But, Peter says, he wasn't copying his father's "Golden Pond" performance when he created Ulee. It wasn't traces of Norman Thayer he was putting on the screen. It was Henry Fonda himself.
An unhappy childhood
"I had my own relationship to draw on with my father that the public just didn't know," Peter says.
Even though he was a member of Hollywood royalty, Peter Fonda lived an unhappy childhood, which he details in his autobiography, "Don't Tell Dad," to be published next spring. His mother, Frances Seymour Brokaw, killed herself in a psychiatric hospital when he was 10. A year later, while his father was honeymooning with his third wife, Peter shot himself in the stomach with a pistol. As he grew older, he used hallucinogenic drugs.
Peter and his older sister, Jane, were essentially raised in boarding schools. "Basically, the feeling is that you are abandoned and abused," he says. "The perception of my father is of this great monument of a man. He played Wyatt Earp, Tom Joad, Abe Lincoln, Chief Roberts. He was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff several times, senators, presidents. He was always staying the course of the heartland of America.
"But that person wasn't the same person sitting at the head of our table."
His father was remote, Peter says. "He didn't believe in talking. His idea of having a good conversation would be spending a couple hours with Jimmy Stewart building a balsa and paper glider and every 10 or 15 minutes one would say to the other, 'Part G-24. Yup, that goes into part B-75.'
"These were great men of theater, and all they could do was read instructions to each other. But they were happy as pie not having to discuss things."
Jane and her father grew closer while filming "On Golden Pond" together shortly before his death. Peter, too, reconciled with his father.
Peter himself speaks in torrents and with great warmth. He says he used his father as a reverse role model so that he could forge a close relationship with his own children, the actress Bridget Fonda; Justin, a cameraman; and his stepson, Tom. Fonda and his wife, Rebecca, live on a Montana ranch.
He says he's always been close to his sister, who has won two acting Oscars herself. "Jane's been very supportive of me and is really excited about this film. She calls and says, 'Now this is very important, Peter. Be careful. Be careful with the press, don't say too much, don't talk about this, try to talk about that.' I say, 'Jane, I'm 57 years old.' "
Besides, he doesn't need anyone to tell him how important "Ulee's Gold" might be, that it could lead to movies and roles that have always been beyond his reach. "The reward doesn't have to be a part as big. It doesn't have to be the title role, it just has to be a role with as much depth to it and with a director who knows how to get there."
He doesn't need a big speaking part, either. He's familiar with reticence.
Pub Date: 6/22/97