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 as Tom Joad in 1940s 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, darker epics as Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (portraying a villain who kills, among others, a child) and lighter roles in family comedies like Yours, Mine and Ours with Lucille Ball.
Fonda was the patriarch of a family of famous actors, including daughter Jane Fonda, son Peter Fonda, granddaughter Bridget Fonda, and grandson Troy Garity; his family and close friends called him "Hank". In 1999, he was named the sixth Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute.
Fonda was brought up as a Christian Scientist and claimed that "my whole damn family was nice". They were a close family and highly supportive, especially in health matters as they avoided doctors due to their religion.Fonda was a bashful, short boy who tended to avoid girls, except his sisters, and was a good skater, swimmer, and runner. He worked part-time in his father's print plant and imagined a possible career as a journalist. Later, he worked after school for the phone company. He also enjoyed drawing. Fonda was active in the Boy Scouts of America and was a Scoutmaster, but was not an Eagle Scout as some report. When he was about fourteen, his father took him to observe a lynching, from the window of his father's plant, of a young Black man accused of rape. This so enraged the young Fonda that a keen social awareness of prejudice was present within him for his entire adult life. By his senior year in high school, he grew suddenly to over six feet but remained a shy teenager. He then attended the University of Minnesota, majoring in journalism, but he did not graduate. He took a job with the Retail Credit Company.
At age 20, Fonda started his acting career at the Omaha Community Playhouse when his mother's friend Dodie Brando (mother of Marlon Brando) recommended that he try-out for a juvenile part in You and I, in which he was cast as Ricky. He was both fascinated by the stage, learning everything from set construction to stage production, and also profoundly embarrassed by his acting ability.When he received the lead in Merton of the Movies, he realized the beauty of acting as a profession, as it allowed him to deflect attention from his own tongue-tied personality and create stage characters relying on someone else's scripted words. Fonda decided to quit his job and go East in 1928 to strike his fortune. He arrived on Cape Cod and had just finished a role at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts when a friend took him over to Falmouth where he instantly became a valued member of the new University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company, where he worked with Margaret Sullavan, his future wife, and which would be responsible for a lifelong friendship with James Stewart. He landed his first professional role in the University Players production of The Jest, by Sem Benelli, when Joshua Logan, a young sophomore at Princeton who had been double-cast in the show, gave Fonda the part of Tornaquinci, “an elderly Italian with long, white beard and heavy wig.” The role quickly proved that Fonda had little talent to play foreigners with accents and needed to stick to American roles, as did his friend Jimmy Stewart. Also in the cast of The Jest with Fonda and Logan were Bretaigne Windust, Kent Smith, and Eleanor Phelps.
The tall (6`2") and slim (160lbs) Fonda headed for New York City, where he was soon joined by Stewart (after Fonda's short marriage to Margaret Sullavan) and the two roommates struggled but honed their skills on Broadway. Fonda appeared in theatrical productions from 1926 to 1934. They fared no better than many Americans in and out of work during the Depression, with sometimes no money even to take the subway.Fonda got the first break going to Hollywood to make his first film appearance in (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 which gained him critical recognition. Suddenly, Fonda was making $3,000 a week and dining with Hollywood stars like Carol Lombard.Stewart soon followed him to Hollywood, and they roomed together again, in lodgings next door to Greta Garbo. In 1935 Fonda starred in the RKO film I Dream Too Much with the famous opera star Lily Pons. The New York Times proclaimed "Henry Fonda, the most likable of the new crop of romantic juveniles".
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. He also starred with ex-wife Margaret Sullavan in The Moon's Our Home, and a short re-kindling of their relationship led to a brief consideration of re-marriage. Sullavan then married Fonda's agent Leland Hayward and Fonda married socialite Frances Seymour Brokaw, who had little interest in the movies or the theater. Fonda got the nod for the lead role in You Only Live Once (1937), also costarring Sidney, and directed by Fritz Lang. Fonda's first child Jane Fonda was born on December 21, 1937. A critical success opposite Bette Davis, who had picked Fonda, 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 his friend James Stewart won the Best Actor award for his role in The Philadelphia Story. Second child Peter Fonda was born in 1940.
Fonda 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. Fonda served for three years, initially as a Quartermaster 3rd Class on the destroyer . He was later commissioned as a Lieutenant Junior Grade in Air Combat Intelligence in the Central Pacific and was awarded a Presidential Citation and the Bronze Star.
