Peter Fonda’s career has had its ups and downs—it began none too auspiciously with “Tammy and the Doctor” in 1963 but reached an era-defining high with “Easy Rider” in 1969, only to go into decline until his starring turn as the soft-spoken hero of Victor Nunez’s “Ulee’s Gold” earned him an Oscar nomination ten years ago. Since then he’s appeared in some strong films, like Steven Soderbergh’s “The Limey” (1999). But it’s his latest performance, co-starring with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale as a crusty and murderous bounty hunter in James Mangold’s remake of the 1957 Delmar Daves western “3:10 To Yuma,” that he recently visited Dallas to discuss. It’s a quietly authoritative, even frightening turn that’s already been termed iconic.
“That’s something you will not see me doing on film—gesticulating,” the son of Henry, brother of Jane and father of Bridget explained. “Have you heard the phrase ‘a hands-down performance’? Do you know what that means? You don’t have to do this [swinging his arms]. You just stand with your hands down and talk—give your performance. I used to watch my dad onstage, and he was a good hands-down performer. I believe in keeping it down low. You can have more power by being down than being up. You can deliver more snake by being down than being up. You start down so you have somewhere to go.”
Fonda added, “In ‘Ulee’s Gold,’ all the reviewers remarked what a remarkably understated performance. I wonder, where were they when they watched ‘Easy Rider’? What’d I do there? That was understated. They [the industry people] hated me so much for that movie! But they brought me back in the fold with ‘Ulee’s Gold,’ even though I made a ton of money for them in between those two.”
As to his part in “3:10 to Yuma,” Fonda credited his getting it to good, old-fashioned effort. “My agent…knew about the character, and he also knew that Mangold was not interested in me playing the character. But he thought I was right for it. My publicist…who’s also Jim Mangold’s publicist, also heard he was not interested in me playing this character, because he thought I was too laconic—it was ‘Ulee’s Gold,’ I guess. I hadn’t read the script, I just wanted to work with Jim Mangold, and I like westerns. I knew ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ because I saw it when it first came out—I was seventeen. And I went down to meet him, and within fifteen minutes he understood that I had great energy and I could play this man of flinty steel. I’m a stone-cold killer. I’d probably be as happy wasting the Chinese as the Apaches.”
One change in the script before shooting began, however, gave Fonda pause. “I got to Santa Fe, and I was reading some of the re-writes,” he recalled. “And I went in to Jim in his office and I said, ‘You know what? You’ve dropped a real character-defining line here, and I think it should go back in.’ And he said, ‘What would that be?’” And Fonda used the same drawl he gives the character in the film to say, “‘Rode in here, sure as hell can ride out.’ Lots of Duke in it.”
Mention of The Duke led Fonda to comment on the great western star. “John Wayne is a very underrated actor as far as I’m concerned,” he said. You have to understand—[as a boy] I didn’t know who John Wayne was, because I knew him as a guy. There was Randolph Scott, Ward Bond, John Ford, John Wayne and my father all playing pitch [a western card game] at our house. So I got to know all these great western actors, and took that into my own western ethic, and [use it] when I get to play characters in thew west.”
Fonda continued to reminisce about Wayne: “He had great charisma, and he was a beautiful young actor. And think of the character arc that he’s played in his roles. Think of the difference between ‘She Wore and Yellow Ribbon’ and ‘The Searchers’—a mean son-of-a-bitch, absolutely terrifying. And ‘Red River’—conflicted. So when he gets an Academy Award, he says, ‘Is that all I had to do—put a patch on my eye?’”
That took him to the question of why many fewer westerns are being made today than in earlier decades. “It is a loss,” he said, “but it’s not something that can’t be reclaimed. Because you look at ‘Unforgiven,’ and how do you explain its success? ‘Dances With Wolves’—everyone told Kevin Costner you can’t do that, you can’t do that. He was like the little engine—‘Yeah, I will.’ ‘Open Range.’ There are some good westerns. I love ‘Silverado.’ But everyone told Costner he couldn’t make ‘Dances With Wolves’ because cowboy movies, western movies don’t make money. Well, I think ours is going to make money. And then there’s a chance more westerns will be made. But this axiom that ‘westerns don’t make money’ was already there [in 1971], when I came up with ‘The Hired Hand,’ despite all Clint’s films.”
One can only hope that “3:10 to Yuma” will again prove “them” wrong.