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Henry Fonda

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Henry Fonda

Fonda in the 1937 film Slim.
Born Henry Jaynes Fonda
(1905-05-16)May 16, 1905
Grand Island, Nebraska, U.S.
Died August 12, 1982(1982-08-12) (aged 77)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Occupation Actor
Years active 1935–1982
Spouse(s) Margaret Sullavan (1931-1932)
Frances Ford Seymour (1936-1950)
Susan Blanchard (1950-1956)
Afdera Franchetti (1957-1961)
Shirlee Mae Adams (1965-1982)

Henry Jaynes Fonda (May 16, 1905 – August 12, 1982) was an American film and stage actor.

Fonda made his mark early as a Broadway actor. He also appeared in 1938 in plays performed in White Plains, New York, with Joan Tompkins. He made his Hollywood debut in 1935, and his career gained momentum after his Academy Award-nominated performance as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, a 1940 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.

Life and career

Early career

Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve.

The tall (6'1.5") and slim (160 lbs) 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 Carole 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 Ford Seymour, who had little interest in the movies or the theatre. 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 (1939), his first collaboration with director John Ford and as Frank James in Jesse James (1939). Another 1939 film was Drums along the Mohawk directed by John Ford where he played Gil Martin.

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. He starred in The Return of Frank James (1940) with Gene Tierney.

World War II service

Fonda played opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941), and teamed with Gene Tierney in the successful screwball comedy Rings on Her Fingers (1942 ) - Tierney was one of Fondas favorite co-stars, they appeared in three films together. He was acclaimed for his role in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

Fonda after enlisting in United States Navy in November 1942.

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 USS Satterlee. 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.

Post-war career

Fonda in The Tin 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 until his contract with Fox expired, the last being Otto Preminger's Daisy Kenyon (1947), opposite Joan Crawford.

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. After a few years almost completely absent from films, 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 robbery in The Wrong Man, an unusual semi-documentary work of Hitchcock's based on an actual incident and partly filmed on location.

Fonda in How the West Was Won

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 Puerto Rican 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 starred as Marshal Simon Fry. His co-stars were Allen Case and Read Morgan. About this time, Fonda's fourth troubled marriage was unraveling.

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 President of the United States who tries to avert a nuclear holocaust through tense negotiations with the Soviets after American bombers are mistakenly ordered to attack the USSR. 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 men 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 they 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.

Late career

Despite approaching his seventies, 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, 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 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 (his second role as a sitting President of the United States after Fail-Safe), 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 and the Emmy nominated Gideon's Trumpet (co-starring Fay Wray in her last performance).

On Golden Pond in 1981, 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, along with Fonda and his 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 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."

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 (he would become the oldest recipient of the award; it also earned him a Golden Globe Best Actor award). Fonda was by that point too ill to attend the ceremony, and his daughter Jane Fonda accepted on his behalf. She said when accepting the award that her dad would probably quip, "Well, ain't I lucky."

After Fonda's death, some film critics called this performance "his last and greatest role".

Marriages and children

Fonda was married five times and had three children, one of them being adopted. His marriage to Margaret Sullavan in 1931 soon ended in separation, which was finalized in a 1933 divorce. In 1936, he married Frances Ford Seymour, whom he met at Denham Studios in England on the set of Wings of the Morning, the first British picture to be filmed in technicolor. They had two children, Peter and Jane, both of whom have had Oscar nominations. In 1950, Seymour committed suicide. Fonda married Susan Blanchard, the stepdaughter of Oscar Hammerstein II, in 1950. 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.

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 James 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, she was baffled by his answer, "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.

Death and legacy

Fonda died at his Los Angeles home on August 12, 1982, from heart disease. Fonda's wife Shirlee, daughter Jane and son Peter 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, 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 37-cent postage stamp with an artist's drawing of Fonda as part of their "Hollywood legends" series. Henry Fonda Theatre is located at 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. 34.101944°N 118.340972°W / 34.101944; -118.340972


Fonda was "an admirer" of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1960, Fonda appeared in a campaign commercial for Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. The ad focused on Kennedy's naval service during World War II, specifically the famous PT-109 incident.


From the beginning of his 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. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in 1940's The Grapes of Wrath and won for his part in 1981's On Golden Pond. 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 (November 1929 – January 1930)
  • I Loved You, Wednesday (October – December 1932)
  • New Faces of 1934 (Revue; March – July 1934)
  • The Farmer Takes a Wife (October 1934 – January 1935)
  • Blow Ye Winds (September – October 1937)
  • Mister Roberts (February 1948 – January 1951)
  • Point of No Return (December 1951 – November 1952)
  • The Caine Mutiny (January 1954 – January 1955)
  • Two for the Seesaw (January 1958 – October 1959)
  • Silent Night, Lonely Night (December 1959 – March 1960)
  • Critic's Choice (December 1960 – May 1961)
  • A Gift of Time (February – May 1962)
  • Generation (October 1965 – June 1966)
  • Our Town (November – December 1969)
  • Clarence Darrow (March – April 1974; March 1975)
  • First Monday in October (October – December 1978)


Henry Fonda received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1978.

Awards Year Category Film Result
Academy Awards 1940 Best Actor The Grapes of Wrath Nominated
1957 Best Picture 12 Angry Men Nominated
1981 Best Actor On Golden Pond Won
1980 Honorary Award Lifetime Achievement
BAFTA Awards 1958 Best Actor 12 Angry Men Won
1981 Best Actor On Golden Pond Nominated
Emmy Awards
1973 Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie The Red Pony Nominated
1980 Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie Gideon's Trumpet Nominated
Golden Globes 1958 Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama 12 Angry Men Nominated
1980 Cecil B. DeMille Award Lifetime Achievement Honorary
1982 Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama On Golden Pond Won
Tony Awards 1975 Best Actor Clarence Darrow Nominated
1979 Special Award Lifetime Achievement Honorary
1948 Best Actor Mister Roberts Won
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