WASHINGTON -- In his new movie, "Ulee's Gold," actor Peter Fonda had to become Ulysses Jackson, a Florida beekeeper who was in every way Fonda's opposite: remote, taciturn, unforthcoming. Luckily, Fonda was familiar with the type. A man fitting that description sat at the head of the table during Fonda's upbringing. His name was Henry.
"I had been a kid to Ulee Henry," Peter Fonda said in a recent interview. "Reticent, nonverbal, nontactile, nondemonstrative. Knowing how that made me feel as a child gave me the areas to go through to become [Ulee]."
It is not an endorsement of his father's skills as a parent, but if Henry Fonda was the model for Ulee, he has contributed posthumously to the most acclaimed performance in his son's 40-year acting career. The role already has earned Peter Fonda the award for "Beekeeper of the Year" in Florida. "Ulee's Gold" may well bring him similar recognition in his own profession.
How much recognition may depend on the size of the audience that sees the low-budget family drama, which was written and directed by Victor Nunez ("Ruby In Paradise"). Even though "Ulee's Gold" has earned superlatives from critics wherever it has played, Fonda frets it will be lost in the avalanche of summer blockbusters. (It opens Friday in Baltimore at the Charles.) That's why on this particular morning, he rose at 4 a.m. in a New York hotel room to catch a flight to Washington for an appearance on an early-morning talk show.
"I'll do anything to keep this movie from falling into the cracks," he says between yawns several hours later in his suite at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Georgetown. "I love Victor so much and feel so privileged for this gift he's given me. I want as many people to see it as possible. I know it's not this big mainstream stuff. But it's got legs. It could be playing right on into the fall."
Despite his fatigue, Fonda looks remarkably youthful even at age 57 and more than a quarter-century removed from the defining role of his career, that of the dope-smoking, motorcyclist Captain America in "Easy Rider," one of the emblematic movies of the '60s (for which he received an Academy Award nomination as co-screenwriter). Peter is an elongated version of his father, with the same square jaw and slit of a mouth. But it would be hard to imagine Henry in this form-fitting neon orange T-shirt or with this same warm grin on his face.
The grin is the afterglow of what Fonda describes as the most fulfilling job in his professional life, playing Ulee Jackson. Ulee's own smile in the film is faint and rare. When the film starts, he is a man who barely seems able to stand after a succession of heartaches: the massacre of his comrades in Vietnam, the early death of his wife, the sentencing of his son for armed robbery, and the drug addiction and disappearance of his daughter-in-law.
Ulee is the only one left to raise two granddaughters (Captain America as grandfather!), but he has all but disappeared into himself and the solitude of his profession. "Ulee's Gold" is the tale of his resurrection.
"Ulee is so close to burying his dreams, but if he does, that's the whole program, those kids get buried, too," says Fonda. "Once you see those two kids you are hooked into thinking, 'Come on, Ulee, wake up, take care of business.' And slowly, unwillingly, I take care of business. Ulee takes care of business."
Obviously, Fonda feels a proprietary interest in Ulee, but he only got the part after others, including Nick Nolte, turned it down. Fonda perceived the role as his own chance of a lifetime.
"I waited a long time to have a role like this, a multidimensional character," he says. "I've not been given that chance except by myself [as a director]. It's like I'd been riding a bicycle that had 18 gears on this one side, and I sort of looked on the other side and said, 'Whoa! There's 18 gears on that side, too. Let's go for it.' "
Producers didn't offer Fonda complex parts, he believes, because of the straitjacket that was Captain America. "Most people probably thought, 'All he can do is ride a motorcycle,' and that gets really boring after a while," he says. "Except to the accountants." He has appeared in more than 40 films, almost none memorable. A high percentage of them co-starred a Harley-Davidson.
He yearned to play a role requiring subtlety and restraint, which is what he brings to "Ulee's Gold."
It is impossible not to see the ghost of Henry Fonda, an Oscar-winning actor who died in 1982, as his son grimly limps across the screen in "Ulee's Gold."
"I've heard that a lot," he says, "and I think some of it right off the top has to do with the last thing you really saw my father do was Norman Thayer Jr. in 'On Golden Pond.' He was a reticent and unapproachable character, plus he wore those rimless glasses, just like Ulee does."
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