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Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2002

Peter Fonda rides again

Sharp-shooting director gets his say 20 years later

Peter Fonda is on the phone from his home in Montana. He says he just finished mowing the lawn and in a week or so will begin shooting a new movie in Canada called "Polly Yesterday." According to the 63-year-old actor, the film "begins with the death of [The Rolling Stones'] Brian Jones in 1969 and progresses all the way up to now."

News photo
A scene from Peter Fonda's "The Hired Hand" and the actor (above) in character for the film
News photo

Since Fonda is considered at least half responsible for "Easy Rider," the 1969 movie whose popularity revolutionized American commercial filmmaking and helped define the hippie counterculture, a movie like "Polly Yesterday" should be a cinch. "Yeah, it should bring back some memories," he says.

Fonda seems to be in the memory business right now. His artistic credibility reconfirmed with a best actor Oscar nomination for "Ulee's Gold" in 1997, Fonda was then tapped by Steven Soderbergh for "The Limey," to play what was essentially Captain America, his character in "Easy Rider" -- had the pot-smoking biker not been killed by those shotgun-toting rednecks but instead had grown up to invest his cocaine money in a record-production company.

For the past year or so, he's been reliving 1970-71, restoring his directorial debut, "The Hired Hand," a Western that almost no one saw when it came out. "It only played on 52 screens for two weeks," he says, though he's not completely sure why Universal Pictures made no effort to promote it. He suspects the studio "lumped it in with 'The Last Movie,' which came out about the same time." "The Last Movie" was "Easy Rider" partner Dennis Hopper's own infamous followup to that seminal film and, according to Fonda, "a disaster."

Despite being butchered by Universal while Fonda was out of the country, "The Hired Hand" has since garnered an admiring cult following. "Martin Scorcese presented the restored version at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. He loves it and was helpful in the restoration process."

Fonda himself initiated the restoration. "There was a retrospective in San Francisco a few years ago, and they showed 'The Hired Hand.' The print was so bad and the music had been scraped off in some parts. I tried to find a decent print and couldn't. So me and my editor snuck into the vault at Universal and everything was there: the camera negative, the interpositive, a semi-releasable version and the NBC television cut, which had us puking with laughter it was so bad."

Fonda made a deal with Universal's Ron Meyer and raised the money for the restoration. "Now they're thinking of buying it back," he says with a chuckle. "I think that's very funny."

The changes weren't that difficult. "I actually made most of them when I first took the film to Europe with [co-star] Warren Oates. I brought along a hot splicer and would go to each print just before it was screened and take out the things Universal had put in that shouldn't have been there. I had long hair and a beard, and they had no idea who I was, just a freaked-out hippie attacking the film. But I knew which reels to go for. I was able to lift these two pieces out, hot splice them together, and not lose sync. That means there were only six or seven prints in the world that were close to my ideal."

Finally, it's payback time. "I think Universal feels foolish, because the press is making a lot of noise about this being a lost treasure. If they want to distribute the film in the U.S., they have the means. And they can make DVDs, which will be marvelous because then I can include different things that people have heard about over the years. We'll get to show some of the cool shit I had to cut out. It was [Oscar-winning cinematographer] Vilmos Szigmond's first film, and we can have him talk about it. Historically, it's very cool."

He might even talk about how he came upon the script. "I was in London in 1969. The British censors had finally allowed 'Easy Rider' to open, and my associate producer, Bill Hayward, and I went there for the opening. I got a call from a woman I knew, who said she promised a friend Alan Sharp that she would show me his script. I went from there to the Continent, where we dubbed 'Easy Rider,' and between Paris and Rome I read the script. I turned to Bill Hayward and said, 'This'll be our next movie.' It was so well-done -- the language, the feeling for the American West -- and this by a Scotsman who had never even been there."

Perhaps because it was not written by a Hollywood hack, the script favored character development and atmospheric detail over the usual horse-opera cliches. Fonda picked up on this aspect and fashioned what could be called the first Impressionistic Western. He says he deliberately teased out the biblical and mythical elements inherent in the story of a man who abandons his family and then, after seven years of roaming, tries to insinuate himself back in their lives. "When we scouted locations in New Mexico, we were looking for a real ghost town. Because Del Norte, as it's called in the movie, represents Hell. The Rio Grande is the Styx."

Some critics see "The Hired Hand" as the missing link between the more traditional Western and the "revisionist" movies of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. "What was different for me is that a woman is at the center. Me and Warren Oates are in the movie more, but it's Verna Bloom as Hannah who's the true center of the movie. She is the axle. The rest of us just turn around her."

In this regard, the movie was revisionist in more ways than one. Hannah's sexual candor may seem tame by today's standards, but it caused problems in 1971. "NBC said we can't have her say that kind of stuff. But the movie loses all meaning without that beautiful scene between Verna Bloom and Warren Oates on the porch. That was cut out of the TV version. They couldn't handle a woman saying, 'It doesn't matter much if it's you or him. Just down in the dirt sometimes, or in the hay.' "

Another reason Fonda would like to see a DVD version is that it will finally offer the public a chance to own the spare, guitar-based film score, which has never been released. "One man, Bruce Langhorne, did all that. Universal was mad. 'Peter, you can't just hire your friends. What's he done?' But he's a virtuoso on 52 stringed instruments. He could play all the parts in a symphony. His picking hand has a thumb stump and two fingers end at the joint. I want people to hear that. I invited Alan Sharp to a special screening of the restored version in L.A., but he couldn't come. He said his main regret was that he couldn't hear that music one more time. I mean, I want the CD, too. And you know what [Langhorne] is doing now? He makes hot sauce."

Another reason Fonda made a Western is that he thought it would help him break out of the image straitjacket of "Easy Rider," though he admits that the two films contain themes that are strikingly similar. "Both movies are journeys; people trying to find things, themselves. In both I find myself dead, but at least in 'The Hired Hand' my partner survives to clean up the mess I made. In the beginning of the movie, Robert Pratt falls on his ass, and it's just another way of saying, 'We blew it' [a signature line from "Easy Rider"]. We're not as civilized as we think we are."

He even admits that there's a lot of himself in Harry, the character he plays. "My own marriage was falling apart. I was away a lot making movies." In the end, it's obvious that if Fonda had to be remembered for one thing, he'd prefer it be for the Western rather than the hippie biker flick.

"Everybody thinks, 'I wanna see him on a motorcycle smoking marijuana.' But instead you get me on a horse, without pot, moving slowly. And there's no rock 'n' roll [laughs]. But Verna Bloom rocks. Warren Oates rocks. And Bruce Langhorne definitely rocks."

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