Henry Fonda

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Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda in the classic 1957 film 12 Angry Men.
Birth name Henry Jaynes Fonda
Born May 16, 1905
Grand Island, Nebraska
Died August 12, 1982
Notable roles Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln
Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath
Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine
Lt. Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache
Emmanuel Balestrero in The Wrong Man
Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men
Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West
Norman in On Golden Pond

Henry Jaynes Fonda ( May 16, 1905 – August 12, 1982) was a highly acclaimed Academy Award-winning American film actor, best known for his roles as plain-speaking idealists. Fonda's subtle, naturalistic acting style preceded by many years the popularization of method acting.

Fonda made his mark early as a Broadway actor, and made his Hollywood debut in 1935. Fonda's career gained momentum after his Academy Award-nominated performance in 1940's The Grapes of Wrath, an adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel about an Oklahoma family who moved west during the Dust Bowl. Throughout six decades in Hollywood, Fonda cultivated a strong, appealing screen image in such classics as The Ox-Bow Incident, Mister Roberts, and 12 Angry Men. Later, Fonda moved toward both more challenging and lighter roles in such epics as Once Upon a Time in the West and family comedies like Yours, Mine and Ours (with Lucille Ball).

He was the patriarch of a family of famous actors, including daughter Jane Fonda, son Peter Fonda, granddaughter Bridget Fonda, and grandson Troy Garity.

In 1999, the American Film Institute named Fonda among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time, ranking at No. 6.

Life and career

Family history and early life

He was born in Grand Island, Nebraska to William Brace Fonda and Herberta Krueger Jaynes, observant Christian Scientists. The Fonda family had emigrated westward from New York in the 1800s, and can trace its ancestry from Genoa, Italy to The Netherlands in the 1500s, and then to the United States of America in the 1600s (see ). In Henry Fonda's autobiography, he wrote:

"Early records show the family ensconced in northern Italy in the sixteenth century where they fought on the side of the Reformation, fled to Holland, intermarried with Dutch burghers' daughters, picked up the first names of the Low Countries, but retained the Italianate "Fonda". Before Pieter Stuyvesant surrendered Nieuw Amsterdam to the English the Fondas, instead of settling in Manhattan, canoed up the Hudson River to the Indian village of Caughawaga. Within a few generations, the Mohawks and the Iroquois were butchered or fled and the town became known to mapmakers as Fonda, New York" (see ).

As a youth in Nebraska, Fonda was active in the Boy Scouts of America as a youth and was a Scoutmaster, but was not an Eagle Scout as some report.Fonda relayed the story in the Parkinson show (UK) in the mid 1970s that his father had taken him to see the aftermath of a lynching. This so enraged the young Fonda that a keen social awareness of prejudice was present within him for his entire adult life.He then attended the University of Minnesota, majoring in journalism (see ), although he did not graduate.

At age twenty, he started his acting career at the Omaha Community Playhouse when his mother's friend Dodie Brando (mother of Marlon Brando) needed a young man to play the lead in You and I. He went east to perform with the Provincetown Players and Joshua Logan's University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company, where he worked with Margaret Sullavan, his future wife, and began a lifelong friendship with Jimmy Stewart.

Early career

Fonda and Stewart headed for New York City, where the two were roommates and honed their skills on Broadway. Fonda appeared in theatrical productions from 1926 to 1934, and made his first film appearance (1935) as the leading man in 20th Century Fox's screen adaptation of The Farmer Takes a Wife, reprising his role from the Broadway production of the same name. In 1935 Fonda starred in the RKO film "I Dream Too Much" with the famous opera star Lily Pons. Pons was a coloratura soprano who could sing a high "F" note. She was credited with saving the MET during the great depression.

Fonda's film career blossomed as he costarred with Sylvia Sidney and Fred MacMurray in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), the first Technicolor movie filmed outdoors. Fonda also got the nod for the lead role in You Only Live Once (1937), also costarring Sidney, and directed by Fritz Lang. A critical success opposite Bette Davis in the film Jezebel (1938) was followed by the title role in Young Mr. Lincoln and his first collaboration with director John Ford.

Fonda's successes led Ford to recruit him to play "Tom Joad" in the film version of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1940), but a reluctant Darryl Zanuck, who preferred Tyrone Power, insisted on Fonda's signing a seven-year contract with the studio, Twentieth Century-Fox ( ). Fonda agreed, and was ultimately nominated for an Academy Award for his work in the 1940 film, which many consider to be his finest role, but he was "pipped at the post" (edged out) by Stewart, who won the award for his role in The Philadelphia Story.

