Fonda, Henry Jaynes

views updated

FONDA, Henry Jaynes

(b. 16 May 1905 in Grand Island, Nebraska; d. 12 August 1982 in Los Angeles, California), distinguished American actor of stage and screen who riveted film audiences with his roles in three political dramas, Advise and Consent, The Best Man, and Fail-Safe, during the 1960s.

Fonda was the eldest of three children of William Brace Fonda, a printer, and Herberta Jaynes. While he was still an infant, the family moved to Omaha, where Fonda's father opened a print shop. As a boy, Fonda enjoyed writing, and he won a short story contest when he was only ten. He began working in his father's print shop after school when he was twelve. After graduating from high school in 1923, Fonda enrolled in a journalism course at the University of Minnesota but dropped out after about two years. Returning to Omaha, he became involved in community theater, winning the role of Ricky, the juvenile lead, in a production of Philip Barry's You and I. Fonda was bitten by the acting bug. After three years of involvement in Omaha community theater, the tall, lanky Fonda headed for New York City to look for work in the theater.

Unable to land an acting job in New York, Fonda hired on as assistant stage manager with the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts. After playing one lead with the summer stock company, he joined the University Players in nearby Falmouth. Among his fellow players were such stars-to-be as Joshua Logan, Margaret Sullivan (whom Fonda married in 1931 and divorced in 1933), and James Stewart, with whom Fonda formed a close friendship. When the summer ended, Fonda headed back to New York, determined to find an acting job on the Broadway stage. His efforts were rewarded with a walk-on role in The Game of Love and Death (1929), his Broadway debut. A few years later, Fonda flew to the West Coast for an interview with Hollywood producer Walter Wanger, who signed him to a film contract paying $1,000 a week.

Because no film work was immediately available, Fonda returned to New York, where he landed the lead role in The Farmer Takes a Wife, which opened in the fall of 1934. Then, back in Hollywood, Fonda was signed to recreate his stage role in the film adaptation of the play. An instant hit with moviegoers, Fonda soon found his services in high demand. He married Frances Seymour Brokaw in 1936, a union that produced two children, Jane and Peter, both of whom attained movie stardom during the 1960s. Fonda and Brokaw divorced in April 1950.

Fonda's work was interrupted when he volunteered in 1942 to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was discharged in 1945, having attained the rank of lieutenant and earned a Bronze Star. In 1948 Fonda began a long run on Broadway in the title role of Mr. Roberts, which he recreated on film in 1955. Fonda worked extensively in the theater during the 1950s and also managed to make a number of important films. In December 1950 Fonda married his third wife, Susan Blanchard, and adopted her daughter from a previous relationship. Fonda and Blanchard divorced in 1956. The following year Fonda married again, this time to Afdera Franchetti. This fourth marriage ended in divorce in 1961. In 1965 he married for the fifth and final time. His new wife was Shirlee Adams, a flight attendant and model.

Although Fonda made a number of motion pictures during the 1960s, he is perhaps best remembered for his roles in three political films during this tumultuous and intensely political decade. In the first of these films, Advise and Consent (1962), he played Robert Leffingwell, nominated by the U.S. president to be the country's next secretary of state. Leffingwell, however, harbors a secret that, if revealed, will almost certainly doom his quest for the position. Years earlier, Leffingwell had been briefly involved with a communist cell in Chicago. The film, based on the best-selling novel by Allen Drury, examines the process whereby the U.S. Senate investigates and ultimately approves or rejects presidential nominations.

Standing in the way of Leffingwell's confirmation as secretary of state is Senator Seabright Cooley (played by Charles Laughton), who holds a grudge against the candidate for an earlier incident and is armed with the knowledge of Leffingwell's past communist affiliation. Afraid that his past will be revealed and cause embarrassment to the president who nominated him, Leffingwell offers to withdraw his name from consideration. However, the president, convinced Leffingwell is the best man for the job, assures his nominee that together they can keep the wraps on Leffingwell's questionable past. What follows is a study in political intrigue and behind-the-scenes horse trading that ultimately ends inconclusively, with the incumbent president dying in office and the nomination of Leffingwell left in limbo. After a tie vote in the Senate leaves the final decision to the vice president, who has suddenly been thrust into the presidency, he announces he will name a secretary of state of his own choosing.

The film was neither a critical nor a popular success in the United States, although Fonda received critical praise for his performance. The movie was warmly received abroad, particularly in France. Foreign audiences flocked to see a film critical of the political system in the United States.

The second of Fonda's politically themed films of the 1960s was The Best Man (1964), based on a play by Gore Vidal, who also wrote the screenplay. In this film Fonda played William Russell, a liberal pitted against right-wing populist Joe Cantwell (played by Cliff Robertson) in a pitched battle for the presidential nomination of their party. The film's action is set at a presidential convention in California. Both candidates have skeletons in their closets: Russell has suffered a nervous breakdown and is separated from his wife, who agrees to return for the duration of the campaign, and Cantwell is accused of a homosexual liaison while serving in the military. Russell and Cantwell each desperately need the endorsement of former president Art Hockstader (played by Lee Tracy). The film recounts each man's huddles with Hockstader and their struggles of conscience over whether or not to release to the press the dirt about their opponents.

