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THE ULTIMATE LIFE

Peter Fonda and David Mann: The Mentors
"In going back and looking at Peter Fonda's history in the movie industry," says Stovall, "and coming from that dynasty of a family, I think that at this stage in his career, he is probably just interested in parts in films that matter to him, to say what he wants to say. When we did The Ultimate Gift, I know James Garner expressed to me that this film said what he wanted to say.

"I think Peter Fonda wanted to take this role," he continues, "because you get to a certain point in your career and in your life, you want to do things that matter. You want to do things that live on beyond you and create a legacy that's part of what you stood for. And when Peter Fonda came on to play the old rancher, Jacob Early, in this film, he's a character that would have been alive during the old west in Texas and now, late in his life, he's able to pass along those messages to Gus and Red that become the foundation for The Ultimate Gift and now The Ultimate Life."

"It was great to have Peter Fonda be part of the cast," says Eldridge. "His role is that of Jacob Early, a mentor early on in Red's life. Jacob is a rancher that has had some degree of success and he hires a bunch of day laborers for a week to build a fence. And that's where Gus and Red meet each other but Red, obviously on his journey and looking for something bigger, something better, approaches Early and asks him how to be rich like he is. So he learns from Jacob that there are some lessons of life and leadership and how to become a leader, a bellwether as he calls it.

"And Peter was the perfect guy for that," explains Eldridge. "He had a great presence on screen. He's the ultimate cowboy to be the rancher that Red could look up to and be mentored by him, so we were very excited to have him come and be part of this. I had some time with Peter and he knew the story. He embraced the story and he loved being a part of it. He expressed to me that it was great to be part of a story that could make a difference as a good, wholesome, family movie."

Fonda says, "I play the character who facilitates the upward movement of the main character. I'm the person who facilitates the young Red's desire to be a success," he says. "He read an article about Andrew Carnegie and he wanted that same kind of thing. He wanted the rags to riches, but he's an impatient young man who knows that he can't be impatient, and he teaches himself this lesson over and over again."

Very careful about the roles that he chooses, Fonda found that it was more the whole story rather than just the character of Jacob Early that fascinated him. "I could really identify with young Red," he explains. "I saw in the story that I would be able to play this particular person in the movement of this character's life. It was good. It was something that was given to him from somebody he sees as a success.

"Early finds Red because he needs some hands to put up a cattle fence," says Fonda. "He gets them off of a street corner, and though he wasn't sure that the young fella could do the job, he liked the kid's gumption. And I think that Austin, who plays Red, is a really honest and hardworking actor. He knows what he's doing. It may seem that he's quite young, but he is quite mature in what he knows in terms of how to act. He doesn't have an acting coach sitting outside. He's up with the rest of us in having to do his stuff in his own way. And I can see how he's prepared because when I work with him, I watch him and he doesn't mind telling me how he got to this particular position, or he came to this idea or how he thought this should be. I like to hear the way he went after his character. He gives me more of an idea of who he is and how to play with him as Jacob and he playing Red, and the more you know about somebody, the better you can relate to them."

Fonda had never worked with Michael Landon, Jr., but expressed his admiration for him. "He's a wonderful young man," he says. "He's very generous and very specific and he just doesn't let you cut loose. He knows that he has a certain place that he has to move all these characters that he's shooting. It's very difficult what he's up to.

"Michael has to simultaneously shoot several different Reds at several different times of their life, which I find challenging but I think that Michael really has a grasp on it. Eighty percent of what a director does is casting and so far from what I've seen, he casts very well."

The most challenging part of Fonda's role came from the weather. "The most challenging part of my role is to try not to look like I'm freezing," he says with a laugh. "That is one of the problems in shooting in North Carolina for Texas. So my challenge has been to maintain a quality of character and at the same time not lose my own instincts and find humor in any given moment.

