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Fonda film Hired Hand rides again

Real cowboys eat quiche.

That was the message behind Peter Fonda's 1971 directorial debut, 'The Hired Hand,' a Western that portrayed the humanity underlying the rugged cowboy myth.

Unfortunately, the public wasn't ready for Fonda as a sensitive cowboy; people wanted more of what they'd seen in 'Easy Rider,' the 1969 counterculture classic that starred Fonda as the drugged-out biker Captain America.

'The Hired Hand' closed in a week.

But in 2001, a restored and re-cut film was released at festivals worldwide, where it garnered the praise it missed 30 years earlier.

Portlanders will have a chance to judge 'The Hired Hand' for themselves when Fonda hosts a screening of the movie at the Northwest Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium.

Fonda plays Harry Collings in the film, a man who's abandoned his family to roam the West. Seven years later, tired and disillusioned by the nomad's life, Harry returns home to his wife and daughter, where he doesn't get the welcome he expects.

Newly independent and wary of her husband's reappearance, Hannah Collings (Verna Bloom) allows Harry back Ñ but only as a hired hand who must sleep in the barn with his loyal friend and traveling companion, Arch Harris (Warren Oates).

Soon, Harry and Hannah grow close again, but an old conflict comes back to haunt Harry, forcing him to make a tough choice of loyalties between his wife and best friend.

After a brief nationwide re-

release in theaters, the film will be released on home video and DVD.

Fonda, who at 63 maintains an earnest, boyish enthusiasm, spoke to the Tribune from his ranch in Montana.

Trib: What came first for you, the desire to direct or the script of 'The Hired Hand'?

Fonda: The script came first. I knew I wanted to do it, but I wasn't sure I was ready for it. I mean, I knew I was right to pick Dennis Hopper to direct 'Easy Rider' Ñ he had all the passion, and he had all the knowledge. And even though he's crazy and hell to work with, he delivered what he said he would. He was right on target for that film, and he taught me a lot. It made me believe that I could do it, too.

Trib: The cinematography (by Vilmos Zsigmond, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind') is incredible.

Fonda: Yes, and I didn't know until we were on location (in New Mexico) that this was his first feature film! But just look for the brilliant cameraman that he was; he made the background one of the characters. Whether it was the earth, or the sky, or the trees, or the heat, he made it one of the characters.

Trib: Why did 'The Hired Hand' stumble the first time out of the gate?

Fonda: No one expected this from me; most of the people in the U.S. at that time wanted to see me on a motorcycle smoking pot. They wanted a continuation of that stuff, and I wanted to change it. Captain America became such a huge icon that I couldn't change it if I wanted to. But 'Easy Rider' also gave me the power to do this movie on my own terms.

I also think the studio blew it Ñ if Universal had been on their toes, they would have been up for three Oscars that year with 'The Hired Hand': best cinematography, best editing and certainly for best sound. Not one of the movies that were up in 1972 would have touched this little $1.25 million film. The marketing department didn't know what to do with it, either; it wasn't a typical Western.

Trib: A lot of people thought that you should have won the Oscar for best actor with 'Ulee's Gold' in 1997. Which do you prefer: acting or directing?

Fonda: I like them both, and doing both in the same film is an incredible rush.

Trib: You wrote about your famously strained relationship with your father (Henry Fonda) in your 1998 book, 'Don't Tell Dad.' What did your father think of 'The Hired Hand?'

Fonda: In the fifth letter that he ever wrote to me, he told me that I was a great director. The fact that he liked this movie meant a lot to me.

Contact Jill Spitznass at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .