Peter Fonda finds character, depth in ‘The Ultimate Life’

Peter Fonda has gravitated toward character-driven roles throughout his long career, from his 1969 countercultural classic “Easy Rider” to his current family-friendly film “The Ultimate Life,” searching for the moments that inform his characters’ lives as well as his own.

“Acting is not about memorizing lines; it is finding moments,” he said.

In “The Ultimate Life,” which opened in September, Mr. Fonda portrays Texas rancher Jacob Early, who hires and mentors Red Stevens, an itinerant worker who becomes a billionaire philanthropist and strives to impart his life lessons to his playboy grandson.

“One of the things that drew me to the role was that I played a 1941 Texas rancher, driving an old pickup,” Mr. Fonda said. “I liked the idea of playing this guy who unintentionally becomes a facilitator to the lead character. And as Red comes to me and says, ‘I want to be like you,’ well, I have people say that to me, so it struck a chord.

“In the film, it is just a few days before Pearl Harbor,” he said. “When Red asks me, ‘How can I be like you — successful?’ my character answers, ‘Be the bellwether, not the sheep.’ I used the scene to put some depth into Red, in how we can be ourselves.”

Directed by Michael Landon Jr., “The Ultimate Life” is a sequel and prequel to 2006’s “The Ultimate Gift,” based on the best-selling novel by James Stovall — one of only a few sequels in which Mr. Fonda has starred.

The outspoken iconoclast who first brought Captain America to the silver screen as a pot-smoking, war-hating drug smuggler riding a chopper in “Easy Rider” still resides in the 73-year-old Mr. Fonda, who still rebels against hidebound establishment — both in Washington and in Hollywood.

“This is the worst government money can buy,” he said. “It is a mess. Simply a bloody mess. We think of ourselves as civilized, we use this word ‘civilization.’ And the cynical part of me, well, as people on this planet we do not see what the word ‘civilized’ really means.”

A member of America’s most venerated acting family, with sister Jane and daughter Bridget, Peter Fonda recalls working with his father, Henry, just once — on 1979’s campy Western “Wanda Nevada,” in which the younger Mr. Fonda starred and directed.

The two Fondas appeared together on set only once, at the arid bottom of the Grand Canyon.

“We were working in an area of the canyon where we could drive in and out, and there was a sign “Mind your weight” reminding people to slow down and not kick up a bunch of dust,” Mr. Fonda said. “I get out of the car, and he is in makeup and he is really pissed, saying, ‘This beard sucks.’

“Mr. Perfectionist was so upset and he was telling me, ‘Don’t get closer than a full figure shot,’ and I asked my cameraman, ‘Did an actor just tell me where to put my camera and take my shot?’”

Mr. Fonda recalls he had purchased some black licorice for his father’s character to chew rather than chewing tobacco.

“Dad loved licorice, but he was arguing with me that he was going to use real Redman chewing tobacco. So we are arguing over the beard, the tobacco and [I] chew some licorice up, lean over and drool the black juice down his beard, and dad is wild-eye looking at me, and got some of that red dust and rubbed in into the beard. And in the end it looked pretty good and I got my close-up.

“A couple of weeks after that day I got a letter, and it was the fifth letter he ever wrote to me, and he wrote, ‘In my 41 years of making motion pictures I have never seen a crew so devoted to a director as I had on that set and you are a very good director.’”

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