World War II service

Fonda played opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941), and was acclaimed for his role in The Ox-Bow Incident, but he then enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II, saying, "I don't want to be in a fake war in a studio" ( ).

Previously, he and Stewart had helped raise funds for the defense of Britain from the Nazis ( ). Fonda served for three years, initially as a Quartermaster 3rd Class on the destroyer USS Satterlee; he was later commissioned as a Lieutenant Junior Grade in Air Combat Intelligence in the Central Pacific and won a Presidential Citation and the Bronze Star ( , ).

Post-war career

After the war, Fonda appeared in the film Fort Apache ( 1948), and his contract with Fox expired. Refusing another long-term studio contract, Fonda returned to Broadway, wearing his own officer's cap to originate the title role in Mister Roberts, a comedy about the Navy. He won a 1948 Tony Award for the part, and later reprised his performance in the national tour and the 1955 film version opposite James Cagney, continuing a pattern of bringing his acclaimed stage roles to life on the big screen. On the set of Mister Roberts, Fonda came to blows with John Ford and vowed never to work for him again. He never did.

Career in the 1950s and 1960s

After a six-year break from Hollywood, Fonda returned in the critically acclaimed Mister Roberts, as Lt. Douglas Roberts, a role he had originated in the play. He followed this with Paramount Pictures's production of the Leo Tolstoy epic War and Peace, in which Fonda played Pierre Bezukhov opposite Audrey Hepburn. Fonda worked with Alfred Hitchcock in 1956, playing a man falsely accused of murder in The Wrong Man.

In 1957, Fonda made his first foray into production with 12 Angry Men, based on a script by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet. The intense film about twelve jurors deciding the fate of a young man accused of murder was well-received by critics worldwide. Fonda shared the Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations with co-producer Reginald Rose and won the 1958 BAFTA Award for Best Actor for his performance as the logical "Juror #8". Fonda vowed that he would never ever produce a movie again. After a series of ordinary western movies, Fonda returned to the production seat for the NBC western television series The Deputy (1959-1961), in which he also starred.

The 1960s saw Fonda perform in a number of war and western epics, including 1962's The Longest Day and How the West Was Won, 1965's In Harm's Way and Battle of the Bulge, and the suspense film Fail-Safe ( 1964), about possible nuclear holocaust. He also returned to more light-hearted cinema in Spencer's Mountain ( 1963) with actors Kym Karath and Veronica Cartwright, which was the inspiration for the TV series, The Waltons.

He appeared against type as the villain "Frank" in 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West. After initially turning down the role, he was convinced to accept it by the actor Eli Wallach and director Sergio Leone, who flew from Italy to the United States to persuade him to play the part. Fonda had planned on wearing a pair of brown-colored contact lenses, but Leone had worked important close-up shots of Fonda's blue eyes into the film.

Fonda's relationship with Jimmy Stewart survived their disagreements over politics — Fonda was a liberal Democrat, and Stewart a conservative Republican. After a heated argument, they avoided talking politics with each other. In 1970, Fonda and Stewart costarred in the western The Cheyenne Social Club, a minor film in which the two humorously argued politics. They had first appeared together on film in On Our Merry Way ( 1948), a comedy which also starred William Demarest and Fred MacMurray and featured a grown-up Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer (see ).

Marriages and children

Henry Fonda was married five times. His marriage to Margaret Brooke Sullavan in 1931 soon ended in separation, which was finalized in a 1933 divorce. In 1936, he married Frances Ford Seymour. They had two children, Peter and Jane. In 1950, Seymour committed suicide. Fonda married in 1950 Susan Blanchard, the stepdaughter of Oscar Hammerstein II. Together, they adopted a daughter, Amy (born 1953) ( ), but divorced three years later. In 1957 Fonda married Italian Countess Afdera Franchetti ( ). They remained married until 1961. Soon after, Fonda married Shirlee Mae Adams and remained with her until his death in 1982.

His relationship with his children has been described as "emotionally distant". In Peter Fonda's 1998 autobiography Don't Tell Dad, he described how he was never sure how his father felt about him, and that he did not tell his father he loved him until his father was elderly and he finally heard the words, "I love you, son" ( ). His daughter, Jane, rejected her father's friendships with right-wingers such as Republican actors such as John Wayne, and as a result, their relationship was extremely strained.

