Peter Fonda, What I've Learned

Photo credit: Michael Kovac - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Kovac - Getty Images

From Esquire

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of US Esquire. Peter Fonda died Tuesday at the age of 79.

I was born famous, so right off the bat, fame meant nothing to me.

I could dig the coolest, straightest ditch you ever saw, but the guys at the other end of the ditch would be saying, “You know who that is? That’s Henry Fonda’s son.”

I had no idea who Henry Fonda was. He wasn’t around the house much and didn’t communicate much. Of course you know my mother. She slit her throat with a razor.

Never refill a plastic water bottle.

I sometimes get way out there. I need somebody to draw me back.

Photo credit: Silver Screen Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Silver Screen Collection - Getty Images

At first I liked living in Montana. Then I learned that it’s extraordinarily cold, and it’s full of dust. I had to plow drifts that were nine feet high and went almost four hundred yards long. That’s a lot of work. And it ain’t fun.

I’m always changing the words. A screenwriter writes for somebody to read, but we are paid to take it off the page, to make it spoken. People stammer, they stutter, they take pauses, they drop stuff. It must drive writers crazy. But I’m making the character real.

Sailing has taught me how small we really are on this planet, how insignificant. And yet, in this insignificance, we have really messed things up.

Think about Tom Joad. That last speech he gives to Ma Joad: “Wherever there’s a cop beating up a fella, I’ll be there, Ma.” I think the most brilliant part about that speech is the way my father delivered it. He never blinked. Like a prizefighter, he never blinked. He didn’t change anything on his face. He didn’t put a loaded value on any of the words. He just canted it out in his Nebraska accent, and it worked so powerfully. Had he put any spin on it, I think it would have been the corniest thing ever.

Jane is driven. Sometimes her choices aren’t the best. I never would have gone to North Vietnam and done that. But her whole workout ethic, what a great thing.

I like to go online and look at the Hubble Space Telescope. Out there you see total chaos and perfect symmetry. That’s God.

Muslims want the whole world to be Muslim. Christians want the whole world to be Christian. Catholics. Protestants. Mormons. They’re all the same. Far out, right? Everybody wants the world to be like them.

Once I forgave my father, everything else became possible. I started telling him, “Before you leave this planet”—because he was on his way out—“I need to hear you say, ‘I love you very much, son.’”

When he died, I was in the room with Jane, her husband, Tom Hayden, dad’s fifth wife, Shirlee, and we were in the room and everybody was really morbid, but not me. At first I was looking at him, he was kind of in another state. And then he came to consciousness. He looked around, blinking one eye and then the other, like a drunk trying to find the right part of the path to walk down. Beautiful big blue eyes, you know. Then he looked at his firstborn, Jane, and then he looked at Hayden. When he looked at me, both eyes opened. He focused on me and he said, “I want you to know, son, I love you very much.” That’s how we left it.

Forgiveness: It just keeps proving itself to me.

Right now, if the stray bullet whacked me, or the odd great white swam up and bit me in two—you know what? It’s been a hell of a good life.

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