It was our first day of shooting on “The Ballad of Lefty Brown.” The sun had just dipped behind the mountains. As darkness descended, we raced to get our final shot. Despite the rush, the crew was buzzing with excitement. I wish I could say it was because of stunning image or a powerful moment of performance. No. Word had spread that Peter Fonda had landed in Montana.
I can’t think of another actor who occupies such a unique space in the history of cinema. On the one hand, Peter is a counterculture icon. Half of “Easy Rider.” The star of “The Wild Angels.” “The Trip.” On the other hand, he’s Hollywood royalty. Son of Henry. Brother of Jane. Father of Bridget. The man who followed up a landmark, generation-defining film with a Western, “The Hired Hand,” might have been a commercial flop, but today it is regarded as a genre classic, a beautiful, evocative portrait of frontier life. He’s an iconoclast. I wanted him for the role of legendary frontier rancher Edward Johnson because he’s a talented and creative actor. But also because of the history he brought to the role — the connection to an older Hollywood that doesn’t really exist anymore.
Peter and I met for the first time at the Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica. We sat at a table in the back of the bar. I drank coffee. He sipped water from a Nalgene bottle. Of course, he wore tinted sunglasses. He was a storyteller. He told me the story of his 82-foot sailboat Tatoosh, which he lived on for almost a decade. The story of his love affair with his wife Parky, who he fell for in Hawaii in 1974 but took 37 years to marry. The story of an acid-fueled conversation with John Lennon that inspired the song “She Said She Said.” That’s how it was with Peter. Whether we were having a meal, sharing a ride, or getting ready to get a shot, there were always stories to be told. Sometimes to the never-ending chagrin of my AD.
In the film, Peter plays Johnson, a character modeled on John Wayne. He’s tamed the West and now plans to protect the frontier as a senator from the newly formed state of Montana. He’s a larger-than-life hero, especially to his devoted sidekick Lefty Brown, played by Bill Pullman. And he dies on page 13. Shot in the head. It’s a shocking and brutal murder. Peter loved that moment. He called it his “Brando Death.” An opportunity to die in such an epic, memorable fashion that it would reverberate through the rest of the film.
We spent hours discussing how I would film his murder. Where the squib would go. How his body would slink from the saddle and land in the dirt. He sent me long, thoughtful emails about camera angles and shutter speed; about the type of rifle he would carry (the Henry Golden Boy repeater instead of John Wayne’s signature Winchester) and specifically the assassin’s rifle — a Remington Creedmoor Rolling Block. The depth of his knowledge was truly humbling.
We shot “The Ballad of Lefty Brown”in Montana not that far from where Peter used to have a ranch. After the shoot, he told when he sold that ranch he vowed he never wanted to see the mountains of Montana again. He was done with the snow, and the creeks, and the Yellowstone River. But if there was a production in place and film the camera, he couldn’t resist the call.
Peter could be funny. He could be inappropriate. When he was, he wasn’t afraid to apologize. He knew his way around a camera better than any actor I’ve ever worked with, able to discuss frame-rate, film stock and other gear like he just stepped out of the camera department. We had Peter on set for three 14-plus-hourD days, including multiple gunfights and one rain-drenched night shoot. It was to say the least, arduous. It was also my privilege.