Peter Fonda currently has a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing what is essentially a variation on his father’s screen persona — that of a decent yet reserved loner — in “Ulee’s Gold.” This is only the most obvious irony surrounding the publication of “Don’t Tell Dad,” a strikingly frank, nuanced, often self-serving but revelatory movie-star autobiography. Henry Fonda’s son tells the story of his own life as a series of rebellions large and small against an incomparable elder who gave us indelible portraits of righteousness as Young Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Roberts, and Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
How do you go into the family business when you’re held up to that standard? The hard way, says Fonda fils, and without much guidance. “I was a naive young man,” writes Peter, “lacking advice from my professional family.” Henry — a harsh taskmaster when he was home (“plenty of criticism but no praise”), a vaguely disapproving hovering ghost when away on location shooting a film — pretty much let Peter find his own way in Hollywood.
Fonda comes across as an ambivalent fellow, rejecting show-biz conventions while hustling to make his mark in the industry. It makes sense, therefore, that his breakthrough would be “Easy Rider,” the 1969 movie that both mythologized hippie self-righteousness and exploded it, by blowing the heroes of Captain America (Fonda) and Billy (real-life pal Dennis Hopper, also the film’s director) off their way-cool motorcycles at the climax of the movie. The fascinating, minutely detailed chapter on the making of “Easy Rider” is the high point of “Don’t Tell Dad.”
There are dull stretches in this book (a tip: Skip the many sections dealing with Fonda’s beloved yacht, Tatoosh). Wives and lovers are noted and honored, but not even beloved daughter Bridget (“my perfect Pearl”) is described with any particular insight or understanding. “Don’t Tell Dad” climaxes, as this sort of memoir must, as the son has a breakthrough reconciliation with his father (“I hugged him so hard I could feel the pacemaker in his chest”), but not before Peter has established himself as his own sort of ornery cuss.