Role Recall: Peter Fonda Recalls His Far Out ‘Ultimate Life’

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·Content Producer
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Role Recall is pretty much made for Peter Fonda.

In case you're not up on the lingo, Role Recall is a game we play with talented guests where we pick plum past roles and ask the guest to recall the first memory that comes to mind.

Fonda, who phoned us recently to promote his recent project "The Ultimate Life," has everything we could ask for in a Role Recall contestant: He's got a slew of memorable roles to recall, He's an unbelievable storyteller, and he frequently uses the phrase "far out."

Wanda Nevada (1979)
"A fairytale. A perfectly written fairytale," said Fonda about the western he directed and starred in alongside 14-year-old Brooke Shields. It was also the only film Fonda would appear in with his famous father, Henry (who didn't exactly see eye-to-eye with his counter-cultural son).

"I was fortunate enough to cast my dad. And he came and played for one day with us. And it was really an amazing moment for me, to be able to work with my father, to direct him and act in a scene with him. Up until that moment, no matter the success of 'Easy Rider,' and the tremendous success of 'Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry,' these were not films that my father would understand."

"In 1978, I'm shooting in the Grand Canyon with my father, who's basically dying. Any rate, it was fabulous. We had such a good time. He just did one day's work. And I was warning him he had to chew tobacco, so I had all this licorice ready for him to spit instead. I said 'I don't chew tobacco, and I don't want you chewing tobacco.' He said, 'Nope, I'm gonna do it!' You know, stubborn. And so he passed out at lunch!"

Henry wasn't happy with the fake beard he was supposed to wear while playing a nearly unrecognizable old prospector. "So I took the licorice in my mouth, made juice out of it, and started spitting in his beard. And then I got some mineral oil, spritzed it on the beard, went outside, picked up a fistful of dust, came in, said 'Close your eyes,' and threw at him. And then with some more of the licorice in my mouth, like I was kissing him, he was holding his nose and making his head bend back as I spit and drooled so it would look like it came from his lip. Can you imagine Henry Fonda in this chair? It was hysterical … He was absolutely blown away!"

"I got a letter, the fifth one I ever got from him, this fabulous letter. Basically it said, 'In my 41 years of making motion pictures, I have never seen a crew so devoted to a director, and you're a very good director, Son. And I love you very much.' The first time it had been put in writing, and there it was. Signed, 'Love, your dad.' It was just amazing."

[Related: Role Recall: Anjelica Huston on 'The Grifters,' 'Captain EO' and More]

Easy Rider (1969)
"Shaking the cage. The idea came to me in Canada. In fact, Sept. 26, 1967." Fonda was in Canada at a convention for distributors and exhibitors to promote "The Trip," the 1967 LSD-inspired journey directed by Roger Corman and written by Jack Nicholson. Jack Valenti, the newly appointed head of the Motion Picture Association of America, was speaking at the event.

"And he got up there, and he said 'My friends, and you are my friends,' and I thought, 'That's so far out.' And he said it twice … as if we didn't hear it the first time … and like a TV evangelist he says, 'It's time we stopped making movies about sex, drugs, and rock n' roll and more movies like 'Dr. Doolittle,'' but he's looking right at me."

Later, as Fonda was signing autographs, he was asked to sign a picture from "The Trip" of him and co-star Bruce Dern riding a Harley in pure silhouette on the Venice Beach, CA bike path. "We were so small and fully backlit and looked like we were riding in the sand," said Fonda. "And I looked at the photograph, and I thought, 'That's it! It's not about 100 Hells Angels going to a Hells Angels's funeral, it's two guys riding across John Ford's West. No! They're going east. Oh, that's perfect. A journey to the east: An homage to Hermann Hesse. Fantastic. I love that story.' And I began, and within four hours, I had the whole story, basically."

"So Jack Valenti took me to 'Easy Rider.' How 'bout that?"

Spirits of the Dead (1968)
The omnibus film, which featured segments directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini, marked the first time Peter and his older sister Jane appeared in a film together. The results were, well, groovy.

"My roll recall there was: Man, this is far out. I'm going to get burned up in a fire, turned into a white horse, and my sister's going to get back up on me and bareback ride me through the water on the shore on the beach in the sand. I thought that was pretty far out—what a sexual idea that is. Well, it's France, you know, what the heck?"

Ulee’s Gold (1997)
"The way that Victor Nunez wrote that script … When I finished 92 pages, I was just absolutely blown away by it," said Fonda about the film that was widely regarded as his triumphant come back.

"I'll tell you this, and I probably shouldn't: When I closed the script, I had been in tears, I looked up at the ceiling, and I said, 'I'd like to thank the Academy.'" Indeed, Fonda got a chance to thank the Academy for the Best Acting nomination he earned. "In a sense, my roll recall is that entire flick. I got paid the least and I got the most fun out of it."

Ghost Rider (2007)
"I'm a comic freak, so I thought, 'Yeah, sure. Sounds good. Mephistopheles. Why not?'"

But they still had to negotiate the deal. "The negotiation basically was: 'The money's not right and I can't leave till the 17th of February.' Then it was: 'Well, the money's better, but you know, I can't leave till the 17th.' Then it was: 'The money's really getting really pretty close there, but I can't leave till the 17th.' Then it was: 'The money's really good, but I can't leave till the 17th.' And finally, the last bit was: 'The money's perfect. I'll leave on the 15th."

"So for that roll, it was all about the time and the money and being able to work with Nic Cage and have fun … and play this outrageous character. Play Mephistopheles, who gets to do that a lot?"

[Related: Total Recall: David Ellefson Reflects on 30 Years of Megadeth, Including His Biggest Regret]

3:10 to Yuma (2007)
"They had to strip my hair, and make it grey, it was a terrible process, and it ended up with a slight tinge of lilac in it, which really pissed me off. It took a lot of work to get that lilac out of there. I was so pissed off that I got on the phone, and I called the production office — it was a Sunday, so I knew no one would be there and the answering machine would be on — and I pulled an Alec Baldwin. I just went ballistic."

"So that was my roll recall for that — the bloody hair. The rest of it was fun, it was easy for me to do, it was a part that I really understood, and I could bring a lot of what I had in my life to that role in that moment. And working with Ben Foster was a gas."

The Ultimate Life (2013)
"North Carolina for Texas. I'm a Texas rancher. I was wondering how the hell they were going to make this look like Texas. They did! The beauty of CGI. And the beauty of North Carolina."

In the Michael Landon Jr. directed film, now available on home entertainment, Fonda plays Jacob Early, a mentor to young Red Stevens, who one day grows up to reflect on the 'Ulitmate Life' he led on the way to becoming an important businessman and philanthropist. You can get a taste for the film in our exclusive clip below.

See Peter Fonda in 'The Ultimate Life' Blu-ray clip: