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Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir

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Everyone knows Peter Fonda as the star of Easy Rider, the quintessential '60s film he cowrote and acted in with Dennis Hopper. But now the public is treated to the real Peter Fonda - the man behind the legend who has never before been revealed. He spares no details about his cold and distant father (who was consumed by his career and many marriages), his mother's suicide (which his family tried to hide), and their effects on him and his sisters. He provides many anecdotes about growing up with Jane, their coming ...
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1998 Hard cover First edition. Illustrated. New in new dust jacket. Brand New. Fast Arrival. Sewn binding. Paper over boards. 576 p. Contains: Illustrations. Audience: ... General/trade. Brand New. Fast Arrival. Read more Show Less

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New York, NY, U.S.A. 1998 Hard Cover First Edition New in New jacket 8vo-over 7?"-9?" tall. 1st Ed. so stated, 1st Printing, number row 10-1, HB/DJ, new, 498 pp. Mylar cover on ... DJ. In a rip-roaring ride from the '60s up to the present day, Peter Fonda boldly recalls his turbulent life, sharing with readers for the first time the true stories behind the legends surrounding himself and his family. He spares no details about his cold and distant father (who was consumed by his career and many marriages) and his mother's suicide (which his family tried to hide). Includes 16 pages of photos. Read more Show Less

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Overview

Everyone knows Peter Fonda as the star of Easy Rider, the quintessential '60s film he cowrote and acted in with Dennis Hopper. But now the public is treated to the real Peter Fonda - the man behind the legend who has never before been revealed. He spares no details about his cold and distant father (who was consumed by his career and many marriages), his mother's suicide (which his family tried to hide), and their effects on him and his sisters. He provides many anecdotes about growing up with Jane, their coming of age exploits, and the many ups and downs of their life with their father. Fonda also includes vivid tales of his own escapades - riding motorcycles with Marlon Brando in Rome, stories about his step-grandfather Oscar Hammerstein, getting acting tips from James Caan, his first on-screen kiss with Sandra Dee, hanging out with Salvador Dali, taking acid with the Beatles, youthful acting experiences with Warren Beatty, and his first introduction to pot. He describes the darker times as well: his friend Bridget Hayward's suicide, his doomed first marriage, his best friend Stormy's suicide, and the nightmare that would haunt him for life. There are never-before-told details about the making of Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson: how "monkee money" financed the project, and how he convinced Bob Dylan to allow them to use his songs in the movie.
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Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
Strikingly frank...
Katharine Whittemore
The little brother with the big mouth, as Time once tagged Peter Fonda, has written an angry, funny memoir. It's no Mommie Dearest, but there is plenty of rotten parenting to blanch at. In a family atmosphere limned as "a dark, silent, booby-trapped thing," 7-year-old Peter is fed daily lunchtime beer because his father thinks he's too skinny. His mother believes the thinness might be from tapeworm; without telling Peter what's to happen, she has doctors hold him down and coil a wire up his anus. He suffers from nightly anal abuse nightmares well into his 40s.

Peter and Jane Fonda's mother, an enigmatic socialite who could trace her lineage back to Lady Jane Seymour, commits suicide when Peter is 10. The boy wanted his father to be shining and fine like Tom Joad or "Wyatt Earp riding into town," but no. Dad's off-screen psyche is stunted, Peter theorizes, by his Christian Scientist background. It "ascribed sickness to some inner failing or sin," and "sickness," it seems, encompasses just about anything deemed unmanly. If Peter acts afraid, in other words, Henry acts disgusted. "We were abandoned and abused," Jane tells Peter.

Fonda certainly doesn't stint on this front, but this is no Albert Goldman/Kitty Kelley fever dream. The star of "Easy Rider" and "Ulee's Gold" writes in a nice, conversational, been-in-therapy style. He also tries to apply a little research -- he visits all the places the family lived, talks to lovers from his past (like '60s model Vera) and he and Jane tape five days of conversations (the book is dedicated to her). Yes, the book rambles; let's just say he is quite a child of the '60s, sprinkling more than his fair share of phrases like "Far Out," "Man-oh-Manischewitz" and such synonyms for "party" as "Heinies and a doob."

