Peter Fonda, whose counterculture classic Easy Rider helped usher in the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s that paved the way for filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino, has died after suffering respiratory failure due to lung cancer. Fonda, the son of screen legend Henry Fonda, younger brother of Jane Fonda and father of actress Bridget Fonda, was 79.
The family confirmed the news of his death Friday in a statement to Yahoo Entertainment.
“It is with deep sorrow that we share the news that Peter Fonda has passed away,” the family said, adding Fonda “passed away peacefully on Friday morning, Aug. 16 at 11:05am at his home in Los Angeles surrounded by family. The official cause of death was respiratory failure due to lung cancer.
“In one of the saddest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our hearts. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy.
“And, while we mourn the loss of this sweet and gracious man, we also wish for all to celebrate his indomitable spirit and love of life,” the statement concluded. “In honor of Peter, please raise a glass to freedom.”
According to Jane Fonda, her brother “went out laughing.”
“I am very sad,” she said in a statement. “He was my sweet-hearted baby brother. The talker of the family. I have had beautiful alone time with him these last days. He went out laughing.”
Fonda was best known for his starring role 1969’s Easy Rider, which he co-wrote and produced, and which celebrated its 50th anniversary on July 14. The film, co-starring the late Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson, earned Fonda his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. In 1997, he was nominated for Best Actor for starring in Ulee's Gold.
Born in New York City, Fonda began acting in the early '60s. He started to make a name for himself with 1966's The Wild Angels alongside Nancy Sinatra and Bruce Dern, but his big break came three years later with Easy Rider. He was inspired to write the film in 1967 in response to a speech by Jack Valenti, then the newly appointed head of the Motion Picture Association of America who was advocating for more family-friendly films.
"And like a TV evangelist [Valenti] says, 'It's time we stopped making movies about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll and more movies like Doctor Dolittle,' but he's looking right at me," said Fonda in a 2013 Role Recall interview with Yahoo Entertainment. Soon after the ever-rebellious Fonda began writing the story of two drug-fueled motorcyclists on an ultimately tragic cross-country odyssey.
Fonda shared the screen only once with his famous father, in the 1979 western Wanda Nevada, which he also directed.
"A fairy tale. A perfectly written fairy tale," he told Yahoo. "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," Fonda continued. (Henry Fonda passed away in 1982 from heart disease at age 77.) "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!"
Fonda added, "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."