Peter Fonda may have been, as he often remarks, "born famous," but that's
not to say he registers very strongly on most movie fans' perceptual radar. In fact,
prior to his starring role in Victor Nunez's newly released Ulee's Gold,
his image has essentially been a piecemeal assemblage of Roger Corman biker-hellraiser
iconography and unreliably remote memories of long-past artistic triumphs. One (probably
embellished) anecdote neatly sums up the Peter Fonda mythos. As recounted by now-defunct
Beatle John Lennon, the story featured a late-Sixties party awash in California sunshine,
acid, and smashing hippie chicks. Just as an ecstatic Lennon was peaking on the outrageous
Lewis Carroll splendor of it all, Fonda supposedly sidled up to him (by some accounts,
George Harrison was also present) and intoned, "I know what it's like
to be dead." Appalled, Lennon retreated to his room and wrote "He Said
She Said," with its indignantly accusatory refrain:
I said, even though you know what you know/ I know that I'm ready to leave/Because
you're making me feel like I've never been born.
That, for the most part, has been the book on Prince Peter the Lesser: goofy,
a bit pathetic, and lamentably out of synch with the zeitgeist at any given moment.
But if it weren't for semi-apocryphal history of this sort, Fonda would have little
history at all. After debuting in Tammy and the Doctor (1963) and cultivating
his freak flag-flyin' rebel image in Roger Corman-directed American International
Pictures B-flicks (most notably 1966's The Wild Angels), he enjoyed a brief
spasm of critical success producing and acting in the hippie culture monolith Easy
Rider (1969) and directing the passable Western drama, The Hired Hand
(1971). Since then, there's been a quarter century of acting constantly and badly
in crap action and sci-fi movies like Killer Force, Futureworld, and
Mercenary Fighters. As if the wretchedness of these films weren't indignity
enough, Fonda has tended to draw cartoonish psycho/misfit/drug casualty roles that
heaped dung on the receding memory of his modest early accomplishments.
Adding to the ignominy of it all was kid sister Jane's steady accumulation of
Academy Awards and nominations, and the varied and well-regarded work of daughter
Bridget. The only Fonda, it seemed, who wasn't holding up his end of the family acting
legacy was Peter.
"I was aware of Peter's reputation as the Candide," Nunez recently told
a New York Times interviewer. "In most of his screen performances he's
played the fool. I think you can respond to a tightfisted father by being a clown,
and I think Peter did that."
But now, in one of those blessed and wholly unexpected intimations of a benign
cosmic force, redemption has come to Peter Fonda at the age of 58. His role as emotionally
stunted widower/family patriarch Ulysses Jackson in Ulee's Gold is not only
a career break, but a triumph of a magnitude that should inspire wholesale reevaluation
of his place in film history.
Ulee Jackson, a Vietnam veteran resigned to a nondescript life of beekeeping and
raising the daughters of his imprisoned son, is a solid citizen and reliable provider.
He's also as obscure to his family and friends as those microscopic bugs embedded
in Martian asteroid fragments. Monosyllabic, impassive, and utterly incapable of
sharing any non-tangible aspects of his being, he baffles and frustrates outsiders
who are instinctively drawn to the basic goodness they sense in him. By most accounts,
Ulee Jackson is the shade of Henry Fonda reanimated in the face, limbs, and voice
of his only son. The near-universal critical praise that Peter Fonda's performance
is drawing has not only stolen the thunder of Nunez's long-awaited return to the
screen (this is the director's first movie since 1993's Ruby in Paradise)
but given the self-effacing actor a level of respect that's eluded him since, well,
"Ulee's Gold has blasted me right out my pigeonhole and into a bluebird's nest"
-- Peter Fonda
A weary but audibly elated Fonda acknowledged the out-of-the-blue character of
his breakthrough during a recent phone interview from Los Angeles.
"To use an old Sixties phrase, it's blowing my mind," he said in a teenager's
voice thickened only slightly by aging lungs and vocal cords. "I'm simply astonished,
first that I was given a shot at a part this good, and then that I've had the chance
to work with a director of Victor Nunez's caliber and this tremendous cast. You never
expect an opportunity like this, and certainly not at my age."
