Another legend is gone. Last Friday, Peter Fonda’s family confirmed that the star had passed away at age 79 from respiratory failure due to lung cancer. Older sister Jane had this to say: “I am sad. He went out laughing.” Which summed up the feelings of many of us in the motorcycle community, or at least those of us who were lucky enough to have met the avid motorcyclist and filmmaker. We’re all glad there was a smile on his face at the end.
Peter Fonda was born in New York City on February 23, 1940. The son of legendary actor Henry Fonda, the young Fonda became a successful thespian in his own right, and definitely on his own terms. He gravitated toward motorcycles and the counterculture in his early work, especially in Roger Corman's 1966 B movie hit, The Wild Angels. It was in that flick that Fonda's "eulogy" for a fallen Angel really hit home: "Just what is it that you want to do? We want to be free!" Those lines were sampled in rock band Primal Scream's song "Loaded" in 1991, and I played the hell out of it on my Walkman for the next year or two.
While that movie was a reasonably big hit—and, some will argue, single-handedly launched the biker movie genre—in 1969 came the film for which he will be ever remembered. As the cool, laconic Wyatt aboard his Captain American chopper, Fonda again wrestled with themes of freedom and the restraints of modern society in Easy Rider, which he also co-wrote. As an experienced rider, Fonda also had a hand in developing the "Captain America" bike, hiring Cliff Vaughs to coordinate the build, which was handled by LA shop owner Ben Hardy. The bike became an iconic symbol of the 1960s, and in fact Easy Rider just celebrated its landmark 50 year anniversary.
Which brings me to another point: Fonda walked the walk. The man who rode “Captain America” also helped to popularize the custom chopper movement and helped generate some fresh interest in V-twin bikes. In an interview 10 years ago, Fonda said that riding motorcycles helped him focus, stating, “You have to be focused and in my life… focus is hard to find sometimes.” He supported all kinds of motorcycle-related charity events through the years, including the Love Ride and the Easy Ride for Autism, and he was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2000.
Peter Fonda is survived by wife Margaret DeVogelaere and by his children with former wife Susan Brewer, Bridget and Justin Fonda. May he rest in peace.