Head Out Off The Highway – Peter Fonda on The Hired Hand

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A shorter version of this interview ran in Uncut magazine in 2001

Synchronicity they call it. Shortly before I’m due to speak with Peter Fonda, I flick on the TV, and there’s his father, Henry – “Hollywood’s statue of liberty,” to borrow David Thomson’s phrase – standing in a black-and-white hotel corridor, speaking with a gathering of Runyonesque Times Square natives, that unmistakable voice kept low, a sound as gentle as a warm breeze, but carrying echoes of broken glass.

His children inherited traces of that cadence along with their bone structure. It’s still there, faintly, when I ask the 61-year-old Peter Fonda how he’s doing, and he says, “I’m pretty good. I’m alive. People think I’m cynical when I say that, but it’s the only way to start the day. And the best way to finish it.”

The film on my TV is an almost-forgotten thing called The Big Street, released late in 1942, when Peter Fonda was just shy of his third birthday, just before his father would disappear from the house and go off to fight a war.

Fonda remembers the movie. He remembers going to watch his father’s films in movie theatres back then as a little kid. Seeing his dad up on cinema screens during that period, in films about cowboys and circuses and rum doings in New York City, the boy would get confused. His dad was supposed to be away fighting the Japanese, after all. Eventually, he decided the man on the movie screen wasn’t his dad at all. He just looked like him. Then he’d get freaked out when his dad came home on leave, because he didn’t look like his dad – he looked like the man from the movies.

This was the earliest manifestation of an awkward distance between father and son which, as anyone familiar with his consistently entertaining memoir Don’t Tell Dad will be aware, would come to be a defining characteristic in their relationship, and which the younger Fonda spent many years breaking down.

In The Big Street, anyway, the man who looks like Henry Fonda plays a decent, lovelorn busboy who pushes a bitter, semi-crazy Lucille Ball in a wheelchair from Manhattan to Miami. What really strikes me as I watch a few scenes on TV, though, is that it also features Agnes Moorehead and Ray Collins, both members of the Mercury Theatre stock company Orson Welles brought to Hollywood, and that it was made when members of Welles’ contingent were being given a particularly rough ride.

Seen as East Coast longhairs, an invading bohemian force come to overthrow the system, there had been not-so-private jubilation among sectors of the Hollywood establishment when Citizen Kane (1941) stiffed at the box-office. Taken from him and recut, Welles’s second picture, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was given only a desultory release by a studio that didn’t care about it, buried. Just off of that film, with their Mercury unit shut down by the RKO studio, as they talk with Henry Fonda in The Big Street, Moorehead and Collins are beaten refugee fighters from a failed revolution.

Twenty-seven years would pass before Hollywood had to deal with another longhair revolution. When it came, it was an attack from within, prodigal sons coming home to kill their elders. Peter Fonda – the Statue of Liberty’s kid, goddamn it – and Dennis Hopper, the ungrateful little punk who’d married Margaret Sullavan’s daughter and been a long-term houseguest of David O Selznick and Jennifer Jones, made this foul hippy thing called Easy Rider

But you know all about that. How the film was no Citizen Kane, but became a box office sensation in a way Welles’ movie never did. How Peter Fonda’s Captain America seemed to represent something for a generation the same way that, out along different highways, his father’s Tom Joad once had for a generation before. How it made back its $400,000 budget 100 times over. And how, even if they didn’t get the dirt, the drugs, the hair and the music, studio chiefs understood those numbers and scrambled in fright to mine this incomprehensible new “youth market”.

I’m speaking with Fonda today, though, to talk about what happened just after that. All the studios were baffled by Easy Rider, but Universal must have felt it had captured the counter-cultural golden geese when it signed both him and Hopper to make their follow-up movies.

Given a contract guaranteeing creative carte-blanche (the likes of which hadn’t been seen since RKO signed Welles in 1939, hoping he’d repeat the success of his Martian invasion radio broadcast), Hopper went off on the Peruvian odyssey that became The Last Movie (1971). For his part, Fonda – after joining Hopper’s crew to play a cameo – grew a scraggy beard and headed for Utah with Warren Oates and Verna Bloom (fresh from Haskell Wexler’s 1969 Chicago-riots document, Medium Cool), to direct his first film, a strange, slow-moving Western called The Hired Hand (1971).

