though Jack's gonna get killed the next night.

GROSS: Well by amazing coincidence, we have this scene cued up.


FONDA: Getting killed the next night?

GROSS: No, no. The "all walks of life" scene.

FONDA: Oh, cool.

GROSS: Yeah, so -- so let's give that -- a lesson from Easy Rider.


NICHOLSON: Why don't they reveal themselves to us is because if they did, it would cause a general panic. Now I mean, we still have leaders upon whom we rely for the release of this information. These leaders have decided to repress this information because of the tremendous shock that it would cause to our antiquated system.

Now, the result of this has been the Venusians have contacted people at all walks of life -- all walks of life...



... it would be a devastating blow to our antiquated systems. So now Venusians are mating with people in all walks of life in an advisory capacity. For once, man will have a God-like control over his own destiny. He will have a chance to transcend and to evolve with some equality for all.

GROSS: So, is Nicholson happy with the way that finally came out -- with his state of laughter actually, and his loss of train of thought actually left in?

FONDA: Exactly. Actually, he came in and edited that part of the scene for himself, and it was beautifully done. It's hysterical, you know, when you realize what was going down. I don't think we could have done that today at all.

I mean, not in terms of being politically correct -- you could really get behind that -- but in terms of actually smoking the substance on film and trying to keep anything rolling. But that was then. I was 28, what the heck?

GROSS: My guest is Peter Fonda. He's written a new memoir called Don't Tell Dad. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Peter Fonda is my guest. He has a new memoir called Don't Tell Dad.

Now what did you father, Henry Fonda, think of Easy Rider and your image as, you know, the counter-cultural movie star who rode a motorcycle and went on, you know, trips of both kinds -- the acid and road kind?

FONDA: Well I'm sure that he wasn't thrilled with the whole thing, but he knew that I was very serious as a producer and that I had put this thing down as an original story, and then co-wrote it with Dennis and Terry Southern into a screenplay.

GROSS: And in movie terms, it made a fortune. I mean, you know, you did good.

FONDA: Yeah, but he didn't know that yet. And I...

GROSS: Right, right.

FONDA: ... I knew we -- I knew we would make some money, and therefore Dennis and I would have a track record and we can make another motion picture. It was later into it that I realized how far out it would go.

And my dad -- by this time, by the way, I realized we were going to go to a much broader audience than I figured originally...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

FONDA: ... my dad said: "you know, this is pretty thin here. I don't think people are going to understand what's happening. I mean, we don't know where you're going." I said: "well, Dad, why don't you take the trip with us and find out what we find out; discover what we discover."

He said: "well, that's pretty thin. I mean, where are you going? We need to know so we can take that trip with you?" I said: "well, Dennis says 'I'm going down to Mardi Gras, I'm gonna get me a Mardi Gras queen' at the first campfire."

Dad said: "well, son, that's a little bit thin. I don't think that'll hang in there. I don't think the audience -- I don't think will stay with you. And I'm worried for you because I know you've got all your eggs in this basket."

And he was entitled to his opinion, which was probably the way the most of the establishment -- liberal or conservative -- saw the particular movie. But what he hadn't factored in, in fact I wish I was smart enough to say that I factored it in, was as the flower children and hippies came into being, we had our own -- we had our own language; we had our own art; we had our own poetry, music -- our whole morality; our customs.

What we didn't have was our own movie. And when Easy Rider popped on, that became our own movie. And that transcended everything else and became the icon that it was.

GROSS: Now later in life, you were in a motorcycle accident, and you broke your back and broke your neck.

FONDA: The neck was the second time.

GROSS: The second time you broke your neck in a motorcycle accident?

FONDA: Nuh-uh. Just the second time I broke my neck.

GROSS: How'd you break it the first time?

FONDA: Oh, I was thrown out of a barn window when I was six years old at a boarding school in Topanga Canyon. I was sent away to first grade in order to make a man out of me. You try to put together the logic of a 6-year-old becoming a man.


All I was was a target for the older boys who were kind of problem boys, and sent to this farm school for that reason. And beaten up or sand was put in my bed -- basically life was made real miserable for me, and it was the beginning of my understanding how society was going to treat Henry Fonda's son.

Anyway, these jokers threw me out of the barn window, about 25-feet down onto some hard earth, and I hit it with my chin and the palms of my hand. And I would find out later in 1985, when I had my second bad motorcycle accident that I had broken my neck when I was six years old, 'cause the doctor's looking at the X-rays -- I was kind of strapped to this very straight chair -- and the doctor's looking at the X-rays, was saying:

"And lookit over here? Look at the ribs?" And I said: "The ones on the left side? Those are Jack Nicholson -- he broke them by slamming his legs together when he thought the bike was getting out of control crossing one more bridge."

And they said: "look at the neck here?" And I said: "ooh, ooh, gosh, the neck" to myself, you know, looking at my toes and fingers and realizing I can move them; that I can move my head. So nothing's severed yet. "Yeah, but look down here, now this is really far out." And the radiologist said: "well, that's a really old break." And all the doctors agreed that it was an old break...

