Peter Fonda Would've Left His Heirs More If He'd Joined The Establishment Like Sister Jane

Counterculture credibility builds a nice life but selling out provides a different kind of freedom for generations to come. Do drop outs really have more fun?

Like a lot of Baby Boom icons, Peter Fonda kept working virtually until he dropped dead. There were a lot of passion projects and a lot of small paychecks.

Arguably the passion projects added up to a lifetime of small paychecks and a retirement home worth a few million dollars.

The widow gets that. The kids need to make their own way. 

It’s not the way Hollywood dynasties are supposed to work, and it’s not the way the Fondas have historically operated.

Breaking the dynastic mold

Henry Fonda, of course, married into a lot of elite families: European nobility, New York socialites, Broadway royalty. 

But Hollywood was scaled very differently back then. At his career peak, he maybe earned the equivalent of $1 million a year.

It buys a big house and opportunities for the kids to exploit or reject.

Both Peter and Jane always had strong politics. The difference is that Jane always made sure the cash came first.

She’s now in her early 80s, single after multiple high-profile marriages and just paid $5 million for her latest Los Angeles townhouse. 

By most accounts, the Academy awards and exercise videos were great but what really set her up was $70 million in Time Warner stock from onetime husband Ted Turner, plus another $40 million when they split up.

It’s hard to argue that isn’t establishment money. What she does with it, of course, is her business. 

In the meantime, while Jane has reached a level of independence where she only works on projects and causes that thrill her, Peter seems to have went the other direction.

He started out a bad boy with all the advantages. After Easy Rider, he could have easily become a counterculture mogul, pumping out motorcycle movies like Roger Corman in a leather jacket.

But the “mogul” part never really happened. He had all the credibility but after Easy Rider none of the commercial choices played out.

As a result, he filled his resume with a lot of stunt roles, video game voiceover work, whatever hit the sweet spot. 

Expenses were low because he stayed far away from Hollywood, locking himself out of the opportunities as well as the hassles.

That’s what dropping out means. You stop reaching for other people’s benchmarks of success and life goes on around you.

For Peter Fonda, that meant living on a ranch in Montana among fellow bohemian personalities. He bought early at what was probably an astounding price.

Simply pricing the acreage, the homestead is easily worth $2.5 million today. It’s not palatial splendor, but that’s enough to keep most people going throughout their lives.

Would he have been able to spread out on Ted Turner style property if he’d played the Hollywood game a little better? Definitely. 

Look at Jane, who amassed about seven times as much space in New Mexico and she wasn’t even trying to build an empire.

Would more money or even more acreage have helped him realize his personal vision more effectively? Dubious. Look at Ted Turner’s causes.

Looking at the next generation

Fonda’s kids are in a similar place. They were born into the Hollywood elite but ended up breaking away. 

Bridget married well and stopped acting. Her husband Danny Elfman is eccentric but plays the game well enough to keep composing $1 million soundtracks. 

Cash on that side of the family is flowing. Maybe it’s enough to leave a few million dollars behind. Until then, it’s a comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle.

Danny Elfman could just as easily be an orthodontist or the lawyer who shares Peter Fonda’s name and whose Beverly Hills house inadvertently shows up in celebrity tour maps. 

The other kids in the blended family seem to be following a similar trajectory. They aren’t household names. I hope they’re happy.

I’m not sure a lot of money would make them a whole lot happier. Peter Fonda played the game well enough to raise them among artists, celebrities and other interesting people.

They might have been “comfortable” instead of rich, but the lifestyle undoubtedly enriched their experience.

When you’re thinking dynastically, beyond a certain minimum level of cash, that enriched experience is the real prize. It’s what builds a family ethos.

Peter Fonda’s kids took different approaches to the Hollywood star system but all ultimately decided to live on the fringes. You don’t need to be a mogul to live a rewarding life.

Jane’s kids are similar. Some are in the family business and some aren’t.

They stand to inherit everything she leaves behind, which is probably enough to pay the bills for at least a few generations to come.

Without the ethos to back up a famous name, family businesses come and go. Not all Schwarzeneggers will be actors or bodybuilders or even politicians. Not all Fondas will make movies.

In a few decades, Peter’s side and Jane’s side may have nothing in common but that name and their background.

That’s just how most families work. It takes sustained attention to continuity to turn them into dynasties.

Of course assets help support that attention. When the kids and grandkids are chasing everyday salaries to help make ends meet, the ethos takes a back seat. Maybe it vanishes entirely over the long run.

Jane Fonda’s ethos took a back seat when she built a commercial fitness empire and married a billionaire. None of the youthful rhetoric supports those choices.

She and her kids now have the luxury of building a multigenerational ethos where values get nurtured across decades. At least that’s the theory.

Peter Fonda’s ethos kept him from a conventional career. If he had wanted to trade on his looks and last name, he literally wasted decades in the underground.

Students of his career will say that he made compromises later on, but the fact that the paychecks came at the end instead of the beginning tells the story.

The world changed during that time. Henry Fonda’s $1 million studio contract is now the potential to earn $30 million per film or more if you get a cut of a billion-dollar blockbuster’s profit.

Bridget got a taste of that world. Jane had already moved on to more rarefied circles.

Peter Fonda, on the other hand, only came down from the ranch when a project came along he couldn’t refuse.

That ranch goes to his widow along with whatever cash he had saved up. It might not be much. 

They’ll need a way to pay taxes on the acreage. Sooner or later, unless Bridget or the other kids make an effort, the ranch gets liquidated.

What’s left? Jane’s bank accounts will pass on. People will keep watching the movies even if the aerobics craze is over.

Fondas will make their own traditions, blaze their own trails. While it isn’t going to be a dynastic epic, the ideas and experiences circulate.

On Golden Pond was never a real family compound to pass on through generations. It was just another gig, like Easy Rider.



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