Then, though, the revolution ran into a brick wall. Both The Last Movie and The Hired Hand died at the box office, and celebratory cocktail cabinets started opening in the offices of studio executives who’d known it had been a fluke all along.

Audiences looking for the further adventures of Captain America drifted away from Fonda’s movie disappointed. The Hired Hand had no bikes, no drugs. No Steppenwolf. Few people even found the film at all – it was given only a desultory release by a studio that didn’t seem to care about it, effectively buried. “It only had two weeks in 52 theatres in the United States,” Fonda recalls. “They had no intention, I think, of getting behind it. They hated me and Hopper, but mostly me and [Easy Rider co-producer] Bert Schneider. Yeah, they thought we were trying to overthrow the system.

“I mean, how egotistical. Overthrow the government, yeah,” he laughs. “But Hollywood? Jesus, no…”

After 30 years of near-obscurity, seen only occasionally in a drastically recut, washed-out television version, The Hired Hand is finally being rereleased in a rich new print, lovingly restored to its original tender glory.

Scripted by Alan Sharp – the Scottish writer who went on to write the brutal Robert Aldrich/ Burt Lancaster Western Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Arthur Penn’s superb Night Moves (1975), and Peckinpah’s demented The Osterman Weekend (1983) – the film unfolds like a cowpoke Odyssey, one with a surprisingly feminist slant.

Fonda plays Harry Collings, a drifter pointlessly wandering the west with his saddletramp friend, Arch (Oates). Weary of the life, and the random violence endemic on the plains, Harry finally decides to return to the wife, Hannah (Bloom), and child he deserted seven years previously. But arriving back at the old farm, he finds Hannah has outgrown him, and become a determinedly independent woman.

She has no use for him as a husband, but she agrees to allow him and Arch to stay and work the land as hired hands. Eventually, feeling drawn to Hannah, Arch decides to leave, and Harry and his wife begin living together as a married couple again. Their idyll is interrupted, however, when word comes that old trouble has caught up with Arch out in the wilderness, and Harry has to abandon his family once more, and ride to the rescue.

Three decades on, The Hired Hand remains a strange, surprising movie. Partly a ritualistic western, down to the climactic showdown, it’s mostly a slow, spare meditation on the impossibility of going home again, man’s relationship with nature, and, most unexpected, the place a strong-willed woman could reluctantly carve in the west of the 1880s – there’s a quietly startling scene as Bloom recounts the string of one-night stands she instigated after Fonda left.

Fonda’s hesitant performance as a raggedy cowboy saint with no idea what he wants is keyed exactly to the mood of the movie, like an unshaven cross between his father and Clint Eastwood, after they’ve had all the certainty kicked out of them. He’s eclipsed, however, by Bloom and Oates’ depth-charged reserve: their scenes together are nuanced ballads of call and response.

As director, Fonda allows his film to develop at a serene, contemplative pace that stands out against the cut-up rush of most Hollywood product today even more than it did in 1971. Regarding the landscape with hallucinogenic intensity, the slow-burning montage sequences assembled by editor Frank Mazzola (a longtime collaborator of Donald Cammell) add deep texture, and seem to stretch time out. With its feel for landscape – near-gothic plains, meadows droning with golden-hour sunlight – and sudden bursts of violence, Fonda’s film is close to the west Cormac McCarthy suggests in his books. It’s a film that makes you regret that Fonda didn’t direct more often.

For Fonda, this film, the project he turned to as his first marriage was breaking up, was always a labour of love; so much so that he and his producing partner, William L Hayward (another Easy Rider veteran), agreed to forgo their fees so as to be able to afford Oates. Fonda and Oates became lifelong friends, and would make another two movies together before the older actor’s untimely death in 1982: 92 in the Shade (1975) a wayward, black-comic meander about Florida fishermen; and Race With the Devil (1975), a truly phenomenal B-Movie about vacationing bike-shop magnates being chased by backcountry Satanists, which plays like a sold-out Easy Rider crashing into The Wicker Man.