Fonda's character William Russell, apparently modeled by Vidal on failed Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, appears intellectual and indecisive. Joe Cantwell bears an uncanny resemblance to Richard M. Nixon. Ultimately Russell turns thumbs down on the proposal that he employ political blackmail to win the presidency. Critics praised Fonda's portrayal of Russell, as well as the performances of most of the film's stars. Magill's Survey of Cinema observed, "Fonda gives a performance full of regret and irony, a finely shaded portrayal of a detached yet sensitive human being which implies an intricate blend of rectitude and corruption."

Also released in 1964 was Fail-Safe, a film adaptation of the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. The film, a cautionary tale about the perils of nuclear confrontation, was released the same year as Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick's black comedy about nuclear warfare. Although some critics regarded the deadly serious Fail-Safe as a superior film in many respects, it was clearly overshadowed by the brilliantly satirical Kubrick film, which some have hailed as the director's finest work. Both deal with the deadly potential of cold war confrontation, but from very different points of view. In Fail-Safe, Fonda played a U.S. president faced with the ultimate cold war nightmare: the inability to abort a U.S. nuclear attack against the Soviet Union that had been launched in error because of a critical technical failure. The story recounts the deliberations and finally the steps taken by the president and his civilian and military advisers to head off a nuclear holocaust that would destroy the world. The president's solution to the crisis was to drop a nuclear bomb on New York City to demonstrate U.S. sincerity to the Soviets.

Another of Fonda's notable performances of the 1960s was in a film worlds apart from these political thrillers. In Yours, Mine and Ours (1968), Fonda, playing a widower, and Lucille Ball, playing a widow, meet, find love, and marry, thus forming a family with eighteen children. The endearing family comedy was a solid box-office success. Another success for Fonda was his role as a hired killer in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

Many of Fonda's other films of the 1960s were less successful artistically. In many he had little more than a cameo role; in others the characters he played were poorly drawn and largely undistinguished. Such films include How the West Was Won and The Longest Day (both 1962); Spencer's Mountain (1963); Sex and the Single Girl (1964); The Rounders, In Harm's Way, and Battle of the Bulge (all 1965); A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), Welcome to Hard Times (1967), and Madigan (1968). Fonda frankly admitted that he took most of these assignments for the money and for the opportunity to keep busy.

Fonda's adult children Jane and Peter generated a good deal of controversy during the 1960s, straining their relationship with their father. Jane received bad press for her outspoken stand against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and Peter documented his fascination with renegade bikers and the drug culture in Easy Rider, a film he produced, cowrote, and starred in. As the Fonda children's rebelliousness moderated in the 1970s, relations within the family slowly returned to some semblance of normalcy, although Fonda was frank to admit his shortcomings as a parent. "I don't think I've been a particularly good father," Fonda said, "but I've been lucky."

Fonda continued to work steadily throughout most of the 1970s, but few of his films from the decade are memorable. The exceptions include The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), in which Fonda was reunited with his old friend Jimmy Stewart; together they recaptured some of their former magic. Fonda also turned in an impressive performance in the television film The Red Pony (1973).

Fonda's final film, On Golden Pond (1981), in which he costarred with daughter Jane and with Katharine Hepburn, won for him the Academy Award for best actor that had eluded him. Perhaps more importantly, the film, produced by his daughter, showcased Fonda's brilliance as an actor. He later said of his experience in making the film: "I'm not a religious man, but I thank God every morning that I lived long enough to play that role." Fonda was too ill to attend the Oscar ceremony in March 1982, so Jane accepted his award on his behalf. Less than five months later Fonda died of chronic heart disease. He was cremated and his ashes scattered.

One of the most distinguished American actors of the twentieth century, Fonda will forever be remembered for his classic roles. During an acting career of almost half a century, Fonda appeared in more than 110 films, from historical drama and romance to war epics and slapstick comedy. Through them all, good and bad, Fonda's contribution was, above all, believable. It has been suggested that Fonda's many portrayals of a president or presidential contender had so endeared him to the American public that he probably could have been elected to national office handily.

However, one of Fonda's most striking qualities was his self-effacing nature. Perhaps his own words say it best: "I hope you won't be disappointed. You see I am not a very interesting person. I haven't ever done anything except be other people. I ain't really Henry Fonda! Nobody could be. Nobody could have that much integrity."

Fonda's autobiography, Fonda: My Life (1981), written with Howard Teichman, offers perhaps the most comprehensive and accurate review of the actor's life and career—"warts and all," according to Fonda. Interested readers also will find valuable insights in John Shipman, The Fondas: The Films and Careers of Henry, Jane, and Peter Fonda (1970); Michael Kerbel, Henry Fonda (1975); Norm Goldstein, Henry Fonda (1982); Allen Roberts and Max Goldstein, Henry Fonda: A Biography (1984); Gerald Cole and Wes Farrell, The Fondas (1987); and Tony Thomas, The Complete Films of Henry Fonda (1990). Obituaries are in the New York Times (13 Aug. 1982), and Time and Newsweek (both 23 Aug. 1982).

Don Amerman