The making of Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand

A classic interview from the Uncut archives

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Fonda recalls an incident during filming on The Hired Hand that curiously, comically foreshadowed how Easy Rider would come to eclipse the achievement of his directorial debut. The sun had gone down, and he was out directing Oates and Bloom through one of the film’s key scenes, a fragile twilight dialogue when the unspoken attraction between Hannah and Arch is made explicit.

“I was sitting there, and it was the night scene on the porch and, whilst waiting for the set to get ready, I kept hearing this music from somewhere, and I thought, well, when we call for quiet they’ll turn it off. So, quiet was called, we were ready to roll, and they had rehearsed a bit, and I could see they were going to have a good time together as actors, they were going to really work, they knew this was one of their meaty scenes. So I’m sitting there, watching them work – and I still kept hearing this music.


“I called for quiet again…and we’re rolling… and then I hear ….Getcha motah runnin’… Get out on the hiiiigh-way…!!!’

“A drive-in theatre, I dunno, three miles away, was running Easy Rider at full tilt. And I thought, eh, this is far out. I haven’t been paid to do the film I’m doing right now– but I’m getting paid by that film over there.”

Three years after The Hired Hand had been and gone, Fonda appeared in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), a fast-driving, easy-riding rebels on the road movie.


“Yeah. And ALL the reviews said ‘HE’S BACK!!!’ heh-heh. In other words, I’m back being a bad boy, y’know, I’m out there doing weird things and doing them with machinery and wild and y’know, this kinda anti-establishment figure. And audiences went nuts. It’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry…”

Today, he keeps busy teaching – Fonda lectures in Media and Theatre Arts at universities in Montana and San Diego – and acting, operating as a fleeting totemic presence on the independent film scene: his fantastically nutty Van Helsing in Michael Almereyda’s Nadja (1994); his detailed, Oscar-nominated performance as the bee-keeping Vietvet in Victor Nunez’s fine Ulee’s Gold (1997); and his light-footed, self-mocking turn as the ponytailed record producer still coasting the Sixties vibe in Stephen Soderbergh’s The Limey (1999), a sly performance that stands in a similar corrupted relation to Captain America as his father’s cold-eyed sadist in Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) did to Tom Joad in The Grapes Of Wrath (1940).

Fonda mentions a project he’s currently developing (“a very bizarre, wonderful story”), but since The Hired Hand, he has directed only twice, the low-budget environmental sci-fi parable The Idaho Transfer (1975) and Wanda Nevada (1979), an amiable ramble that marked the only time he acted, briefly, with his dad.

By then, through Peter’s persistence, father and son had drawn very much closer. Henry Fonda died in 1982, the same year as Warren Oates. His last words were: “I want you to know, son, I love you very much.”

Of course: Jesse James (1939), The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), Warlock (1959), Once Upon A Time In The West – Fonda, Snr made a few decent Westerns himself. I have to ask: did his son ever show the man from the movie screen his own first attempt at making a cowboy picture?

“Uh, yeah,” Fonda pauses. “Yeah. Finally, I made him come see The Hired Hand. Quite late. Must have been in 1981 or ’82. 1981, probably. I had been amazed that he hadn’t gone to see it at first, y’know, or ever asked me to show it to him.”

He pauses again, savouring the memory.

“But he came out, he said to me: ‘Now, that’s my kind of western.’

Good enough, you’ll agree.

The October 2019 issue of Uncut is on sale from August 15, and available to order online now – with Patti Smith on the cover. Inside, you’ll find Bon Iver, Robbie Robertson, Jeff Buckley, Miles Davis, Brittany Howard, The Hollies, Devendra Banhart, Neil Young and Bob Dylan and more. Our 15-track CD also showcases the best of the month’s new music, including Wilco, Oh Sees, Hiss Golden Messenger and Tinariwen.


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