GROSS: Right.

FONDA: ... and the lead doctor turned to me and he said: "do you remember having a trauma in your head when you were six or seven?" Bang-o ...

GROSS: Right.

FONDA: ... all the bells and whistles and lights went off and I remembered exactly now. I said: "well, far out, that's what happened."

GROSS: Did you ride a bike again after you broke your back and your neck?

FONDA: Not for five years.

GROSS: Do you ride it now?

FONDA: Oh, yeah -- ride it like a cowboy rides a horse.

GROSS: Right.

FONDA: But I don't have to get off my horse and open up fences.


GROSS: Now I want to go back to the very beginning. You know, when you were kid, where was your father in his career when you were a child? When you were like five or six?

FONDA: That's a hard one. I remember we visited him on the set of "Fort Apache." It was the first time we saw him on a set -- at least the first time I saw him on a set. But otherwise, we were kind of not sure what he did.


You know, we weren't positive about it, at least I wasn't. I thought maybe my mom had all the money, and dad was just having a good time. And as it ended up later, I found out what kind of work acting was really all about.

GROSS: Your father's movies kept him away from home and from you a lot of the time. Did you -- did you resent his movie career?

FONDA: Actually, I was the lucky one. After the debacle of the boarding school for boys up in Topanga Canyon, I was -- I was kept at home and tutored at home. So when my father was in between movies, I got to see him more often than my sisters did. And so, I was the lucky one of the crowd.

But he made a lot of movies -- I was born in 1940. Between 1940 and when he went off to fight in the Second World War in 1943, he made 12 movies.

GROSS: Wow. Was he a very strict father with you when he was around?

FONDA: Yeah, he was -- he was strict, but I mean, he didn't carry a bullwhip. But he was very critical of Jane and me; very quick to criticize and...

GROSS: What was he down on you for?

FONDA: I suppose anything -- well, as an example of -- I remember one night when in the dining room table, God announced -- 'cause whenever dad would say something, it was like an announcement from God -- and with an angry face at that. God announced: "where is the salt shaker?" And oh, man, I buried my hands and I thought oh my goodness, I'd left it out on the lawn because I'd been told by my mother that the way to catch birds was to pour salt on their tails.

And of course, I spent many hours crawling across the grass on my belly with a salt shaker in my hand. It took me a long time to find out the euphemism was if you get close enough to the bird to put salt on his tail, you could catch the damn thing. But I didn't -- you know...

Meanwhile, I'd leave the salt shaker out there and have to suffer the consequences of such a very I think funny and childish thing. But it was a major no-no, like "who ate the apple?" You know, God that was asking: "who ate the apple?"

One time when he came home on leave, I went to look at his personal things. I always did that with my parents, wondering what they meant; what these talismans were in their life. And I went and looked at his dog tags and stuff, and pulled a piece of candy out of this huge brandy snifter that was where he kept pennies and pieces of candy in his dressing room. And came back out and sat on the couch next to him sucking on the candy. I think it was licorice.

And he asked me where'd I get the candy? But the way he said it was like: "who got the apple out of the tree?" And you know, I realized "uh-oh, I'm in for it big time."

"I just found it." "Liar," and he -- I jumped off that couch, man. I was upstairs faster than Rafer Johnson could have made it upstairs, you know, even at my weight and age; got into my bathroom and locked the door. Of course, it was an early American lock and it held only through two kicks to -- for my father to kick in the door. And he spanked me, with what I assumed to be the world's largest hair brush.

You know, there was a much better way to have dealt the story of not telling the truth or whatever it might be; or not asking permission to have a piece of candy, than breaking down the door to the bathroom. I never did that to my kids.

GROSS: Of course, you weren't around very much either.

FONDA: No, that's not true.

GROSS: I mean, later in life, I guess -- after you separated and...

FONDA: Well, the reason I wasn't around was because I was separated, number one...

GROSS: Right.

FONDA: ... number two, of course, I was only allowed to have them at certain very controlled amounts of time. But before that happened, which was perhaps the saddest time of my life, I was -- I was home more often than most dads were home, because of the nature of my work. So, I grew very close with my daughter and my son.

GROSS: When you and your sister Jane were kids, did you have any clue that you'd actually pursue acting careers yourselves? Or did you both think as kids that you'd head in some completely opposite direction?

FONDA: How old are "kids?"

GROSS: So, you went through different phases on this?


FONDA: No, I mean, I appeared in -- in plays and stuff during school. I didn't realize it was a job 'til way late in the game. But it was 19 and in college that I discovered that's what I wanted to do. I desperately wanted to sing, but that's what I wanted to do.

As for Jane and how she came to the decision, I don't know. I remember things happening in her life, but she never said to me: "guess what, you know, I'm going to do this." She just was there doing it.

