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Peter Fonda, Star of ‘Easy Rider,’ Dies at 79

The lanky actor and Oscar nominee, who became Hollywood's face of the '60s, died of respiratory failure surrounded by family in his home.

Peter Fonda Easy Rider

“Easy Rider”

Columbia/REX/Shutterstock

Fifty years after the release of low-budget rebel odyssey “Easy Rider,” which pushed Hollywood into the ’70s and shook the foundations of Hollywood, writer-director-actor Peter Fonda has died of respiratory failure from lung cancer. The son of Hollywood star Henry Fonda and New York socialite Frances Seymour Brokaw was born 79 years ago in New York City. He is survived by his older sister, actress Jane Fonda, and his daughter, actress Bridget Fonda.

In a statement to People magazine, the family said Fonda “passed away peacefully on Friday morning, August 16 at 11:05am at his home in Los Angeles surrounded by family …In honor of Peter, please raise a glass to freedom.”

Said Jane Fonda: “I am very sad. He was my sweet-hearted baby brother. The talker of the family. I have had beautiful alone time with him these last days. He went out laughing.”

Fonda made a splash with his first professional role on Broadway in 1961 in William and James Goldman’s “Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole,” and launched his film career in 1963 with the romantic lead in “Tammy and the Doctor” and a supporting role in World War II actioner “The Victors.”

Fonda, a graduate of the Roger Corman school that also produced Jack Nicholson and Ron Howard, starred as the leader of a biker gang in Corman’s “The Wild Angels” opposite Bruce Dern in 1966. They also co-starred in Corman’s 1967 psychedelic film “The Trip.”

However, Fonda would be best known for another rebel motorcycle movie, Dennis Hopper’s “Easy Rider,” in 1969. (He got the idea for the film while staring at a poster for “The Wild Angels.”) Fonda starred opposite Nicholson, and wrote the screenplay with Hopper and Terry Southern, which scored them an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The film became a touchstone for the ’60s generation, and won the “best first work” award at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1969. And in 1998, “Easy Rider” was added to the National Film Registry, having been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

Fonda also starred in country music expose “Outlaw Blues”; Robert Rossen’s “Lilith”; Robert Wise’s “Two People”; and cult films “Love and a .45” and “Nadja.” He popped in both Alison Anders’ “Grace of My Heart” and John Carpenter’s “Escape from L.A.,” costarring Kurt Russell.

His first acting Oscar nomination came at 57, for his portrayal of a laconic beekeeper in “Ulee’s Gold.” Other late-inning successes include James Mangold’s western “3:10 to Yuma,” Steven Soderbergh’s “The Limey” and “Ocean’s Twelve,” and 2017’s “The Ballad of Lefty Brown.” He most recently starred in Shana Feste’s road movie “Boundaries” opposite Christopher Plummer.

He published a 1998 memoir, “Don’t Tell Dad,” and appeared in some notable television movies and miniseries, including NBC’s “The Tempest,” and the Showtime telefilm “The Passion of Ayn Rand,” opposite Helen Mirren, winning the Golden Globe for outstanding supporting actor in a miniseries or movie made for television. Fonda co-starred in HBO’s “The Laramie Project,” based on the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard.

Fonda directed three films, starting with western “The Hired Hand” in 1971, in which he starred; it saw a rerelease in 2003. His two other directing efforts were less well-received: sci-fi movie “Idaho Transfer,” costarring Keith Carradine, and 1979 gambling saga “Wanda Nevada,” in which he wins 13-year-old orphan Brooke Shields in a poker game. (It was a very different time.)

Fonda co-starred in the upcoming Lionsgate title “The Last Full Measure,” Todd Robinson’s ensemble war drama slated for release October 25.

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