After a long and successful career that saw him nominated for two Oscars, Peter Fonda died in August 2019. And, naturally, the star’s passing at the age of 79 affected not only his legion of fans but also his family. Famously, Peter had come from an acting clan, following in the footsteps of his father, Henry, at around the same time that his elder sister, Jane, entered show business. Now Jane has opened up about her brother’s last days before he died – and her words may just bring tears to your eyes.
Since Peter’s death, it’s been revealed that he passed away as the result of respiratory failure brought on by lung cancer. The veteran actor was at his Los Angeles home and had family by his side when he succumbed to his condition, and he left behind wife Margaret “Parky” DeVogelaere and children Bridget and Jason from his first marriage to Susan Brewer.
And, of course, plenty of tributes were paid to the actor following his passing. After the sad news broke, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce announced that flowers would be left on Peter’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for example. Many big names, including Kathy Griffin, Ava DuVernay, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mia Farrow, also took to Twitter to give their sympathies.
Rob Reiner, for one, tweeted, “My heart goes out to Jane over the loss of her brother. Peter Fonda was a revolutionary filmmaker during a revolutionary time. [He was] born in the house I now live in, [and] his spirit will be missed.” Matilda actress Mara Wilson wrote, meanwhile, “Peter Fonda was one of the oddest people I’ve ever met, and honestly I think he’d be thrilled to know I remembered him that way.”
And it’s fair to say that Peter’s career in Hollywood was a fascinating one. During the 1960s he even became a countercultural icon of sorts after his star turn in biker classic Easy Rider. More prestigiously still, Peter helped inspire the Beatles song “She Said She Said” after informing John Lennon, “I know what it’s like to be dead.”
That statement wasn’t mere hyperbole, either, as Peter really did nearly die in childhood. Aged just 11, he shot himself by accident – an incident from which it took the young boy months to recover. That almost-fatal mishap, moreover, came only a year after Peter and Jane’s mother, Frances Ford Seymour, had ended her own life.
Frances had been in a psychiatric hospital when she died by suicide, although initially her children weren’t told the whole truth. In his 1998 memoir, forebodingly named Don’t Tell Dad, Peter detailed the moment when the news had been broken. “I went to Grandma, and she told me [that] Mother had died of a heart attack in a hospital,” he wrote.
And the aftermath of the tragedy was particularly horrible for Peter, it seems. “After that, no one ever talked about Mom. No one seemed to miss her. It was almost as if she had never lived,” he wrote in Don’t Tell Dad. “Jane and I never went to a funeral or service for her; I didn’t know where she was buried.”
In fact, Peter didn’t actually learn what had happened to his mom until he was 20. On that occasion, he had gotten talking to a diner owner in New York when the man showed him a newspaper cutting announcing his mother’s death. And according to the actor, the report read, “Frances Seymour Fonda, wife of the actor Henry Fonda, committed suicide yesterday at the Craig House.”
Peter dealt with his trauma, however, by concentrating on becoming a star. To that end, then, he started taking small roles in television shows such as The New Breed and The Defenders. He made a jump to movies, too, performing alongside Sandra Dee in 1963 romcom Tammy and the Doctor. And thanks to these screen appearances and others, Peter began to make a name for himself.
Somewhat inevitably, though, Peter had always grown up in the shadow of his famous dad. And while Henry was often away filming movies, his son saw him as a frightening figure. Henry had been “embarrassed” by his offspring being so small and skinny, Peter wrote in his book, and so he had tried to make Peter stronger.
In Don’t Tell Dad, Peter also recalled the punishment he had received for taking candy from his father’s room. “I told him [that] had just found [the candy]. [Dad] bellowed that I was a liar,” Peter wrote. “I jumped off the couch and ran for my life with Dad in hot pursuit… He picked me up by my small, terrified neck and carried me into my bedroom, giving me the spanking of my life.”
