Peter Fonda was the son of old Hollywood royalty, and although he rejected the mantle of tinselly fame he stood to inherit from his father Henry Fonda, his own personal glamour was always something to behold. Fonda, who died on Aug. 16 at age 79, got his start in small television roles in the early 1960s. But it wasn’t until the end of that decade that he found his true path forward, in the iconoclastic 1969 road drama Easy Rider, directed by and co-starring his friend and fellow free spirit Dennis Hopper and written by Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern. (The script would earn the three an Academy Award nomination.)
Easy Rider, with its plot involving free love, a cross-country motorcycle trip and lots of drugs, became a grand temple of counterculture cinema, and Fonda’s Wyatt–a lanky, untroubled adventurer open to the world–its patron saint. After that, Fonda never became a star in the conventional leading-man sense, but he gave marvelous performances throughout his career, especially in the 1990s: he won a Golden Globe for his role as a Vietnam vet turned beekeeper in Ulee’s Gold (1997), and in The Limey (1999) he gave a superb performance as aging record mogul Terry Valentine, a slick charmer who earns this acute appraisal from one of his young girlfriends: “You’re not specific enough to be a person. You’re more of a vibe.” Fonda, though, was both a person and a vibe. His performances were gorgeously idiosyncratic, and the mere act of watching him was its own kind of freedom. Decades after Easy Rider, he could still make you feel just like Wyatt: beautiful and wild and ready for anything.
This appears in the September 02, 2019 issue of TIME.
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