The childhood stuff is the most heartfelt and harrowing -- Fonda's prep-school vignettes make Holden Caulfield's teen years seem cushy. The adult stuff is, at times, downright winning; there's a truly touching reconciliation scene with his dad, and it becomes clear that Fonda tries hard to be a good dad to his own kids.

As for the adult-acting-like-a-child stuff (aka the counterculture), well, it's both tart and wearying: We get a nice set piece describing Rip Torn and Dennis Hopper -- Fonda semi-affectionately calls the latter "a little fascist freak" -- going at each other with butter knives on the set of "Easy Rider." Then there's the drugs. And the drugs. Did we mention the drugs? My favorite acid trip moments in this book would have to be when Fonda repeatedly spits cherry tomatoes at Rock Hudson and when he watches the fibers of Jean Paul Belmondo's jacket surrealistically unthread and rethread. Peter Fonda's own life has unraveled and knit back together many times; in Don't Tell Dad he's working with fine material.
Salon April 6, 1998

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786861118
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 4/1/1998
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.37 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.62 (d)

Interviews & Essays

On March 18, 1998, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Peter Fonda to our Authors@aol series to discuss his new memoir, DON'T TELL DAD. Best known for his starring role in "Easy Rider," Fonda won an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe Award in his most recent role, in "Ulee's Gold." Peter Fonda is the son of Henry, brother of Jane, and father of Bridget.



JainBN: Peter, we're really pleased you could join us this evening to talk about your poignant and moving book.

Peter Fonda: I'm very pleased to be here this evening, and it's a very different book!


JainBN: We have many questions from eager audience members. So without further ado...

Peter Fonda: Ask me anything!


Question: What are your thoughts on the emerging prominence of independent films, evinced by the commercial and critical success of "Ulee's Gold," to name just one?

Peter Fonda: I have a very positive outlook for independent filmmakers. My reasonings are: There are more venues opening up, and venues need product to run, and independent filmmakers can offer product by their work and have an outlet to be seen by millions of people.


Question: What kind of a relationship did you share with Dennis Hopper during the making of "Easy Rider"? How has it weathered over the years?

Peter Fonda: Oh, boy.... Read the book!


Question: Your father acted in many roles depicting a dying breed of hardworking, morally upright, duty-driven, stoic Americans. Captain America was part of a new breed of Americans who rejected all that. Was this a rebellion in metaphor against your father?

Peter Fonda: No, not at all, this was not even a rebellion against anybody; it was a reflection of the times in which we were living, and that I felt that most of us, including the generation I'm being identified with most of the time, really didn't understand what was going down wrong.


Question: How did your father react to Jane's trip to Hanoi? What were your feelings at the time, and have they changed?

Peter Fonda: My father was very upset with Jane going to Hanoi, and although I agreed with her totally about the insane war in Vietnam, I would not have chosen that particular way and did not choose that particular way to show my opposition.


Question: Any plans to go to Sturgis this year?

Peter Fonda: You bet, if I'm not working in a movie!


Question: Peter, I am having a flashback of sorts and would like you to comment on the making of "The Trip."

Peter Fonda: Jack Nicholson wrote a brilliant script that unfortunately Roger Corman didn't direct.


Question: Have you taken the hog out to break in the new speed-limitless Montana highway? Tempted, at least?

Peter Fonda: I wouldn't do it on a hog. I've got a very nice 1978 Mercedes Benz 6.9 designed to go 145 mph all day long, and that's how I'll test the speed limit in Montana.


Question: The character of Ulee seemed to have an uncanny resemblance to your father, by your own accounts. Was this deliberate? Did you find yourself more sympathetic to your father's memory after exploring this character's personality?

Peter Fonda: No, no, and no. I think most of the reasons that people are finding the resemblance lies in the fact that in the last film, basically, that my father was seen in, he had a disapproving, downturned mouth, a grizzled face, and wire-rimmed glasses. Other than that, I've been identified as having looked like my father since I walked on the stage on Broadway in 1961. Nothing seems to change. But if the questioner is responding to the style in which I portrayed the character, then it's a compliment to be compared with Henry Fonda.


