Though 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
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
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”,
for 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
Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.