Stephen Vagg looks at ten key films in Fonda’s career – each one marked a different phase for the actor.
Tammy and the Doctor (1963) – the imitation James Stewart phase
Fonda became legendary for being a counter culture icon, but actually started his career as a sort of poor man’s James Stewart – tall, gangly, boy next door, virginal looks, etc. (And Stewart was, famously, best friends with Fonda’s father, Henry). He made his Broadway debut in Blood Sweat and Stanley Poole co-written by legendary screenwriter William Goldman, which led to playing the love interest of Tammy (Sandra Dee) in this cheerful, dim comedy. His James Stewart Junior phase also included appearing in a lot of TV and films like The Victors (1963), Lilith (1964) and The Young Lovers (1964).
The Wild Angels (1966) – the counter culture phase
Fonda’s career might have tailed off into a series of stock leading man roles on TV, but he embraced the counter culture in real life and was cast as a biker in this Roger Corman take on the Hell’s Angels motorbike gang. When star George Chakiris announced he couldn’t ride a bike, second lead Fonda took over his role, and Bruce Dern stepped into Fonda’s old part. The film – written by Charles B. Griffith and rewritten by Corman’s assistant, Peter Bogdanovich – was a box office phenomenon, spawning a whole genre of biker films and establishing Fonda as a counter culture film star – a position he consolidated as an LSD-taking film director in Corman’s The Trip (1967).
Easy Rider (1969) – the genuine Hollywood player phase
Fonda was ambitious and teamed up with Dennis Hopper to make their own biker movie: Fonda would produce, Hopper would direct, and both would star. Their inexperience scared off AIP, but Columbia stepped in to finance, and the movie became a sensation, even bigger than The Wild Angels. Fonda was outshone on screen by Hopper and especially Jack Nicholson, but the film’s success established Fonda as a genuine Hollywood player and ensured his immortality. Oddly, he rarely produced again.
The Hired Hand (1971) – the director phase
Like most Hollywood stars (which is what he was now), Fonda wanted to direct and Easy Rider gave him the chance to do so with this reflective Western. The film wasn’t popular and then kind of vanished from view – Hopper’s East Rider follow up, The Last Movie (1971) was far more notorious – and hurt Fonda’s chances of directing more movies (he only did two more, The Idaho Transfer (1974) and Wanda Nevada (1979)) but the reputation of Hired Hand has risen in recent years and it is now a solid cult film.
Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974) – the exploitation star phase
Hollywood tried Fonda as a conventional leading man with Two People (1973), directed by Robert Wise but few people went to see it. Lots of people did go to see the car chase film Dirty Mary Crazy Larry with Susan George and Adam Roarke (who everyone forgets is in pretty much the whole movie). This was a breakout hit which established Fonda as a name on the exploitation circuit. He followed it with several movies aimed at drive ins: Open Season (1974), Race with the Devil (1975), Killer Force (1976), future world (1976), Fighting Mad (1976), Outlaw Blues (1976), High Ballin (1978), etc. The films were disdained critically at the time but have lots of fans, and are part of the reason why Fonda’s death was so mourned.
Spasms (1982) – the straight to video phase
Fonda starred in this Canadian horror flick which kicked off his straight to video phase that lasted through the ‘80s. This was perhaps Fonda’s most obscure decade as an actor – few of his movies from this time were widely seen, even solid dramas like Ted Kotcheff’s cult flick Split Image (1983).
Nadja (1994) – the supporting actor in indie movies phase
Fonda’s career revived in the ‘90s due to a combination of (a) being known as the father of Bridget Fonda, who was in vogue at the time (what happened to her?), and (b) a series of impressive roles in Indies such as Bodies Rest and Motion (1993), Love and a 45 (1994), Molly and Gia (1994), Nadja (1994). He seemed to specialise in appearing in films made with/by the children of famous Hollywood filmmakers eg his daughter, Robert Wagner’s daughter. He often stole the show – as he did in bigger budgeted movies he made around this time such as Escape from LA (1996).
Ulee’s Gold (1997) – the “oh wow he’s good” phase
Fonda is given the role of a lifetime in this drama which earns him the best reviews of his career, including an Oscar nomination. It wasn’t a big hit (hey, it’s a drama about a bee keeper) and didn’t turn him into a star again but it did remind people he was alive and presumably helped him be cast in a superb support turn in The Limey (1999).
The Passion of Ayn Rand (1998) – the TV phase
Fonda did a lot of TV in the ‘60s but tended to steer clear of that medium until he played Ayn Rand’s husband in this fascinating look at one of the world’s most influential writers. He received excellent reviews and started appearing in a series of prestigious TV productions such as The Laramie Project (2002) and The Maldonado Miracle (2003).
The part won him a Golden Globe (he seems a little stoned, but we’d all be disappointed if he didn’t)
3.10 to Yuma (2007) – the Western phase
Fonda had appeared in Westerns throughout his career – you could even argue the biker films were a form of Western – but really marked himself as an icon with a superb performance in this James Mangold film. He appeared in Westerns until the end of his life, American Bandits (2010), Copperhead (2013), Jesse James Lawman (2015), The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017). He made other films, but I feel he had the biggest impact as a grizzled old codger in a Western.
RIP Fonda. You definitely carved your own place on the screen.