In conversation, Fonda is the antithesis of the laconic men he usually plays (his diffident Hired Hand character is one notch beneath Eastwood’s No Name in the loquacity stakes). Words come pouring out in animated torrents. One of the greatest things about his quirks of speech is the way he’s given to lapsing into full-on West Coast biker talk when you least expect it, like when he’s attempting to describe to me the extremely subtle shadings Bloom brings to one particularly delicate scene: “The change in her expression is just like a power shift, man, it’s like you just got slammed into second gear and you’re up at 4,000 RPM, and you’re going into the corner at full throttle…”

Even so, his tone changes perceptibly, growing even warmer, when I ask him about Oates, and why he wanted him for his movie. “I’d watched Warren work a couple of times before,” Fonda says, “and he was always … figuring things out. I could see him working on every movement. And I’d always watched him being misused, you know? I thought: this guy, there’s something very touching in his heart, and he’s perfect to play Arch, because Arch is really the romantic lead. And I just thought Warren Oates would be the least likely for the role as far as the audience was concerned – but the most likely as far as I had it in my mind. I’m just so sorry that we lost him. I had many more films planned to do with him. I really loved that man.”

Considered today, a couple of things stand out about The Hired Hand. For one, the movie Fonda chose to make seems a very conscious reaction to the films he had been doing before it. Immediately prior to Easy Rider, he’d acted in two Roger Corman pictures which fed directly into the film he and Hopper made: the whacked-out, Jack Nicholson-scripted pro-LSD flick, The Trip (1967); and the fabulous nihilist-biker classic, The Wild Angels (1966), with Fonda sullen and pencil thin astride a Harley in black leather and shades, iron cross around his neck, joint between his lips.

Representing a retreat inwards, away from speed, volume and electricity, searching for something older, lasting, and definitively American, The Hired Hand followed those movies the way John Wesley Harding and the downhome ruminations of Music from Big Pink followed the amphetamined storms Bob Dylan and The Band created in the mid-Sixties. A contemplative, nuanced, deceptively simple pastorale, the film moves at its own measured pace through a bare but beautiful Western landscape, recorded by a reverent camera that would appear to be in a state of extremely heightened awareness, pausing to linger over tips of grass, the way sunlight hits water, patterns traced by breezes across desert sand, skies bruised purple by night and bleeding sunset.

The film’s soundtrack, by the cult folk musician Bruce Langhorne (a Dylan collaborator, and, legend has it, inspiration for the title figure of “Mr Tambourine Man”) delicately catches some of this drift.

“Yeah, that was kind of the idea,” Fonda says, lighting up at mention of Langhorne. “I mean Easy Rider knocked people’s socks off, but The Hired Hand was so much more contemplative. And you’re right: at that time, music, the rock scene, kind of took a turn, went interior, quieted down. And actually, now we’ve restored the film, we’ve done such a good thing with the film’s score. Bruce’s music, which is so subtle and so interesting, sounds so much better now. It’s so subtle, and it has this totally non-regular Western feeling, but no one noticed it back at the time.

“Bruce is a very interesting guy. He plays all the instruments, he makes all the noise, the effects that are going on. He plays 48 stringed instruments virtuoso, and when I hired him, Universal got very upset with me and said, ‘You just can’t go around hiring your friends!’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s not quite what it is…’ ‘Yes it is, we’ve never heard of Bruce Langhorne! I said, ‘Well, he was Albert Grossman’s studio guitar player, his top guitarist–‘ ‘Who the hell’s Albert Grossman?!’ ‘Uh, well, Albert’s Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert owns Judy Collins, Joan Baez, all these people and Bruce Langhorne’s the one who taught them how to get onstage and play…’ Y’know.

“And Bruce was this dear friend of mine, and I thought: Jesus, I can get this one guy to do all these different jobs, because if I say to Bruce I wanted a philharmonic orchestra or whatever, he’d play 15 different violins himself, whether they were tenor, alto, soprano whatever, he’d play a different one and build the track, and it would sound like I had a whole orchestra there. But it’d be just the one dude. Poor Bruce. But he loved doing it. And Universal were just stunned by my response, my insistence on using him, until they saw some of the footage put to Bruce’s music. Then they began to relax a bit. But before that, they were like that about everybody: ‘Who’s Verna Bloom…?’ I just said: ‘Wait’ll you find out…’”

Another thing that seems clear today is that, for Fonda, the period when he was making The Hired Hand – just as Easy Rider was mushrooming from hit movie into cultural phenomenon – represented a brief moment when, out on his own, making his own movie, for a short period he was allowed to simply be himself. Up until Easy Rider, he’d been “Henry Fonda’s kid”. Afterwards, he’d be forever known as “Captain America,” and the Peter Fonda who made The Hired Hand was effectively lost in the shuffle.