Question: Did brother-in-law Ted Turner's offer to pay a huge portion of the U.S.' arrears to the United Nations surprise you, or had you ever discussed it with him before? What was your understanding of what prompted his decision?

Peter Fonda: I am not sure what prompted Ted's decision, but in 1990, when we were out fishing, he and I spoke about the fact that with the ending of the cold war, that perhaps we wouldn't have to spend so much money in defense, and we could pay our back dues to the United Nations. There may have been the genus of the idea in that particular conversation, but his exact reasons are unimportant. What counts is his knowledge that the United Nations needs the money, and his method is not to give the money to the organization, but to give the money in the field where it can be spent on the necessary things of the United Nations workers in the field so that they have food, medical supplies, doctors, nurses, the ability to help people in distress, and not pay bureaucratic fees -- bypassing the organization and putting the money directly in the hands of the people in the field.


Question: I want to thank you for your fine work in film and for endowing film with the beautiful and talented Bridget. When did you first realize Bridget was a born actress?

Peter Fonda: I watched her in a play at her high school. It was "Harvey," and she played Nurse Kelley, and when she came onstage, I could feel her presence. This is the first thing necessary on the road to acting. The next thing necessary is talent, and the third thing necessary is the ability to work the talent. She scores high in all those endeavors, and none of it is genetically passed along.


Question: When did you first realize that your dad was famous, and how has the way he handled his celebrity influenced the way you deal with fame?

Peter Fonda: I was not aware that he was famous for many years. As a child, he was my father who would come home and make the gardens grow and the vegetables grow, make all the food we needed, and so my interpretation was that whatever he did when he disappeared made him happy and brought him back to us with new ways of finding new foods to put on the table.


Question: Did you and Jane ever discuss becoming film actors when you were kids? What do you think sparked your desire and Jane's desire to follow in your father's footsteps?

Peter Fonda: I never thought about following in my father's footsteps. I had the desire to sing -- I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be the Everly Brothers, but have both voices come out of my one mouth. Failing to succeed in that area, I discovered that I had a different way of singing, and that was through using my body as an actor. I had no idea that was a job, but after I appeared in "Harvey" in college at 19, playing a 72-year-old Elwood P. Dowd -- a part made famous by my father's dear friend Jimmy Stewart -- and was able to convince an audience that at 19 looking 12 I was 72, I could make them laugh. It was a heady feeling. Then I played the drunken choirmaster in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," and made the people in the audience think I was actually drunk onstage. I decided in fact this was my way of singing, and set out to learn everything there was to learn about acting. When I was 21, on Broadway, in "Blood, Sweat and Stanley Pool," I understood that it was a job that I could be paid for. I was amazed that people would actually pay me to do something that I would have done for free.


Question: Do you feel that your relationship with your father has affected your relationship with your own children? What sort of things do you wish you had discussed with your father? Do you discuss those topics with your children?

Peter Fonda: I tried discussing everything I could think of with my father, but he was not a talkative person. He was very quick to criticize and compliments were few and quite far between. The only difference between my commitments and my father's commitments to a family was to promise that I would be at all my children's graduations, and that I never thought of doing it differently than my father. It was something I understood immediately had be different. Having no constant conversation with my dad, I learned on my own how to be a family, and I was blessed by having wonderful children.


Question: Hello, Peter! Limited space, so I choose a comment: Your integrity/expression as an actor/writer is remarkable. I've just begun your memoir, the first, incidentally, of such a genre for me, and its honesty/humor/pain are compelling. Good luck with the Oscar.

Peter Fonda: Say, thanks! Knock on wood. Light candles. Pray to the film gods. And we'll see what happens next Monday.


Question: Were you responsible for selecting the epochal soundtrack for "Easy Rider"? What inspired the inclusion of "Born to Be Wild"?

Peter Fonda: The soundtrack was a collection of Dennis's and my different records, as we both agreed it would be good to cut to music. We used all these songs and then found out that nothing we could make up for the film could beat the songs that we had cut to. And we used those songs after very clever negotiations, and the soundtrack has been a very successful part of the whole package.