After the war, Fonda took a break from movies and attended Hollywood parties and enjoyed civilian life. He and Stewart would listen to records and invite Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Dinah Shore, and Nat King Cole over for music, with the latter giving the family piano lessons.Fonda played Wyatt Earp in John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) and appeared in the film Fort Apache (1948) as a rigid Army colonel, along with John Wayne and Shirley Temple in her first adult role. Fonda did seven post-war films then 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, where Fonda, a junior officer, wages a private war against the captain. He won a 1948 Tony Award for the part. Fonda followed that by reprising his performance in the national tour and with successful stage runs in Point of No Return and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. He starred in the 1955 film version of Mister Roberts opposite James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon, 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, who punched him during filming, and vowed never to work for him again. He never did (though he appeared in Peter Bogdanovich's acclaimed documentary "Directed by John Ford " and spoke glowingly of Ford therein).
Fonda followed Mr. Roberts with Paramount Pictures's production of the Leo Tolstoy epic War and Peace, in which he played Pierre Bezukhov opposite Audrey Hepburn, and which took two years to shoot. Fonda worked with Alfred Hitchcock in 1956, playing a man falsely accused of murder in The Wrong Man, an unusual though not successful effort by Hitchcock based on an actual crime and filmed on location in black and white.
In 1957, Fonda made his first foray into production with 12 Angry Men, based on a teleplay and a script by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet. The low budget production was completed in only seventeen days of filming mostly in one claustrophobic jury room and had a strong cast including Jack Klugman, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam, and E. G. Marshall. 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 "Juror #8", who with logic and persistence eventually sways all the jurors to an acquittal. Early on the film drew poorly, but after winning critical acclaim and awards, it proved a success. In spite of the good outcome, Fonda vowed that he would never produce a movie again, fearing that failing as a producer might derail his acting career. After western movies The Tin Star (1957) and Warlock (1959), Fonda returned to the production seat for the NBC western television series The Deputy (1959–1961), in which he also starred. Around this time, his fourth troubled marriage was coming to an end.
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. In the Cold War suspense film Fail-Safe (1964), Fonda played the resolute President of the United States who tries to avert a nuclear holocaust through tense negotiations with the Soviets who see an attack coming their way. He also returned to more light-hearted cinema in Spencer's Mountain (1963), which was the inspiration for the TV series, The Waltons.
Fonda 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 actor Eli Wallach and director Sergio Leone, who flew from Italy to the United States to persuade him to take the part. Fonda had planned on wearing a pair of brown-colored contact lenses, but Leone preferred the paradox of contrasting close-up shots of Fonda's innocent-looking blue eyes with the vicious personality of the character Fonda played.
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. The two teamed up for 1968's Firecreek, where Fonda once again played the heavy. 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.
Henry Fonda played the role of Marshal Simon Fry in the TV-Series "The Deputy" (1959-1961).
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, 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.
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 brought on by prostate cancer, a pacemaker was installed following surgery 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 Sean Connery, Natalie Wood and Karl Malden, and then the Canadian production City on Fire, which also featured Shelley Winters and Ava Gardner. Fonda had a small role with his son, Peter, in 1979's Wanda Nevada, with Brooke Shields.
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).
1981's On Golden Pond, the film adaptation of Ernest Thompson's play, marked one final professional and personal triumph for Fonda. Directed by Mark Rydell, the project provided unprecedented collaborations between Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, and between Fonda and Fonda's daughter, Jane. The elder Fonda played an emotionally brittle and distant father who becomes more accessible at the end of his life. Jane Fonda has said that elements of the story mimicked their real-life relationship, and helped them to resolve certain issues. She bought the film rights in the hope that her father would play the role, and later described it as "a gift to my father that was so unbelievably successful.
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). Fonda was by that point too ill too attend the ceremony, and Jane Fonda accepted on his behalf. Fonda reportedly responded to the news of the award with the modest comment, "Well, ain't I lucky."
Fonda's 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 Republican actors such as John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, 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."
Fonda himself once admitted in an interview that he felt he wasn't a good father to his children . In the same interview, he explained that he did his best to stay out of the way of Jane and Peter's careers, citing that he felt it was important to them to know that they succeeded because they worked hard and not because they used his fame to achieve their goals.
In the years since his death, Fonda's 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. Henry Fonda Theater is located at 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, Los Angeles, California.
|1981||Best Actor||On Golden Pond|
|1981||Honorary Award||Lifetime Achievement|
|1957||Best Picture||12 Angry Men|
|1941||Best Actor||The Grapes of Wrath|
|1958||Best Actor||12 Angry Men|
|1982||Best Actor||On Golden Pond|
|1980||Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie||Gideon's Trumpet|
|1973||Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie||The Red Pony|
|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|
|1979||Special Award||Lifetime Achievement|
|1948||Best Actor||Mister Roberts|
|1975||Best Actor||Clarence Darrow|