R.I.P. Peter Fonda: A Tribute To A Counter-Culture Antihero

Is there anyone badder than Wyatt from Easy Rider? You know, the world-shaking, counter-culture movie that helped shift Hollywood away from spaghetti westerns to a new age of cinema…perhaps the golden age? It was for car guys and motorheads at least. We’ll get to that in a minute, but for now I’d just like to pay tribute to a man we lost today – Peter Fonda.

The one that started it all…photo borrowed from silodrome.com.

Defining Roles:

Easy Rider came out in ‘69 and it really did shake things up for the “normies.” You’ve got Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper making drug deals, riding across America on some gnarly motorcycles, and generally freaking out the squares. What’s not to love?

I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, and it really came to define the career of Peter Fonda. When people hear that name, they immediately think of Easy Rider, and the “Captain America” Panhead Harley.

A rare solo shot of Fonda piloting what would become one of the most iconic motorcycles of all time. Photo borrowed from silodrome.com.

Meanwhile, Dennis Hopper directed and co-starred, along with a young Jack Nickolsen. They both gave stellar performances, and despite their thespian aptitude, were shown up only by Fonda. Which is surprising, given the lengthy, award-winning careers both actors went on to have. 

Point is, Peter Fonda was the man! Sure, the other flamed out pan in the movie is cool, and Hopper’s suede fringe jacket belongs in the smithsonian, but when you watch the film, it’s really Wyatt (Fonda) and his stoic presence that draws your attention.

That old saying “women wanted him, and men wanted to be him” was exemplified by Fonda. Not only in Easy Rider – although it is iconic, but in countless other films he’s famous for, like Wild Angels, and Cannonball Run. I don’t have to tell you all about Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, and the brash antics he found himself in during that film…but I will anyway.

Peter Fonda pictured on the set of one his lesser known counter-culture flicks, Wild Angels. Photo borrowed from Pinterest.com.

Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry was another one of those counter-culture films that shook things up. It follows this high-speed racer, Larry (Fonda) and his mechanic as they attempt to pull off a heist of sorts. They rob a grocery store that’s flush with payroll cash and end up on a seemingly endless car chase.

For the majority of their evasion, Larry is wheeling one of the baddest ’69 Dodge Chargers you’ve ever seen! Bright yellow and stolen, are the only two things that seem to matter about the car. Because, it has more than enough power to do anything he wants it to – whether that’s drifting it around city streets or racing a helicopter through an orchard, it just makes you want to get behind the wheel and give it a go. Until he meets his untimely death, that is. Fonda and his cohorts crash that wicked Charger right into an oncoming train.

We can’t say the ’69 Dodge Charger would never has been as popular had it not been for Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, but it certainly helped. Photo borrowed from goombastomp.com.

If the characters had been painted in a different light, they would have been the villains. As a matter of fact, they are the villains! But as a viewer, you don’t care. Fonda was the ultimate bad-boy antihero.

A Lasting Legacy:

Only he could have us rooting for drug dealers, bikers, and bandits like they’re heroes. Frankly, they were to the counter-culture, and it’s a bummer he’s gone. What’s cool is that we have a compendium of rad movies to remember him by.

A man as important to our culture as Peter Fonda deserves to be celebrated, especially in his passing. He deserves to be remembered, and talked about for ages. Because, before Charlie Hunnam was Jacks Teller and Vin Diesel was Dominic Torretto, Peter Fonda was Wyatt, and Dirty Larry…

Is it even a heist if you don’t run away from a helicopter? Photo borrowed from goombastomp.com.

So, if you’ve ever felt stuck in the gray area – deciding for yourself what right and wrong is – you’ve shared a kindred spirit with the characters portrayed and created by Peter Fonda.

By now, you know he’s passed on, and I won’t get into the minutiae of his life and tell you where he was born, and what high school he went to, but I will tell you he played a pivotal role in shaping the minds of young people the world over. The spirit of rebellion lives on thanks to people like Peter Fonda. 

With his help, that spirit was forced upon the mainstream and directly injected into the minds of people who would never have been exposed to biker culture, or hot rodding.

You’ll be missed Crazy Larry…Photo borrowed from goombastomp.com.

For that, I would like to say thank you to Peter Fonda and those like him. Those who would dare to go against the grain, to flout authority, to say “to hell with your rules, I do it my way.” Because of them, there can be an antihero, and good guys and bad guys aren’t always so clearly defined…they’re just people, man.

So with that, we’ll just say…Ride easy, Easy Rider. Peter Fonda (1940-2019).

About the author

Vinny Costa

Fast cars, motorcycles, and loud music are what get Vinny’s blood pumping. Catch him behind the wheel of his ’68 Firebird. Chances are, Black Sabbath will be playing in the background.
Read My Articles

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