Fonda, Henry (1905-1982)

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Fonda, Henry (1905-1982)

Although cast in a similar mold to his contemporaries Gary Cooper and James Stewart, Henry Fonda was one of the most distinctive American screen actors. Tall, dark, good-looking, and quietly spoken, he exuded decency, sincerity, and understated authority, and spent much of his 46-year career being offered up as a repository of honesty, a quiet American hero and man of the people. He will forever be remembered as the incarnation of the president in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Steinbeck's Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)—both for John Ford, with whom he did much of his finest work—and the subtly persuasive jury member in Twelve Angry Men (1957), but his roles ranged wide and his successes were numerous. He was an engagingly absent-minded dupe, turning the tables on Barbara Stanwyck in Preston Sturges's sparkling comedy The Lady Eve (1941), the voice of conscience in William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and a memorable Wyatt Earp for Ford in My Darling Clementine (1946). He created the role of Mister Roberts on Broadway and on-screen, and played presidential candidates in two of the best political films of the 1960s, Advise and Consent (1962) and The Best Man (1964).

Fonda was born on May 16, 1905 in Grand Island, Nebraska. After high school, he enrolled for a degree in journalism at the University of Minnesota, but dropped out and became an office boy. Asked to play a role in an amateur production with the Omaha Community Players, he found his calling, went on to work in summer stock, and joined the University Players, a new group of students who aspired to the theater. The guiding light was future director Joshua Logan, and the young company included James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. From there, with his friend Stewart, he made his way toNew York and the Broadway stage in the early 1930s, and married Margaret Sullavan—the first of his five wives—in 1932. The marriage was over in 1934, the year when, having enjoyed a Broadway success in The Farmer Takes a Wife, he signed a contract with film producer Walter Wanger.

Victor Fleming's film version of The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935) marked Henry Fonda's screen debut. He repeated his lead role, cast opposite Janet Gaynor, and progressed steadily to popularity and stardom through the rest of the decade. He played a backwoods pioneer in the first outdoor Technicolor adventure movie, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), the film that established his idealistic resolute persona (cartoonist Al Capp later claimed that he had based L'il Abner on Henry Fonda), and in 1937 was invited to star in the first British Technicolor picture, The Wings of the Morning. In 1938 he played Frank James in the first Technicolor Western, Jesse James, making him Hollywood's first Technicolor star. However, his best work of this early period was in Fritz Lang's social conscience drama, You Only Live Once (1938). Set against the background of the Depression, Fonda played a fundamentally decent young man driven to crime by force of circumstance and on the run with his wife (Sylvia Sidney). Other career highlights of the 1930s were William Wyler's Civil War melodrama Jezebel (1938), in which he costarred as the exasperated but intractable beau of a willful Bette Davis, and the start of his collaboration with John Ford. Young Mr. Lincoln, in which he limned a dreamy, political calm while maintaining a commitment to justice and decency, found him perfectly cast. His frontier pioneer in Drums Along the Mohawk (also 1939) followed, and confirmed (after his Frank James) that Fonda, who detested guns and didn't care much for horses, was nonetheless a sympathetic candidate for the Westerns genre.

He played Frank James again in The Return of Frank James (1940), a memorable but sadly underrated Western from Fritz Lang, but it was indubitably Ford who engraved Fonda's image on the Western. In Ford's hands, Fonda was a kind of Sir Galahad of the Prairie: polite, laconic, slow to anger, but a man of his word who means what he says. They made only one more Western together (Fort Apache, 1948), but Fonda's mature postwar demeanor served Anthony Mann's The Tin Star (1957) and Edward Dmytryk's uneven Warlock (1959). Meanwhile, there was Tom Joad.

Although a major star by 1940, Fonda, dissatisfied with his material, wanted out of his contract with 20th Century-Fox and Walter Wanger. However, he desperately wanted to play Joad, and reluctantly signed a seven-year deal with Fox in order to get it. Ford directed The Grapes of Wrath from his own screenplay adaptation of the novel. It was a powerful depiction of the plight of the Dust Bowl migrants, in which Fonda's Joad, a decent man just out of jail after killing in self-defense, is dismayed to find his family farm a ruin. Undaunted by adversity, he helps his family make it to California against the odds, only to find the poor are oppressed there, too. Following the death of Casey (John Carradine), an inspirational figure, Joad, in a classic speech lifted directly from Steinbeck's novel, vows to fight injustice wherever it may be. Fonda was Oscar-nominated for his performance but lost, ironically, to his close friend James Stewart's comedy performance in The Philadelphia Story.