GROSS: Were you surprised that your daughter Bridget has become an actress too?

FONDA: Yeah, except that she's extraordinarily beautiful and she has great presence and she has talent and knows how to work it. See these things aren't passed on genetically, or I would have been manipulating my genes a long time ago.


GROSS: Well Peter Fonda, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

FONDA: My pleasure.

GROSS: Peter Fonda's new memoir is called Don't Tell Dad. He's nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Ulee's Gold.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Peter Fonda
High: Actor Peter Fonda. He's been nominated this year for an Oscar for his performance in "Ulee's Gold." The son of actor Henry Fonda, he's best known for his role in the cult classic "Easy Rider." He's written his memoir, "Don't Tell Dad."
Spec: Movie Industry; Books; Authors; Peter Fonda; Ulee's Gold
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Peter Fonda
Date: MARCH 19, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031902NP.217
Head: Iron Chef
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: For this week's TV review, critic David Bianculli takes a look at a cooking show, only it's not a typical cooking show. It's from Japan and only a handful of TV or cable stations in America show it. But in those cities, lots of people are watching it, loving it, and taping it.

The show is called "Iron Chef."

DAVID BIANCULLI, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Look, it's not that I don't watch enough TV already. It's not like I need to start seeking out obscure shows from other countries. But when a friend handed me a tape with four episodes of Iron Chef, I started watching and couldn't stop. Then I watched another show and another, and now I'm hooked.

And I'm not alone. Among people who have found the show, Iron Chef tapes are starting to be traded like baseball cards, and spreading like a virus as people show Iron Chef to their friends, and they tell two friends, and they tell two friends.

Maybe it sounds obscure now, but this is how "South Park" got started -- by people trading and copying bootleg tapes. And South Park just made the cover of Newsweek. So remember: when Iron Chef makes it big time, you heard it here first.

But since this is radio, you can only hear it, not see it. And a lot of the show's energy, beauty, and craziness comes from its visuals. But let your imagination run wild and try to picture this.


KAGA TAKESHI (PH), HOST: (Unintelligible) Iron Chef.



BIANCULLI: The idea of Iron Chef is to give worthy challengers a chance to compete against the resident experts. The experts in this case are gourmet Asian chefs representing specific cuisines. One Iron Chef specializes in Japanese food, but there's also a Chinese Iron Chef, a French Iron Chef, and most recently an Italian Iron Chef.

Each week, these brightly-costumed Iron Chefs rise from beneath the floor, summoned like demons from the underworld by the show's very strange host, Kaga Takeshi. Then the contestant, also a gourmet chef, challenges one of them and the battle begins.

Kaga, the host, recites some loopy story or poem that eventually, and dramatically, reveals the secret ingredient of the day. In some cities, Iron Chef is subtitled so you can understand what Kaga is saying -- sort of.



BIANCULLI: Allow me to translate: "if you lose, you'll be hung out to dry. That's when something came to mind. Along with the high value of shark fin and birds nest soup, it is a dried luxury ingredient. I would like to introduce today's theme. Today's theme is: sea cucumber."


The secret ingredient must be featured in three to six menu dishes, from main courses to desserts. And each chef, working with his staff in identical kitchen sets, has one hour to whip up the entire menu. The action is captured by hand-held and overhead cameras, while a floor reporter interviews the frantic cooks.

Meanwhile, a panel of judges -- some food experts, others just Japanese celebrities -- looks down on the action and comments on it, trying to figure out just what the Chinese Iron Chef is doing with that sea cucumber. Turns out, he's trying to turn it into ice cream.

At the end of the show, the dishes are presented, the judges taste everything, and they give their opinions and votes while the chefs stand there silently. When the chefs have blown it, they're humiliated. But if a challenger beats an Iron Chef -- which happens rarely, but does happen -- they're thrilled.

Iron Chef is a cooking show, a game show, a sports event, a high-stakes duel -- and it's so much fun to watch. Every show is as fresh as the secret ingredients, which range from apples and bacon and potatoes and watermelon to conger (ph) eel and atori (ph) squid and sea cucumber and beef tongue -- just not at the same time.

Right now, Iron Chef is available without subtitles in and around New York City on WMBC, and in and around San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Cruz on local cable or broadcast stations. And right now, that's it. But not for long, I bet.

In America, cable TV's Food Network ought to snap up this show as a weekly series, then get busy making a domestic version of its own. Imagine a show where Emeral (ph), Paul Prudhomme (ph), and Julia Child are the Iron Chefs, and cooks from famous restaurants come on to challenge them. I'm telling you, I smell a hit -- and it smells good.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.

Dateline: David Bianculli, New York; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: TV Critic David Bianculli reviews a cooking show from Japan called "Iron Chef." It is shown in New York and San Francisco. The show features Japan's top chefs in the heat of competition.
Spec: Media; Television; Asia; Japan; Food; Iron Chef
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Iron Chef
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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