"I'm also faced with a challenge when this young man, who I've picked out of a group of guys and I learn quickly that he's never laid a post in his life. He can carry three pounds of ice up three stories and he tries to prove that by picking up or trying to pick up this heavy man next to him and he can't do it. There was humor in that. I was allowed to go with it and laugh with it and be funny about it and I enjoyed the conspiracy that I had with Austin. He has the ability to get into conspiracies easily and I like that, so we've got our own conspiracy about how to deal with the truck, the camera, the place, the lights, and being in the cold and on top of the cold, really cold."

In choosing his roles, Fonda looks for characters "that I can believe or that I want to believe. I really want enough to invest in that character and a character who has something to give to the sensibility of the movie. Doesn't have to be big. It can be the full run of the show part. It can be like this, a cameo which is very nice and is a very sweet film."

David Mann, who plays Hobo Joe, is Red's first encounter when he leaves home and the first to start to teach him about gratitude. "David was recommended to me," says Eldridge, "and when I began to look at his credits I said 'Yes, I know this guy.' He had been in many of Tyler Perry's movies and Meet the Browns, a very successful series that had been on for years. I talked to David and expressed to him what we needed, and he got it right away. He said 'I can do this.' What we needed was someone who would be a believable character to deliver that very first, and important, message of gratitude."

The story intrigued Mann and he signed on. "When I read 'Listen, you gotta set some goals. You gotta have some things that you're for,' and when I read that," he says, "it was like 'Wow!' because the whole story is kinda my story in show biz, if I really look at it."

Mann chooses his roles very carefully. "What I look for in a role," he says, "is something that my whole family can go to because I like when people come to see me in a show, whether it be a stage play or my standup show, I want people from 1 to 99 to be able to enjoy it and the whole family sit down and not have to cover their kids' ears. I like family movies. Something that everybody can relate to, something that gives a good positive story. And for me, that's this movie. Gives a good positive story. You don't have to worry about anything being harsh or bad."

"Hobo Joe lived from day to day, minute to minute, hour to hour," explains Mann. "He's kinda one of those guys who has good wisdom but he's deceiving because he has to have some good will. He's always writing down things that he's grateful for, so we know that he has a little bit of wisdom. That's how he winds up getting to Red. He's like, 'Listen, be grateful for little things, otherwise you won't be grateful for anything.' I think Hobo Joe had a little wisdom in him," he says.

Red meets Hobo Joe on a train. "He teaches Red how to jump trains and get from city to city using the transit system," laughs Mann. "It's through the trains that he and Red have a brief encounter, but it's life-changing for the teen."

"Red doesn't know the ropes of hoboing," explains Mann. "He's not a true hobo, so you can see the kid is scared to death and so Hobo Joe takes him under his wing and says 'Listen, you're gonna get beat to death by the bull if you're caught. Listen, follow me. Do as I do. Say as I say and you'll live a long life.'"

Jumping trains wasn't all that Hobo Joe teaches Red. "My golden list was something that my character's mom taught him years ago," he explains, "so every day, rain or shine, it doesn't matter, Joe is going to write what he's grateful for that day. At least 10 things he's grateful for and so he shows Red, 'Listen, you have to make your list every day.' He writes his list in the air. That's Joe's pen and pencil -- it's just in the air."

"I also gave Austin James some advice," says Mann, "because I can see this kid is going to be somebody. You can tell. He just has that gift. So I just told him, 'Watch your circle. Watch the people around you and don't get caught up in this game.'"

It was Mann's first time working with director Michael Landon, Jr. "When you're just getting on the set and just meeting somebody, you don't know what they think, but the atmosphere is good. He's a really pleasant guy. And then you hear the things that people say outside of what's going on, 'Really nice guy.' You can hear the staff and the crew, 'Man's really nice.' And by just hanging out with him the couple hours that I have today, really nice."

Besides the bitter cold of the North Carolina day, Mann found that running for the train and just keeping up were his biggest challenges. "Austin almost ran me to death," he says, "I'm supposed to be running in front of him and I looked up and he's passing me and I'm like 'Wait a minute. I'm 46 and you're 19. Slow down, please.' So the challenge today has been the cold, the rain, the running."

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