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By Susan M. Kelly

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1930's Henry Fonda 5x7 Fan PhotoThough he carved out one of the most renowned careers on stage and screen, throughout it all Henry Fonda remained one of Hollywood’s great enigmas.  Refusing to fit into any of the classic “star” molds, he held on to his Midwestern heritage.  He was a simple man with an extraordinary talent for performing.

Henry Jaynes Fonda was born in Grand Island, Nebraska to William and Herberta Fonda, May 16, 1905.  As a boy, young Henry became active in the Boy Scouts and eventually became a Scoutmaster.  He attended the University of Minnesota, majoring in journalism, but he didn’t graduate.  Instead, at age twenty, he began acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse, under the direction of Dorothy Brando, the mother of another film great, Marlon Brando. 

Before long, Fonda had been soundly bitten by the acting bug and he moved east where he performed in summer stock companies including the Provincetown Players and the University Players.  While with the University Players, he met another aspiring actor by the name of James Stewart, with whom he would forge a life-long friendship.

Fonda and Stewart eventually landed in New York, where they shared a room and began to establish a toe-hold on Broadway.  Fonda appeared in a string of productions, including “New Faces of America” and “The Farmer Takes a Wife”, between 1926 and 1934.  In 1935 he made the transition to the silver screen, appearing in 20th Century Fox’s film adaptation of “The Farmer Takes a Wife” with Janet Gaynor.

Once the handsome young actor had made it to Hollywood, there was no looking back.  Over the next few years he would appear in many films, including “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” (1936), “You Only Live Once” (1937) in which he had his first lead role, and “Jezebel” (1938) opposite Bette Davis.  The following year, he would team with legendary director John Ford for the first time as he took on the title role in “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939).

Ford was so enamored with the young actor that he tapped him to play the role of Tom Joad in the film version of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940).  His performance turned out to be one of the classics of film history and earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.  In an ironic twist, he would ultimately lose out to his good friend Jimmy Stewart, who won for his role in “The Philadelphia Story” 

He was undeterred, however, and continued appearing in movies such as “The Lady Eve” (1941) with Barbara Stanwyck.  With the dawning of World War II, Fonda enlisted in the Navy.   He ultimately served for three years, much of them on the USS Satterlee, and won a Presidential Citation and the Bronze Star.

Upon his return from the war, he appeared in “Fort Apache” (1948), after which his contract with Fox expired.  Rather than sign another long term deal, Fonda chose to return to Broadway, where he starred in “Mr. Roberts”, a comedy about the Navy, even wearing his own officer’s cap on stage!  He won a Tony Award for the role, which he would reprise in the road production and eventually in the 1955 film version opposite James Cagney.

After a six year break, Fonda had returned to Hollywood and he quickly followed the success of “Mr. Roberts” with roles in the Tolstoy epic “War and Peace” and the Hitchcock film “The Wrong Man”.  In 1957, Fonda decided to try his hand at producing his own films.  The result was the critically acclaimed jury drama “12 Angry Men”, 1936 Henry Fonda R95 8x10 Linen Premium Photofor which Fonda would share Oscar and Golden Globe nominations with his co-producer Reginald Rose.  He would also win the 1958 BAFTA Award for Best Actor for his performance as the coolly logical Juror #8.

Though the movie received tremendous acclaim, the experience wasn’t what Fonda had hoped for and he gave up producing.  He appeared in a string of war films and westerns throughout the 60’s, including “How The West Was Won” (1962), and “In Harm’s Way” (1965).  In 1968 he was cast against type as a bad guy in “Once Upon A Time in the West”.  He was hesitant to take on the role at first, but eventually warmed to it, with some prodding from director Sergio Leone.

In 1970, Fonda starred opposite his dear friend Jimmy Stewart in the western “The Cheyenne Social Club”.   It was the first time the two had appeared on film together since 1948’s “On Our Merry Way”.  Though he was now entering his 70’s, Fonda showed no sign of slowing down.  While film roles became scarce, he appeared on television.  He also returned to Broadway, for the 1974 production of the biographical drama “Clarence Darrow”, for which he received a Tony nomination.  During production of the play, his health began to show signs of deterioration and he eventually had a pacemaker installed.  In 1978, doctors recommended that he quit the stage and so he returned to TV and films.

He received special awards for lifetime achievement from the Tonys, Golden Globes and Academy Awards.  But Fonda was still acting.  In 1981 he made one of his last and greatest appearances, opposite his daughter Jane, in “On Golden Pond”.  The father and daughter would become the only such team to receive Oscar nominations in the same year.  Henry Fonda would eventually win the Best Actor Oscar, his first, at the tender age of 76, becoming the oldest person ever to win the award.

Though he would pass away quietly at home several months later, Henry Fonda managed to leave one of the richest legacies in Hollywood history.  His talented clan – including Jane, son Peter, granddaughter Bridget and grandson Troy Garity – have continued to keep the Fonda name among the Hollywood elite more than twenty years after his death.  The quiet man had trouble explaining what he did, but to his legions of fans there is no explanation necessary – he was, simply put, a great actor.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey.  Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

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