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 Memoir (Hyperion, $25.95), 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, Mister 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. Describing his father’s role in John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) as ”an unsmiling, bitter, strict hard-ass,” he adds, ”When people ask me what it was like growing up as Henry Fonda’s son, I ask them if they have seen Fort Apache.”
Sure, as a young man Peter had gangly good looks, all the right connections, and plenty of dough. But his mother died when he was 10, and he didn’t find out that she had committed suicide until a decade later. In Jane Fonda he had an older sister to whom success seemed to come easier and more quickly. Peter also grew up in tumultuous times; a baby-boomer counterculturalist, he says that he received his first stash of marijuana from — how’s this for poetic Hollywood justice — Robert Mitchum’s son Jim. (When it came to drugs, Peter never lacked for mentors: He mentions acid trips with luminaries as bright as the Beatles and David Crosby.)
Fonda comes across as an ambivalent fellow, rejecting showbiz conventions while hustling to make his mark in the industry. It makes sense, therefore, that his breakthrough would be Easy Rider, the 1969 film that both mythologized hippie self-righteousness and exploded it, by blowing the movie’s heroes, Captain America (Fonda) and Billy (then 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, and the frequently drug-fueled behavior of all the principals, including costar Jack Nicholson, is one of the chief justifications for the book’s title.
There are dull stretches in this book (a tip: Skip the many sections dealing with Fonda’s beloved yacht, Tatoosh). And it’s bothersome that Fonda never addresses the aimlessness either of his movie career or of his personal life: 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. An oft-stoned one, perhaps, with a talent and body of work not even close to that of his dad’s, but possessed with an appetite for hard work and a cockeyed idealism that Henry would probably have been glad to have been told about. B+