‘Oh, please, call me Peter,” he says when his caller asks for Mr. Fonda.
“I hear ‘Mr. Fonda,’ I look at the door, figuring he’s come back.”
“He,” of course, would be Henry Fonda, whose specter has always loomed large over the career of his son, who responded infamously by becoming everything his father wasn’t, on the screen at least.
If Henry Fonda, playing Tom Joad and Abraham Lincoln and other solitary, taciturn symbols of honor and decency, was the reluctant conscience of a country, Peter Fonda was the dope-dealing, trip-taking biker Captain America of 1969’s “Easy Rider,” the rebellious repudiation of the very idea this country could have a conscience.
Which is why it comes as such a surprise - and relief - to recognize the ghost of Henry Fonda in his son’s deservedly lauded performance in “Ulee’s Gold.” To play the emotionally withdrawn Florida panhandle beekeeper Ulysses “Ulee” Jackson, Fonda says he called on 36 years of acting experience, 57 years of life experience and the spirit of his father, whom he always loved but never quite understood.
“It’s certainly an homage to him,” says Fonda, who is as loquacious and forthcoming as his father was low-key and reserved. “But you know, a lot of it comes natural.
“I mean when I was a teenager, I would pick up the phone and say, ‘Hello,’ and someone would go: ‘Listen, Hank, here’s the deal I’m trying to make at the studio.’ The voice, the walk, the rest of it - I come by it naturally.”
In fact, says Fonda, he spent a good part of his youth trying to live up to expectations raised by being Henry Fonda’s son.
“I tried to be that; I really did,” says Fonda, who entered the family business in 1961 on Broadway at the age of 21 in a play called “Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole.” “The problem was, I didn’t know who Henry Fonda was. So I went from being Henry’s son to Jane’s brother to Captain America.
“Then, for the past few years, I’ve been Bridget’s father, which I’ve loved, I admit,” he says, referring to his daughter, a popular actress who already has almost as many film credits as her father. “But who knows? Now maybe I’ll go out and someone will yell, ‘Yo, Ulee.’ I’d like that.”
As for now, he says, he’s more than content to accept the congratulations of his peers and the praise of critics, many of whom already have him nominated for an Academy Award. Whether that happens, his portrayal of Ulee, a man who breaks his self-imposed state of isolation to rescue and repair his family, is likely to jump-start a career that most recently saw him playing a parody of himself in the second-rate action sequel “Escape From L.A.”
“I’m truly trying to stay humble and not start beating my chest,” says Fonda. “Fortunately, I’ve got other people doing it for me.”
Fonda has joked that he got the part in the low-budget “Ulee’s Gold” only because Nick Nolte turned it down, but he also had the endorsement of the film’s casting director as well as the film’s presenter and godfather, Jonathan Demme, both of whom urged director Victor Nunez to take the chance. Fonda says that even though he truly believed he was meant to play the role, he fretted that Nunez wouldn’t be able to see beyond Fonda’s long hair and “motormouth” to find the silent, conservative Ulee.
“But I worried for nothing, because Victor sees way beneath surfaces,” Fonda says. “His other films (“A Flash of Green,” “Ruby in Paradise”) were all about characters and the choices and journeys they make, and yet they all have mythic qualities.
“This, though, is probably the most mythic of all. I mean, the character’s name is Ulysses.”
Fonda, of course, came to Florida, where Nunez makes all his movies, carrying his own myths. But he soon convinced his co-stars that, at 57, he had no intention of leading another counterculture revolution.
“In 1994, I realized that I had been riding a bicycle and using 18 gears, only to finally realize that on the other side of the handlebars, there were another 18 gears. I knew it was time to shift into the next phase.
“The part of my father that I called on to play Ulee was the part of him that always wanted to be a character actor, who was the happiest when he was working with 11 other great characters in ‘12 Angry Men.”’ Fonda doesn’t deny that he used his troubled relationship with his father to mine the meaning of “Ulee’s Gold,” but he says he came to it through the characters of Ulee’s granddaughters, whom he envisioned as himself and Jane. (In this case, though, only one is truly rebellious, while the other tries to earn his love by pleasing him.)
But he takes issue with those who have interpreted his performance as psychological acting out, noting that he made his peace with his father years ago.
“I had closure with my father, if you’ll forgive me using the cliche,” says Fonda. “The last words he spoke on his deathbed were, ‘I want you to know, Son, that I love you very much.’ He put his arms around me, too.
“It was almost exactly the way I had written the scene in my head. If he did come back to see this movie, I think he’d actually be able to approve.”
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