Jane Fonda also reported feeling detached from her father, especially during her early acting career. Henry Fonda introduced her to Lee Strasberg, who became her acting teacher, and as she developed as an actress using the techniques of " The Method," she found herself frustrated and unable to understand her father's effortless acting style. In the late 1950s, when she asked him how he prepared before going on stage, he baffled her by answering, "I don’t know, I stand there, I think about my wife, Afdera, I don't know."

Writer Al Aronowitz, while working on a profile of Jane Fonda for The Saturday Evening Post in the 1960s, asked Henry Fonda about Method acting: "I can't articulate about the Method," he told me, "because I never studied it. I don't mean to suggest that I have any feelings one way or the other about it...I don't know what the Method is and I don’t care what the Method is. Everybody's got a method. Everybody can’t articulate about their method, and I can't, if I have a method—and Jane sometimes says that I use the Method, that is, the capital letter Method, without being aware of it. Maybe I do, it doesn’t matter."

Fonda's daughter shared this view: "My father can't articulate the way he works." Jane said. "He just can't do it. He's not even conscious of what he does, and it made him nervous for me to try to articulate what I was trying to do. And I sensed that immediately, so we did very little talking about it...he said, 'Shut up, I don't want to hear about it.’ He didn’t want me to tell him about it, you know. He wanted to make fun of it."

Late career

Despite approaching his seventies, Henry Fonda continued to work in both television and film through the 1970s. In 1970 Fonda appeared in three films, the most successful of these ventures being The Cheyenne Social Club. The other two films were Too Late the Hero, in which Fonda played a secondary role, and There Was a Crooked Man, about Paris Pitman Jr. (played by Kirk Douglas) trying to escape from an Arizona prison.

Fonda made a return to both foreign and television productions, which provided career sustenance through a decade in which many aging screen actors suffered waning careers. He starred in the ABC television series The Smith Family between 1971 and 1972. 1973's TV-movie The Red Pony, an adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, earned Fonda an Emmy nomination. After the unsuccessful Hollywood melodrama, Ash Wednesday, he filmed three Italian productions released in 1973 and 1974. The most successful of these, Il Mio nome è Nessuno (My Name Is Nobody), presented Fonda in a rare comedic performance as an old gunslinger whose plans to retire are dampened by a "fan" of sorts.

Henry Fonda continued stage acting throughout his last years, including several demanding roles in Broadway plays. He returned to Broadway in 1974 for the biographical drama, Clarence Darrow, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. Fonda's health had been deteriorating for years, but his first outward symptoms occurred after a performance of the play in April 1974, when he collapsed from exhaustion. After the appearance of a heart arrhythmia, a pacemaker was installed and Fonda returned to the play in 1975. After the run of a 1978 play, First Monday of October, he took the advice of his doctors and quit plays, though he continued to star in films and television.

In 1976, Fonda appeared in several notable television productions, the first being Collision Course, the story of the volatile relationship between President Harry Truman ( E.G. Marshall) and General MacArthur (Fonda), produced by ABC. After an appearance in the acclaimed Showtime broadcast of Almos' a Man, based on a story by Richard Wright, he starred in the epic NBC miniseries Captains and Kings, based on Taylor Caldwell's novel. Three years later, he appeared in ABC's Roots: The Next Generations, but the miniseries was overshadowed by its predecessor, Roots. Also in 1976, Fonda starred in the World War II blockbuster Midway.

Fonda finished the 1970s in a number of disaster films. The first of these was the 1977 Italian killer octopus thriller Tentacoli (Tentacles) and the mediocre Rollercoaster, in which Fonda appeared with Richard Widmark and a young Helen Hunt. He performed once again with Widmark, Olivia de Havilland, Fred MacMurray, and José Ferrer in the killer bee action film The Swarm. He also acted in the global disaster film Meteor, with Natalie Wood and Martin Landau, and then the Canadian production City on Fire, which also featured Shelley Winters and Ava Gardner.

As Fonda's health continued to suffer and he took longer breaks between filming, critics began to take notice of his extensive body of work. In 1979, the Tony Awards committee gave Fonda a special award for his achievements on Broadway. Lifetime Achievement awards from the Golden Globes and Academy Awards followed in 1980 and 1981, respectively.