Bearing this in mind, it makes sense that Peter grew up to become estranged from his father. As an actor, meanwhile, he appeared to be the archetypal rebel – not least because of his long hair and drug consumption. Movies such as The Wild Angels and Easy Rider similarly marked him out as not being afraid to go against the grain.
And against all odds, Easy Rider had been a massive hit, grossing $60 million on a budget of just $400,000. In 2007 Peter mused on the film’s success to the Los Angeles Times. “Nobody knew how to approach the youth market. I knew it was there,” he said. “No one was making movies for that group.”
Peter also suggested that “the hippies” – a group of which he considered himself to be a part – had helped Easy Rider along. “We had our own art, we had our own poetry, we had our own songs, we had our own clothing [and] our own attitude,” he added to the newspaper. “All this stuff that was ours. It didn’t belong to the older generation… What didn’t we have? We didn’t have our own movie.”
And while Peter did nod to convention by marrying Susan Brewer in 1961, he nevertheless “dove headlong into the era’s sea of drugs and sexual freedom,” as he later admitted in his memoir. In 1966 the star was even arrested during the Sunset Strip curfew riots. And even though his relationship with his father wasn’t good, he nevertheless found an ally in his sister Jane.
Jane released her own memoir, My Life So Far, in 2005, and in its pages she revealed of her brother, “Peter is all deep sweetness – kind and sensitive to his core. He would never intentionally harm anything or anyone. In fact, he once argued with me that vegetables had souls (it was the ’60s).”
Jane went on, “[Peter] has a strange, complex mind that grasps and hangs on to details ranging from the minutiae of his childhood to cosmic matters with a staggering amount in between. Dad couldn’t appreciate and nurture Peter’s sensitivity – couldn’t see him as he was. Instead he tried to shame Peter into his own image of stoic independence.”
Yet Peter and Henry did eventually reconcile. In 1979, you see, Peter offered his father an olive branch with a role in the film Wanda Nevada, and things went from there. In time, the older man even expressed his affection for his son. Speaking of one such moment in his memoir, Peter revealed, “Slowly and choking on the high-powered emotion, [Dad] said, ‘I love you very much, son. I want you to know that.’”
The actor added, “Tears streaming down my own cheeks, I told [Dad that] I loved him very much and kissed him on his lips – something we had never done before.” Naturally, Peter was deeply touched. “I quickly drove off, stopping at a nearby park to have the good hard cry I needed. Years of frustration fell off my heart like melting snow sliding off a roof,” he said in Don’t Tell Dad.
Unfortunately, Henry would pass away just a few years later, in 1982. “He looked at me, pinning me with both of his beautiful blue eyes,” Peter wrote in his memoir. “‘I love you so very much, son. I want you to know that.’ And he closed his eyes and lay his head back on the pillow. These were the last words he spoke before he died.”
Jane had a similar experience when Henry passed. “He didn’t know how to be close,” she said of her father when she appeared on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross in 2005. “I was able, when he was dying, to tell him what I wanted to say, but he couldn’t reciprocate. I felt grateful I was able to do that.”
Despite their troubled childhood, Jane and Peter remained close both before and following their father’s death. While Peter was filming Ulee’s Gold in 1997, for example, he spoke to The Baltimore Sun about how he had modeled his character on Henry. And during the conversation with the newspaper, he added, “Jane’s been very supportive of me and is really excited about this film.”
People noticed how much Peter’s character in Ulee’s Gold resembled Henry, too. “We look at the screen, and there’s Peter, wearing little round glasses and doing a Henry gesture. He looks up, winces a little, smiles a little and looks shy, dignified and quiet,” noted the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s when we realize we’ve been missing Henry Fonda all this time and just didn’t know it.”
What’s more, Ulee’s Gold earned Peter a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars – proof, if any were needed, that he had lived up to his illustrious family name. That would be his last such honor from the Academy, though, as many of the movies that followed were not so critically well-received.