Nunez has been vague about what moved him and casting director Judy Courtney to
take their wild flyer on Peter Fonda, but the Ulee Jackson character is so patently
the type that Fonda pere specialized in during his latter career that, the
more you think about it, the more it makes sense.
"Plenty of other guys had a shot at this, I know," Fonda said. "Nick
Nolte turned it down. Scott Wilson also read for it, I'm pretty sure, and lord only
knows who else. So when I first walked into that room to do my reading I was nervous
as hell. My hair was down to my shoulders then. Of course I was ready to cut it if
they said the word, but that was the first time they laid eyes on me, so I wondered
how they were gonna respond to me. But just then I felt something coming from Victor,
reaching out to me. It was like a massive weight lifting itself off my shoulders.
I knew then that it was going to work. Afterward, Victor said, `It's time for us
to open up a bottle of red wine and celebrate.'
"Basically, I saw this role as an enormous trust that I couldn't betray.
You know what I mean? I'd never done a character like Ulee before, but I tell you
what: It's blasted me right out of my pigeonhole and into a bluebird's nest."
Ironically, for a man defined by protracted adolescence, the greatest obstacle
to winning the role of his life was the need for a credibly timeworn look. "I
was alarmed when I first cut my hair," Fonda recalls. "It took 10 years
off me just like that. I thought, man, how am I gonna pull this off? But then I just
told myself, `Hey, come on Peter; it's called acting!'"
Clearly, though, Fonda had long, intimate access to resources not available to
the competition. The weary, upright, more than slightly butt-headed Ulysses Jackson
was a dominant presence in his life long before he ever read the script of Ulee's
Gold. "It's my father, yeah. He was a bit like that, you know. When I was
developing the character I kind of took that familiar image and transposed it from
the perspective of me and Jane when we were growing up to that of the audience. I
asked myself why it was that this guy couldn't ever let us in. Then I tried to take
those insights and make 'em apparent to the viewer.
"To a greater extent than ever before, I tried to analyze what it was about
my dad's work that gave it such impact, and how his directors had been able to get
that across on film. I looked at how, in those impassioned speeches in The Grapes
of Wrath, [director John] Ford shot him 100% Academy frame, with his face dominating
the screen. It's remarkable... sometimes all you'd see moving would be my father's
mouth, and that would be the essence of the scene's power. Dad gave full force to
Steinbeck's words, the fragile brilliance of their meaning. Any extraneous movements
at all might've given them a whole other spin. It was exactly the right way to play those scenes."
To some extent, Peter Fonda revisits this minimalist style in his portrayal of
Ulee Jackson. But whereas Henry's Tom Joad was struggling to hold his passion in
check, Peter's Ulee often seems to be trying in vain to muster an emotion appropriate
to the moment. His inability to do so generates an almost visible field of sorrow
emanating from his entire body like a static electric charge. It's a performance
of remarkable insight, restraint, and compassion. Even more impressive than the sureness
of Fonda's observation is the enormity of his tenderness for a man whose hardness
and opacity has caused him such lingering pain. Ulee Jackson is a son's forgiveness
Peter Fonda and co-star Patricia Richardson
"Ulee basically is carrying a shovel, and a bucket of his grandkids' dreams
that he's about to bury," Fonda says quietly. "He can't help what he is.
That's the sad truth of the matter."
And yet, Nunez's ending to his comprehensively wonderful film (in which Fonda's
amazing work is only one of many virtues) does offer hope of future happiness for
Ulee and family. There's even an open doorway to romance, which Fonda allows his
character to step through with an endearingly shy alacrity. It's a feel-good ending
that, unlike those of most recent Hollywood offerings, feels completely earned and
Given Fonda's age and the obvious difficulty of replicating this singular type
of success, he's candidly unsure what his next step will be. Directing -- possibly
a long-contemplated remake of The Petrified Forest with Bridget Fonda in the
Bette Davis role -- remains a possibility. And of course, further acting opportunities
are now likely to sprout like mushrooms after a rain.
"This is so sudden that I honestly can't tell you what's next," Fonda
said, sounding like a man so drunk on the sweetness of the moment that he can't be
bothered to map out the rest of his life. "I'll keep working, sure. And when
it's time for me to quit, I'll know. As I see it, one day in the future I'll be making
a film, and that last scene will wrap. I'll go check the negative out, make sure
there's no scratches on it, then I'll walk out. And that'll be that."