“It’s true what you’re saying,” he considers. “Although I didn’t do Easy Rider to break out from my dad’s monumental shadow. I did it because I knew it would make money. I never expected it would become an icon, though. But, yeah, the next film I thought, I’ve probably gotta break that mould. But, I was just becoming aware then that people were starting to treat me quite differently. It was a different kind of fan attraction than something like Elvis, for example, who’d have people trying to tear his clothes off. People just wanted to … touch me. And it was weird.

“So, I read this script, and it was such a beautiful story. I can’t think of another Western before that could, I guess, be called a feminist western, because it really all pivots around her. And I figured, this is really cool, this is a far out western, and westerns are the way Americans talk about their mythology and this would certainly get them off of: ‘Hey! Easy Rider! Hey! Captain America!’

“But they weren’t ready. Y’know: I was never known as ‘Hey! Harry Collings!’ – it just never happened. No one wanted to see me that way. They wanted me on a motorcycle, smoking a joint.” Fonda laughs again, the cackle turning into a sigh. “So I was Captain America for a long bloody time…”

Fonda recalls an incident during filming on The Hired Hand that curiously, comically foreshadowed how Easy Rider would come to eclipse the achievement of his directorial debut. The sun had gone down, and he was out directing Oates and Bloom through one of the film’s key scenes, a fragile twilight dialogue when the unspoken attraction between Hannah and Arch is made explicit.

“I was sitting there, and it was the night scene on the porch and, whilst waiting for the set to get ready, I kept hearing this music from somewhere, and I thought, well, when we call for quiet they’ll turn it off. So, quiet was called, we were ready to roll, and they had rehearsed a bit, and I could see they were going to have a good time together as actors, they were going to really work, they knew this was one of their meaty scenes. So I’m sitting there, watching them work – and I still kept hearing this music.

“I called for quiet again…and we’re rolling… and then I hear ….Getcha motah runnin’… Get out on the hiiiigh-way…!!!’

“A drive-in theatre, I dunno, three miles away, was running Easy Rider at full tilt. And I thought, eh, this is far out. I haven’t been paid to do the film I’m doing right now– but I’m getting paid by that film over there.”

Three years after The Hired Hand had been and gone, Fonda appeared in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), a fast-driving, easy-riding rebels on the road movie.

“Yeah. And ALL the reviews said ‘HE’S BACK!!!’ heh-heh. In other words, I’m back being a bad boy, y’know, I’m out there doing weird things and doing them with machinery and wild and y’know, this kinda anti-establishment figure. And audiences went nuts. It’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry…”

Today, he keeps busy teaching – Fonda lectures in Media and Theatre Arts at universities in Montana and San Diego – and acting, operating as a fleeting totemic presence on the independent film scene: his fantastically nutty Van Helsing in Michael Almereyda’s Nadja (1994); his detailed, Oscar-nominated performance as the bee-keeping Vietvet in Victor Nunez’s fine Ulee’s Gold (1997); and his light-footed, self-mocking turn as the ponytailed record producer still coasting the Sixties vibe in Stephen Soderbergh’s The Limey (1999), a sly performance that stands in a similar corrupted relation to Captain America as his father’s cold-eyed sadist in Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) did to Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

Fonda mentions a project he’s currently developing (“a very bizarre, wonderful story”), but since The Hired Hand, he has directed only twice, the low-budget environmental sci-fi parable The Idaho Transfer (1975) and Wanda Nevada (1979), an amiable ramble that marked the only time he acted, briefly, with his dad.

By then, through Peter’s persistence, father and son had drawn very much closer. Henry Fonda died in 1982, the same year as Warren Oates. His last words were: “I want you to know, son, I love you very much.”

Of course: Jesse James (1939), The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), Warlock (1959), Once Upon A Time in the West – Fonda, Snr made a few decent Westerns himself. I have to ask: did his son ever show the man from the movie screen his own first attempt at making a cowboy picture?

“Uh, yeah,” Fonda pauses. “Yeah. Finally, I made him come see The Hired Hand. Quite late. Must have been in 1981 or 82. 1981, probably. I had been amazed that he hadn’t gone to see it at first, y’know, or ever asked me to show it to him.”

He pauses again, savouring the memory.

“But he came out, he said to me: ‘Now, that’s my kind of western.’

Good enough, you’ll agree.