Peter Fonda brings forgotten movie to film festival

WATERVILLE – Peter Fonda still talks in surfer metaphors.

The 64-year-old actor manages his far-sightedness with funky, two-tone glasses. And when the 1960s icon speaks about his signature film, “Easy Rider,” he seems like a man out of time.

“Pretty far out, isn’t it?” he asks, grinning with a set of brilliant white teeth. He still looks like the all-American movie star.

Yet, it’s a forgotten film that brought him to Maine.

The movie is “The Hired Hand,” a little western Fonda made in 1971 while surfing the “Easy Rider” wave of popularity.

Fonda starred in and directed the quiet, naturalistic film with a feminist message.

Few people ever saw it. It began a kind of second-tier career for Fonda, who never reached the sustained heights of his sister Jane or his father, screen legend Henry Fonda.

But maybe, suggests the little Western, it should have. It’s a good film, beautifully photographed and gently told.

Fonda’s screen work has been uneven ever since. He directed two other movies and starred in many others, mostly low budget affairs. In 1997, he drew a best actor Oscar nomination for “Ulee’s Gold,” in which he played a lonely beekeeper.

Fonda is preparing to release “Hired Hand,” his directing debut, on DVD this fall. On Sunday, he showed it to an audience at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville. The festival presented him with its Mid-Life Achievement Award.

“I like directing more than I do just acting,” he said outside the Waterville Opera House, where the movie was shown. “However, I also get a big kick out of acting and directing, which my father thought was totally nuts.

“(He’d say), ‘Why are you doing that son?'”

“I said, ‘Job security, Dad.'”

Fonda even tried to direct his father’s last film, “On Golden Pond,” which was being produced in 1981 by Jane Fonda.

“I presented myself to my sister’s company, putting my hat in the ring as director,” he said. “I said, ‘You know, I have special knowledge of the two of the actors. I know exactly what’s going on because this story is about this man and his daughter coming back together again.

“‘Well, I’m the son. I had to do the same thing. I’ve made the same connection. Let me shoot it. Let me do it, you know. Let me direct it.’ I never heard back from my sister.

“It’s OK,” he said. “It was a good film. If I see it today, I have to carry a box of Kleenex with me.”

Verna Bloom, who co-starred in the western with Fonda says he believes Fonda could have had a career like (“Raging Bull” director) Martin Scorsese if he’d had the chance.

“Based on ‘The Hired Hand,’ I’d say he’s up there in that league,” Bloom said. Her husband, Jay Cocks, wrote the screenplay for Scorsese’s latest movie, “Gangs of New York.”

“I’m sure that Peter’s available,” she said. “If approached, he’d love to do more. He really should.”

Fonda said he’s working on another undisclosed film, perhaps to direct.

He remains passionate for his work in the movies. “If the passion’s not there, I shouldn’t be wasting people’s time,” he said.

And he’s proud of the old ones.

Fonda believes “Easy Rider” remains as relevant as it ever was. “The only thing that dates it really, is the way the hippies were dressed.”

That, too, was a kind of western, he said.

“What was Dennis wearing? A fringe, leather jacket and a cowboy hat. Hello!”

Meanwhile, close watchers of the 1969 movie would find that he’s wearing spurs on his motorcycle boots.

“There’s my boot,” he said. “There’s the spurs. On my horse.”

That movie, which he also produced and co-wrote, could never really be topped, he said.

“I was in the middle of this perfect curl,” he said, surfer jargon for the ultimate wave. “Ride the wave. Nothing’s outside.”

He tried to go in another direction with “Hired Hand,” but the studio botched it, he said.

Universal thought of it as another outing by “the reckless rebels, that’d be me and Dennis (Hopper) and our gang,” he said.

But he’s not bitter. In fact, he remembers every line he’s ever spoken in the movies, he said.

About two years ago, he ran into Sandra Dee, with whom he had acted in his first film, 1963’s “Tammy and the Doctor.”

He went up to her and began reciting a bit of their dialogue together. It confused her.

“How long does this go on?” she asked him.

“Until I’m dead,” he replied.

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