My Peter Fonda Story
Back in the good old days of the A.V Club we prided ourselves on interviewing bitter, jilted cranks, weird old codgers overflowing with rage at the modern world and its idiocies. In that respect, Harlan Ellison was our perfect interview. Then and now I could care less about the pop juggernaut of the moment or the reigning pop star.
I didn’t want to talk to celebrities who were super-popular and could guarantee page-views. I wanted to talk to people with stories, people with character, people who had lived and had the scars and the anecdotes to prove it. So when I was asked if I wanted to interview Peter Fonda in connection with the theatrical re-release of his 1971 directorial effort The Hired Hand my response was a feverish, “Oh God yes!”
The Hired Hand is one of those wonderful 1970s movies, written by Alan Sharp (Night Moves) and shot by the great Villas Zsigmond (The Long Goodbye, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) where it is achingly, wonderfully apparent that everyone involved in the film was stoned out of their gourds, down to the extras and the publicist’s receptionist.
It is, in other words, extremely my shit but I would have leaped at the opportunity to interview Peter Fonda even if the project he was promoting was his role in Wild Hogs. The man was, is, and always will be a legend. I just wanted to talk to him. He was living Hollywood history, the son of a stone-cold icon, the brother of another and the father of a kick-ass movie star in her own right in Bridget.
It was an in-person interview at a Chicago hotel, which always raised the stakes. When an in-person interview went well and you found a good groove it felt intoxicating, like an overpowering natural high. When an in-person interview went badly, however, you felt like a clammy, sweaty creep who had just wasted the time and energy of a bona fide famous person.
You never want to run out of questions during an interview. This is particularly true of in-person interviews. My idea of death back then involved running out of questions during a tense, important interview and sputtering lamely, “So, uh, anything else you want to talk about?”
So I wrote between 25 and 30 questions for Peter Fonda and headed to the interview. I had written the liner notes for the DVD release of Spirits of the Dead, a very groovy, very 1960s horror anthology that found Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini adapting the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe for the big screen that starred, among others, Bridget Bardot, Alain Delon, Terence Stamp and Peter AND Jane Fonda so, in a wildly unprofessional turn, I brought the liner notes to Spirits of the Dead for Fonda to sign.
I don’t remember whether Fonda signed the liner notes before the interview or afterwards because honestly I was so mesmerized by his magnetism and star-power that my brain pretty much stopped working. I was rendered absolutely star-struck by Fonda’s presence. He was so handsome and so charismatic that I just stared at him and listened.
Of the 20 to 30 questions I had written for Fonda, I managed to ask exactly three. And that was perfectly okay with me. I was more than content to simply sit there and listen to a Hollywood legend hold court. I didn’t need to be an active participant in the conversation; I was happy to just take it all in.
At the end of the introduction that accompanied the interview I wrote, “The Onion A.V. Club recently listened to Fonda discuss the creative process, Easy Rider, and The Hired Hand, which is being reissued in preparation for a deluxe DVD edition” which sounds snarkier than I perhaps intended, as evidenced by the fact that the publicist who helped arrange the interview called me up after it ran to say that she thought the way it was formatted was disrespectful and insulting, that it made Fonda seem like an insufferable blowhard.
That had never happened to me before and hasn’t happened to me since. I certainly didn’t intend to be insulting or disrespectful or insulting; I was being affectionate. I loved that interview and I will always treasure the experience of getting to spend a half hour listening to Peter Fonda talk.
I had the Spirits of the Dead liner notes Peter Fonda signed framed. It currently hangs proudly in my bedroom. He personalized it, “To Nathan, Thank You” but all the thanks should go to him for being a wonderfully entertaining human being and raconteur in addition to being one of the all-time great movie icons.
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