Easy Rider star Peter Fonda dies at 79
Fonda’s death was confirmed to PEOPLE by his family, who said the actor died after suffering respiratory failure due to lung cancer.
“It is with deep sorrow that we share the news that Peter Fonda has passed away,” the family said in a statement. “[Peter] passed away peacefully on Friday morning, August 16 at 11:05 a.m. at his home in Los Angeles surrounded by family.”
“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,” they continued. “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.”
Fonda was perhaps best known for co-writing and starring in the counterculture classic Easy Rider, which helped launch a revolution in American cinema by showing independent films could attain massive success. Made for less than $400,000, the 1969 road movie followed Fonda and Dennis Hopper as two bikers journeying through the southwest “in search of America.”
With its meandering plot, use of popular music (notably Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild”), exploration of American youth’s discontent, and famous acid-trip sequence, Easy Rider became a cultural phenomenon. It elevated Fonda, Hopper, and Jack Nicholson to stardom, and jump-started the filmmaking period known as the New Hollywood. The film proved that successful movies could be made outside of the established studio system, paving the way for a slew of independent filmmakers. Fonda earned an Oscar nomination for the film’s screenplay alongside co-writers Hopper and Terry Southern, and became an icon of the 1960s counterculture movement.
Born in 1940, Fonda attained early success acting on Broadway before transitioning to television and film. By his own admission, he had a difficult relationship with his father, who died in 1982. His mother, Frances, died by suicide in 1950, when Peter was 10, though he did not learn the circumstances of her death until later.
By the 1960s, he fell in with the so-called “hippie” movement and began starring in Roger Corman B-movies, including the biker film The Wild Angels. He followed up Easy Rider by directing the 1971 Western The Hired Hand, which was a financial flop. His acting roles throughout later decades met with mixed success, though he enjoyed a stint as a successful star of action films in the 1970s.
Fonda later drifted in and out of the public eye, but had a resurgence in 1997 with his role in Ulee’s Gold, playing a beekeeper struggling to help his troubled son. Fonda’s performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He continued to act until the end of his life, appearing in such films as The Limey, Ghost Rider, and 3:10 to Yuma. His final film, the Vietnam War drama The Last Full Measure, is scheduled to be released in October.
Fonda had two children with his first wife, Susan Brewer, including retired actress Bridget Fonda (Singles, Jackie Brown), as well as a son, Justin. He was married two more times and is survived by his wife Margaret.