Moderator: [Technical problems momentarily interrupt event.]

JainBN: Peter, thanks for being such a technological sport.

Peter Fonda: God, I hate it when that happens.


JainBN: So do we! Now for our last couple of questions.

Question: Peter, can you tell me who now owns the Captain America bike you used in "Easy Rider"?

Peter Fonda: There are no original Captain America bikes left. We burned one on film, I kept the one with the best engine and the best chrome and welding job, and along with the two Billy bikes and 11 other motorcycles, they were stolen before we finished the picture. But nobody knew about the picture, so they were just part of 14 motorcycles that were stolen by a bike club from a garage in Simi Valley, and as all things are in midnight auto, the frame went one way, the engine went a different way, and whoever ended up with the gas tank probably said, "God, I hate it when that happens!" when the film came out.


Question: "Ulee's Gold" is a very acting-intensive movie -- very subtle and with little to distract the viewer from the actors and the performances they're delivering. Did you find it intimidating to tackle such a delicate role after your hiatus from the spotlight?

Peter Fonda: Well, I actually made 1.3 pictures on average per year over the past 36 years. The acting requirements for "Ulee's Gold" are something to be desired by all actors, and I happened to be the lucky one who got to play the role.


Question: Has Jane read your book?

Peter Fonda: You bet. Her quote is, "I found myself laughing hysterically and then weeping from the bottom of my heart." Pretty good review.


Question: It's been quoted that you're the "She" in "She Said".... What's it like to drop acid with John Lennon?

Peter Fonda: Um...quite different. And I never had said anything about my being a part of "She Said She Said" until John mentioned it in a Rolling Stone article. It all started with me telling George, who was afraid he was dying, that I knew what it was like to be dead. See, when I was a boy, everything was all right, but I shot myself by accident and blew the tip of my liver off, pierced my stomach by a tumbling .22 bullet, which passed by my heart just at the moment when it was in its contraction mode, and slammed through the middle of my left kidney. The proof of timing is everything, and I repeated to George, who was very worried, that everything was okay, and I knew what it was like to be dead. And John said, "Who put all that s--t in your head? You're making me feel like I've never been born." And I saw the lights flash in his eyes, and now we have "When I was a boy, everything was right, everything was right/She said, "I know what it's like to be dead/Who put all of those things in your head/And you're making me feel like I've never been born." John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Paul was the only one that wasn't on acid.


Question: I loved "The Trip"! Bruce Dern is your LSD-taking guru and you're the innocent. Did you have a real-life LSD-taking guru? Does this film have any relevance in today's world?

Peter Fonda: God, I love it when that happens! Bruce did his part beautifully. I had no guru, other than my own desire to find out what was lurking in my mind. And as for relevance: no.


JainBN: This will be our last question for Peter tonight.

Question: In your book, you literally let Jane have the last word. I found this really moving. Why did you make that choice?

Peter Fonda: I like doing things in circles. I like completing circles, and it was Jane who suggested that I call the book DON'T TELL DAD, so those are the first three words you read and the last three words you read, bringing us all full circle. God, I love it when that happens.


JainBN: Well, Peter, thanks for bringing us full circle this evening. Good luck on the 23rd. We'll be rooting for you!

Peter Fonda: Knock on wood. Thanks.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2001

    The Ultimate Memoir!

    What a life he has lead so far! Of course in the beginning he had a little help from dad, but he really came into his own professionally, personally, spiritually, and emotionally, despite all of the obstacles he had to overcome. He always questioned why, whether it be his family, the authorities, or otherwise. Very observant of human nature, he has climbed his OWN mountain of self-improvement and conquered it. Though I am disappointed he had to give up his beloved 'Tatoosh',(you'll see when you read this book) he always followed his dreams wherever they lead him and took all of his friends and his loving family along with him. He is a HUGE reminder that life is short, never give up your dreams for ANYONE OR ANYTHING! For anyone who is sitting on that fence, or just anyone who is looking for an extremely enjoyable read, read this book!

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