A look back at the early TV career of Peter Fonda
Before 'Easy Rider,' he perfected the role of the brooding Boomer.
Son of Henry, father to Bridget and sister of Jane, Peter Fonda was part of Hollywood royalty. But the actor-writer-director stood out for his talent more than his name. He rocketed to fame atop a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in Easy Rider, the generation-defining film in which he starred and co-wrote, as well. That earned him an Oscar nomination. Three decades later, the veteran actor garnered acclaim again at beekeeper in Ulee's Gold. In between, he dabbled in everything from action to horror.
Here, however, we're looking further back, to Fonda's early career before Easy Rider. Like so many stars of his generation, he honed his craft in guest roles on television dramas. Fonda's Sixties TV work paired him with several other legends. He shared the screen with the likes of Martin Sheen, Chuck Connors and Michael Parks.
Let's take a look at early highlights from Fonda's young career.
1. Naked City
Fonda made his screen debut on this noir-ish anthology crime series. He was in good company in the episode "The Night the Saints Lost Their Halos." Sitting alongside him, as seen here, was none other than Martin Sheen, in one of his earliest roles himself. The two play desperate young men who rob a haberdashery after a fire. The break-in leaves Sheen's character shot.
2. The New Breed
As established right off the bat in Naked City, Fonda found a niche portraying restless young men with danger and uncertainty boiling just beneath the surface. In other words, he was a model Boomer. Here, on this overlooked Quinn Martin crime series starring Leslie Nielsen, Fonda played the boyfriend of Patty McCormack, who has trouble selling her parents on her new beau in "Thousands and Thousands of Miles."
3. Wagon Train
Even when he played a man in the Old West, Fonda was essentially playing a "troubled youth" of the Sixties. In "The Orly French Story," his third credit in his debut year, Fonda was the title character, a bank robber who ends up shot and shackled in chains by a religiously zealous marshal. He ends up on the train, where he softens as he falls in love. But all does not go well.
Set at the fictional Channing College, this educational drama captured the moment just before the blossoming of the hippie era. In "An Obelisk for Benny," a party-hearty freshman (Michael Parks) befriends a paraplegic (Fonda). The two, naturally, learn from each other, but perhaps most interesting here is the presence of motorcycles, which perhaps led to the germ of the idea for "Captain America" in Easy Rider?
Image: The Everett Collection
5. The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
Fonda again played the title character, a revenge-seeking Southern boy, in "Return of Verge Likens." In this stand-out episode of Hitchcock, Fonda played the son of a poor peach farmer who seeks to avenge the death of his daddy. Cool and brooding, Fonda mesmerizes in the role.
Image: The Everett Collection
6. 12 O'Clock High
Fonda took a different turn in "The Sound of Distant Thunder," here playing a blithe bomber who fails the see the severity of war. That all changes when the tables turn.