Peter Fonda’s career in Hollywood stretches back to 1962 and includes westerns and the like, but for the majority of readers who visit here, two characters stand out above the rest: Wyatt from 1968’s “Easy Rider” and Larry Raydar from 1974’s “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry”. The two couldn’t be further apart…Wyatt is the calm, laid-back drifter who sees the world through his own eyes and nobody else’s who is only tied to his motorcycle, his desire for travel and his compatriot, Billy. Larry, on the other hand, is a racer-turned-robber who would’ve had a better day if his one-night stand hadn’t turned up in the Chevy after he got the money. Full of wise-assed one-liners and the chops to wheel a Charger around before he inexplicably plows the sucker into a freight train, Larry is full of fun and good times…and maybe something else, too. It was 1974, cut him a break.
As you read on today, you will hear plenty of people waxing poetic about how Easy Rider was a view into the 1960s counterculture movement, how his acting was defined by that one movie, his achievements in Hollywood, et cetera. As someone born fifteen years past the movie, I generally can’t grasp the world in 1968. But here’s what I can understand: The vision of Fonda, on that chopper as he rides from L.A. to New Orleans, speaks to wanderlust, to doing whatever the hell your heart desires, and to finding your own path in life regardless of the actions of others. Putting the whole scene to contemporary rock music of the time was genius…tell me someone that doesn’t hear Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” and doesn’t see Fonda in the full “Captain America” getup, cruising down the road.
Fonda had work through 2020, and had been working continuously since 1962. Nearly fifty years of work in an 79-year life, and we gearheads look to two main roles he played, one outshining the other by miles. In Easy Rider, Wyatt looks at Billy and tells him, “We blew it.” In an email to The Hollywood Reporter, answering a question about what “it” was, he explained, “I never intended to answer that question. I intended it to be enigmatic and applicable to all kinds of things. When asked today if it’s still relevant, go look out the window and tell me we haven’t blown it.” Maybe it has been blown this whole time. Maybe it hasn’t been blown. But he never told. But maybe he left a hint…maybe the answer is out there, on that stretch of quiet highway that nobody seems to travel anymore.