Fonda still a ‘survivor,’ tackles ‘3:10 to Yuma’

Ed Symkus

Depending on your age or your taste in movies, a mention of the name Peter Fonda will conjure up either beehives or motorcycles. Both references are tied to Oscar nominations for the veteran actor/writer/director.

His performance as a crusty old beekeeper in “Ulee’s Gold” earned him an acting nod, and back in his wilder days, he shared a writing nomination with Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern for “Easy Rider.”

Though he’s currently on a publicity tour to push his newest film, a remake of the 50-year-old Western “3:10 to Yuma,” Fonda can’t help but bring up the Hopper-directed “Easy Rider,” the film that put both men on the Hollywood independent circuit map.

“Just after I finished making ‘Easy Rider,’ Paul Newman said to me, ‘You know what you are, Fonda? You’re a survivor,’” he recalls. “I thought, well, what does that mean? Then shortly thereafter, Jack Nicholson said, ‘You know what you are, Fonda? You’re a patrician.’ So I thought to myself, ‘OK, I’m a surviving patrician; I’m gonna figure this one out.’

But before he could, his father, Henry Fonda, chimed in with some comments on “Easy Rider.”

“My father used to say, ‘You’re a fool!’ You can’t make that movie. Nobody’s gonna go see it, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t tell anything. We don’t know where you’re going.’ ”

After near-perfect imitations of Newman, Nicholson and his father, Fonda reverts to his own gruff voice, laughs, and says, softly, “Well, take the trip with us, Dad.”

Then he addresses the new film. Directed by James Mangold (“Walk the Line”), it’s an often reverential remake of the Glenn Ford-Van Heflin original about a violent outlaw who is captured and is then supposed to be brought to justice after being put on the train of the title.

The two leads are now played by villain Russell Crowe and would-be hero Christian Bale. Fonda’s character, a ragged and rugged bounty hunter named Byron McElroy, wasn’t even in the original film. And there was a chance he wasn’t going to play the part here.

“Jim Mangold didn’t think I was right for the part because the way I play things is a little laconic,” Fonda says. “He didn’t know if I had enough energy for the role. So I met him and showed him I had a lot of energy.”

He wasn’t kidding. His McElroy is a gutsy, ferocious character who never backs down from anyone in the film, even when the odds — he’s shot in the stomach at close range early on — are stacked against him.

Fonda is also a big fan of Westerns.

“The first film I did as a director — ‘The Hired Hand’ — was a Western,” he says proudly. “I was interested in that because it was truly a character-driven picture, and it was the first Western where the woman was a central figure. We were all spokes and rim around her. Everything moved around Verna Bloom’s incredibly cool performance. It was a different kind of Western.”

Fonda admits that directing a film is a lot of work. But acting in one is another story.

“In ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ each time someone said action, we all forgot about the cold,” he says of the freezing weather conditions. “That was the fun part. But as soon as we heard cut, it was like, ‘Man, it is cold!’ I can’t move my hands, how can I shoot a gun?' So that part wasn’t fun. But working together as a group, that’s fun.”

He adds, somewhat incredulously, “This is what we get paid to do.”

But Fonda also understands the responsibility he carries as an actor.

“This is my 70th motion picture,” he says. “A director might say, ‘I’ll cut him loose, he knows what to do.’ But I want to be directed. I work on a character, but what I’ve prepared the night before may not be the temperature or the atmosphere of the set. So I have to have my tools with me to realize, ‘Hmmm, I’ve prepared this one way, but I have to be able to reach into that box of tools, as it were, and come with that way to deliver this character to be in tune with everybody. Because we all have to dance for the lens.”

Asked what he’s most proud of among his screen roles, what he might recommend to someone who’s never seen one of his films before, he thinks for only a few moments, then says, “Look at ‘The Limey.’ Check out ‘Wanda Nevada.’ That’s a Western, but it’s also a fairy tale. And ‘Ulee’s Gold” or Dirty Mary Crazy Larry” or ‘Lilith’ or this biker in ‘Easy Rider.’ ”

He stops, laughs and adds, “I would not advise going to watch ‘Tammy and the Doctor.’”

“3:10 to Yuma” opens Sept. 7.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@cnc.com.