Icons / October 2016

Captain America: Peter Fonda

Easy Rider was a cinematic game-changer, its characters symbolic of much more than the pot-smoking, whisky-swilling youths of 1960s America.
Peter Fonda, wearing a stars-and-stripes helmet, and Jack Nicholson, wearing a gold American football helmet, as they ride Fonda's chopper motorcycle in a publicity still issued for the film, 'Easy Rider'. Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images.

“The idea for Easy Rider came to me while I was in Toronto promoting The Trip. I'd taken a couple of aspirins and was lying on the bed looking at a picture of Marlon Brando in his Wild One get-up. And then it came to me: a modern Western set on motorbikes! The next day, I called Dennis.” Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper proceeded to co-write and co-star in one of the most seminal cult-classic movies ever made, Easy Rider (1969). Fans of Fonda may raise a knowing eyebrow at the idea of ‘a couple of aspirins’, considering Fonda’s self-confessed penchant for marijuana and LSD (among others), but it seems fitting either way.

Easy Rider is celebrated as a turning point in groundbreaking American cinema; scripts were partially improvised, locations were authentic, the budget was small and the actors were almost perpetually stoned on camera. Hopper and Fonda wrote, directed and starred in the movie as Billy and Wyatt respectively, Terry Southern wrote the script and Jack Nicholson delivered a character that launched his hugely successful acting career. Immersing themselves in the American counterculture of the early 1970s, the film is dripping with symbolism both subtle and sledgehammer-obvious. In the opening credits, Wyatt takes one look at his watch and – apparently disliking what he sees – removes it from his wrist and flings it in the dust, dismissing the corporate constraints of time and routine. He and his companion then ride their motorbikes off into the distance, to the soundtrack of Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild (what else?) in pursuit of the all-American ideal: freedom.

American paraphernalia was in abundance – Wyatt’s leather jacket featured an armband of red, white and blue, with an unmissable star-spangled banner appliquéd on the back. The jacket was made by ABC Leathers, by “little old lady” Clarice Amberg in California. She was praised as one of the first female owners of a racing jacket company (appropriate considering the progressive nature of the film), and it was she who made some of the first colourful biker jackets in an era where they were mostly black and riders were near impossible to tell apart. Peter spoke fondly of both Ms Amberg and the jacket, and once told journalists; “Dennis and I had our offices in Beverly Hills. Nobody wanted to see us around there. We were wearing our costumes to break them in, so the two of us were walking around looking like a couple of hippies. When we were on the street, people would run away from us!” Fonda kept his jacket for years until it wore out, at which point he removed the flag patch and had it framed (it later sold for just under $90,000.00 at auction).

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Anna Prendergast

Anna is a freelance writer and former staffer at The Rake. She is passionate about travel, well made clothes and homemade chocolate chip cookies.