In 1936, Fonda had married socialite Frances Brokaw. The marriage lasted until 1950 when, following a mental breakdown, she committed suicide. Brokaw, the second Mrs. Fonda, was the mother of future actors Jane and Peter. In the early 1940s, Fonda was able to escape from a couple of years of his contractual obligations to Fox thanks to active service during World War II. His postwar return was My Darling Clementine, and after a handful of films, ending with Fort Apache, he deserted Hollywood for the Broadway stage, and was off the screen for eight years. During this time, his notable successes included The Caine Mutiny Court Martial and Mister Roberts, the play that brought him back to the screen when John Ford insisted he recreate his stage role for Warner Bros.' 1955 film version. (Warner Bros. had wanted William Holden or Marlon Brando to star). Sadly, the filming was marked by dissension between star and director, and Ford's increasing illness, and the picture was completed by Mervyn Le Roy.

In 1956, the actor starred as Pierre, opposite Audrey Hepburn's Natasha in King Vidor's lumbering, multi-million-dollar version of War and Peace. Fonda insisted on wearing spectacles to give the character a suitably distracted, intellectual air but, unfortunately for the film, as Time magazine noted, Fonda gave "the impression of being the only man in the huge cast who had read the book." Also in 1956, Fonda's third wife divorced him, citing his affair with Adera Franchetti, who became his fourth wife in 1957. That year, he starred in one of his biggest successes of the decade, Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man, playing the victim of a case of mistaken identity, fighting to save himself from a wrongful charge of murder. The 1960s began with a fourth divorce, and brought marriage (in 1965) to his fifth and last wife, Shirlee Mae Adams. During this decade, too, his public profile became somewhat eclipsed by those of his children, notably his daughter Jane, who was a prominent political activist as well as an increasingly successful actress. Both children were publicly outspoken in their criticism of their famous father, and his image as the nicest guy in town was somewhat tarnished.

On the professional front, he continued active. He made a number of television specials, including Clarence Darrow, and produced and starred in The Deputy from 1959 to 1961; and alternated between the live theater and films, but the Hollywood glory days were over and the good roles were few and far between. There were exceptions, notably in three overtly political films to which the gravitas of his demeanor was perfectly suited, and in which he was uniformly excellent. He was the candidate running for the office of Secretary of State, but dogged by a dark secret, in Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent (1962); an Adlai Stevenson-like presidential nominee with high ideals in Franklin Schaffner's adaptation of Gore Vidal's Broadway play, The Best Man (1964); and a heroic president staving off a nuclear holocaust by extreme means in Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964). He made cameo appearances in such major, all-star productions as The Longest Day, How The West Was Won (both 1962), Battle of the Bulge and In Harm's Way (both 1965), and, in a late reprise of his Westerns career, but in a reversal of his "good guy" image, starred as a ruthless gunman in Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon a Time in the West (1969).

During the 1970s, with ill health gradually creeping upon him, Henry Fonda's illustrious career gradually wound down, though never quite out. In 1974, he was a presenter at the Tony Awards, was honored by the American Civil Liberties Union, and narrated a history film series for colleges and universities. He also opened on Broadway in the one-man show Clarence Darrow, but the show closed after 29 performances when Fonda collapsed in his dressing room from total exhaustion. He was rushed to the hospital and a pacemaker was implanted, but he later revived the play at the Huntington Hartford Theater in Los Angeles, where it was taped and presented on NBC later the same year. In 1977 he made a splash as a crusty old Supreme Court Judge in Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence's First Monday in October, which played in Los Angeles, on Broadway, and in Chicago.

In between work, Fonda found time to paint (his watercolors hang in several galleries), do needlework, and experiment with haute cuisine. He was honored by the American Film Institute with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1978, and by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and was given an honorary Oscar at the 1981 Academy Awards ceremony "in recognition of his brilliant accomplishments."

Henry Fonda stepped into the Hollywood spotlight once more to costar with Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond (1981). The film went some way to healing the rift with his daughter Jane, who played his daughter in the film, and, at age 76, he became the oldest recipient of the Best Actor Oscar—the first of his long and distinguished career—for his performance as a retired professor grown curmudgeonly with age and the fear of approaching death. He was, alas, too ill to attend the Oscar ceremony in March 1982, and Jane Fonda, herself a nominee that year, collected the statuette on her father's behalf. Henry Fonda, one of the best loved actors of Hollywood's Golden Age, and of the Broadway theater, died in August of that year.

—Dennis Fischer

Further Reading:

Fonda, Henry, with Howard Teichman. Fonda: My Life. Orion, 1981.

Goldstein, Norm, and the Associated Press. Henry Fonda: A Celebration of the Life and Work of One of America's Most Beloved Actors. Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1982.

Parish, James Robert, and Don E. Stanke. The All-Americans. Rainbow Books, 1977.

Thomas, Tony. The Complete Films of Henry Fonda. Citadel Press, 1983.