Fonda continued to act into the early 1980s, though all but one of the productions he was featured in before his death were for television. These television works included the critically acclaimed live performance of Preston Jones' The Oldest Living Graduate, the Emmy nominated Gideon's Trumpet (co-starring Fay Wray in her last performance), and 1981's Summer Solstice, which teamed Fonda with the legendary Myrna Loy for the first time. This is the last film on which Henry Fonda worked, and work began on it following the release of On Golden Pond, an adaptation of Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond.

The film, directed by Mark Rydell, provided unprecedented collaborations between Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Fonda's daughter, Jane. When premiered in December 1981, the film was well received by critics, and after a limited release on December 4 On Golden Pond developed enough of an audience to be widely released on January 22. With eleven Academy Award nominations, the film earned nearly $120 million at the box office, becoming an unexpected blockbuster. In addition to wins for Hepburn (Best Actress), and Thompson (Screenplay), On Golden Pond brought Fonda his only Oscar for Best Actor (it also earned him a Golden Globe Best Actor award). After Fonda's death, some film critics called this performance "his last and greatest role".

Death and legacy

Fonda died at his Los Angeles home on August 12, 1982, at the age of 77 from heart disease. Fonda's wife Shirlee and daughter Jane were at his side when he died. He also suffered from prostate cancer, but this did not directly cause his death and was only mentioned as a concurrent ailment on his death certificate.

In the years since his death, his career has been held in even higher regard than during his life. He is widely recognized as one of the Hollywood greats of the classic era. On the centenary of his birth, May 16, 2005, Turner Classic Movies honored him with a marathon of his films. Also in May 2005, the United States Post Office released a thirty-seven-cent postage stamp with an artist's drawing of Fonda as part of their "Hollywood legends" series (see ).


From the beginning of Henry Fonda's career in 1935 through his last projects in 1981, Fonda appeared in 106 films, television programs, and shorts. Through the course of his career he appeared in many critically acclaimed films, including such classics as 12 Angry Men and The Ox-Bow Incident. His roles in 1940's The Grapes of Wrath and 1981's On Golden Pond earned him Academy Award nominations (he won for the latter). Fonda made his mark in westerns and war films, and made frequent appearances in both television and foreign productions late in his career.

Broadway stage performances

  • The Game of Love and Death (Nov. 1929–Jan. 1930)
  • I Loved You, Wednesday (Oct.–Dec. 1932)
  • New Faces of 1934 (Revue; Mar.–Jul. 1934)
  • The Farmer Takes a Wife (Oct. 1934–Jan. 1935)
  • Blow Ye Winds (Sep.–Oct. 1937)
  • Mister Roberts (Feb. 1948–Jan. 1951)
  • Point of No Return (Dec. 1951–Nov. 1952)
  • The Caine Mutiny (Jan. 1954–Jan. 1955)
  • Two for the Seesaw (Jan. 1958–Oct. 1959)
  • Silent Night, Lonely Night (Dec. 1959–Mar. 1960)
  • Critic's Choice (Dec. 1960–May 1961)
  • A Gift of Time (Feb.–May 1962)
  • Generation (Oct. 1965–Jun. 1966)
  • Our Town (Nov.–Dec. 1969)
  • Clarence Darrow (Mar.–Apr. 1974; Mar. 1975)
  • First Monday in October (Oct.–Dec. 1978)
  • They Call Me Nobody W/Terence Hill (1973)


Year Award Work
Academy Awards
1982 Best Actor On Golden Pond
1981 Honorary Award Lifetime Achievement
1958 Best Picture 12 Angry Men
1941 Best Actor The Grapes of Wrath
BAFTA Awards
1958 Best Actor 12 Angry Men
1982 Best Actor On Golden Pond
Emmy Awards
1980 Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie Gideon's Trumpet
1973 Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie The Red Pony
Golden Globes
1982 Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama On Golden Pond
1980 Cecil B. DeMille Award Lifetime Achievement
1958 Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama 12 Angry Men
Tony Awards
1979 Special Award Lifetime Achievement
1948 Best Actor Mister Roberts
1975 Best Actor Clarence Darrow
Preceded by:
Robert De Niro
for Raging Bull
Academy Award for Best Actor
for On Golden Pond
Succeeded by:
Ben Kingsley
for Gandhi

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