And in Peter’s later years, Jane spoke to People about her brother and their shared childhood. In the 2014 interview, the veteran star claimed that her sibling had spent his early years troubled about the loss of his mother; he was also perturbed by the way in which his father barely acknowledged her death. Jane added that Peter had been “much more affected by the fact that no one talked about our mom” than she had.
The actress explained, “It was like [our mom had] just been erased. [The Christmas after she died], Peter filled a chair with presents and a letter for her. He couldn’t stand that there was no acknowledgment of her. He was such a sensitive, sweet, vulnerable kid.” And upon Peter’s death, she used similarly touching words to describe her brother.
Following the actor’s passing, Jane released a short statement to People. “I am very sad,” she revealed. “[Peter] was my sweet-hearted baby brother, the talker of the family. I have had beautiful alone time with him these last days.” In addition, she said, her sibling “went out laughing” – although she kept the cause of that laughter private.
The wider Fonda family would also release a message via People. This read, “It is with deep sorrow that we share the news that Peter Fonda has passed away. [Peter] passed away peacefully on Friday morning, August 16 at 11:05 a.m. at his home in Los Angeles surrounded by family.”
The statement went on, “In one of the saddest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our hearts. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy. And while we mourn the loss of this sweet and gracious man, we also wish for all to celebrate his indomitable spirit and love of life. In honor of Peter, please raise a glass to freedom.”
Nor were the Fonda family the only ones to speak out about Peter and his life. The late actor’s former Easy Rider co-star Toni Basil told The Hollywood Reporter, for instance, how she thought Peter’s difficult childhood may have helped shape his career.
Basil revealed to the publication, “As much turmoil as [Peter] had in his younger years, it gave him insight into the business that enabled him to have a big picture of the whole Hollywood scene. He was so sweet, so laid-back [and] so drop-dead beautiful. He was this ultimate movie star; he didn’t act like it, but he looked like it.”
The actress added of her one-time colleague, “He had such a gentle nature. You didn’t get this crazy ambitious feel from him, which is maybe part of the reason people didn’t know him for being as extraordinary as he was. He was very generous and very helpful [on the set]. He was very interested in what people were doing. ‘What is your life like? How are you doing?’”
And Jessica Biel, who appeared in Ulee’s Gold with Peter when still young, also wrote a touching message in tribute. “I had the honor [of] working with #PeterFonda on the first movie I ever made (as an angsty teenager with a nose ring),” she said on her Instagram account.
Biel went on, “Ulee’s Gold was a huge opportunity, and [Peter] believed in me. I’m forever grateful for him and the impact he had on me and my career. I’m sure countless others can say the same. Rest in paradise.” An old photograph showing the two stars standing together accompanied Biel’s heartfelt message.
It seemed, in fact, that none of Peter’s former co-stars and friends had a bad word to say about him. Diane Ladd, who appeared with the actor in Wild Angels, spoke out to say, “Peter was a friend, a wonderful actor and a great humanitarian.” She added to People, “He rang a bell for culture. He will indeed be missed.”
Ladd continued, “We recently had the privilege of working in a new film together to be released this year that will not only entertain but lift up humanity: The Last Full Measure,” And she went on, “I remember when we were filming Wild Angels – my very first film. We were practically children back then.”
The Last Full Measure was directed by Todd Robinson and also stars Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Plummer, Ed Harris and William Hurt. The war movie is set to be released on October 25, 2019, and it’ll give fans of Peter a chance to see him on the big screen posthumously.
Meanwhile, Jane is remaining quiet about the death of her brother, with her most recent posts on social media being mostly to do with activism work rather than Peter. Seeing as how her family asked for privacy after Peter’s passing, however, it seems that she’s sticking to that.
Yet Jane’s previous statements about her sibling act as their own testament to his life. Musing on how she had raised her own children, the star told the Liverpool Champion in 2018, “My brother suffered more from being the son of my father than I did.” Luckily, Peter was at least able to amend that before he died.