Actor Peter Fonda, co-writer and star of the groundbreaking counterculture film Easy Rider, died last week. He was 79.
Here’s my Peter Fonda story and the night I took the worst gambling “bad beat” of my life.
In 1998, Fonda was nominated for a movie called Ulee’s Gold. I never saw this movie, I still have no idea what it’s about, but I kept hearing about Fonda racking up important acting awards:
Golden Globes: “Best Performance by and Actor in a Motion Picture.”
Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics: “Best Actor.”
National Society of Film Critics: “Best Actor.”
New York Film Critics: “Best Actor.”
Society of Texas Film Critics: “Best Actor.”
On and on, Fonda was sweeping every acting award in sight for Ulee's Gold.
Fond of Fonda in Vegas
Around that time, I checked the Las Vegas odds for the upcoming Academy Awards. Internet gambling was starting to hit big, and I happened to have an account with an Irish bookmaking site.
The nominees for Best Actor were: Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting, Jack Nicholson for As Good as it Gets, Dustin Hoffman for Wag the Dog, Robert Duvall for The Apostle, and Peter Fonda for Ulee’s Gold.
I thought for sure that Fonda would be the overwhelming favorite to win the Oscar. After all, he was sweeping all the acting awards in the runup to the Academy Awards. But whoa, Fonda was only the third choice among the Vegas oddsmakers at 8-1.
Easy Rider; easy money
Are you kidding? This is the lock of the millennium. I was going to load up on Peter Fonda to win Best Actor. Easy money. A printing press. A key to Fort Knox.
But first … I’m in the media and I used to sit two desks over from Joe Leydon at the old Houston Post. Joe absolutely lived and breathed movies. These days he teaches film studies at UH and HCC and reviews movies for Variety. I trusted his knowledge of the industry. I called Joe and asked him, “Who’s going to win Best Actor at the Oscars?” Like every other film critic in America, he was all over Peter Fonda’s performance in Ulee’s Gold. I double asked him, “Are you sure?”
That was good enough for me. I’m not a movie guy. I never saw Easy Rider, either. But I knew about Peter Fonda because he inspired a Beatles song. In 1965, Fonda attended an LSD party with members of the Beatles and the Byrds. John Lennon overheard Fonda say, “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Lennon was taken by the line and wrote the song “She Said, She Said” around it for the Beatles album Revolver.
So we have an actor who was a sure thing to win the Oscar, who inspired a Beatles song, and I can get 8-1 odds on him? Where have you been all my life?
I called my friend Oreste San Juan, who, let’s say, dabbles in the manly sport of wagering, and said, “Peter Fonda is 8-1 at the Oscars, he’s winning all the other awards, and Joe Leydon said he’s a lock. Let’s jump on this.”
Oreste and I kicked in $1,000 each and I clicked “send” on a $2,000 bet with my online bookie. We were going to win $8,000 each. As Kramer would say in Seinfeld, this was some sweet action. Bookies were just giving away money. At the time $1,000 was crazy huge money for me, still is. My son was eight months old then. I was blowing all my money on frivolous things like diapers and college funds. I had no business risking $1,000 on anything except onesies.
A winning bet...or is it?
Ever watch Scott Van Pelt when he host ESPN’s SportsCenter on Monday nights? That’s when he does his “Bad Beats” feature … surefire winning bets that go horribly wrong.
I rarely watch the Oscars, but that night you couldn’t have peeled me off the TV screen with a spatula. And the Oscar for lead actor goes to … Jack Nicholson!
Within two seconds my phone rang. “What happened?” yelled Oreste. I told him, “Well, I hope you learned your lesson from this.” What I was thinking was, “Wait till I get my hands on Joe Leydon.”
More than 20 years later, Leydon emailed me this week: “I actually thought about you and your bet when I heard that Peter Fonda passed away.”
It's nice to be remembered.