Henry Jaynes Fonda was born in Grand Island, Nebraska on May 16th, 1905. Within the year, his father and mother moved the infant Hank (as he was called) along with his two sisters, two hours east to Omaha, where he would grow up. Omaha was the perfect setting for a man who would go on to become the quintessential American actor over the course of a long and distinguished career on stage and screen. And it wasn't a profession he sought out at first. He fell into it, as the Omaha Playhouse was one of the best non-professional theatres in the country. Brought in by his neighbor, an amateur actress named Dorothy Brando (yes, Marlon's mother), he began by working behind the scenes and quickly became intoxicated. "I practically lived at that theatre. I painted scenery, soaked up the sight of the lines of rope that go up to the grid, smelled greasepaint, smelled smells I had never smelled before.
Henry Fonda (circa 1960).
Due to his good looks and ease on stage, it wasn't long before Fonda's career took off professionally. Somehow, he managed to find himself cast in many roles that exemplified the roots of goodness in such men (both real and fictional) as Abraham Lincoln, Tom Joad, Doug Roberts and Clarence Darrow. I grew up in the sixties and seventies when he served as a strong, male role model for me in movies and television—even as a commercial pitchman (the GAF Viewmaster, anyone?). He radiated a certain authority, kindness, dignity and trust, even though in real life, as has been well-documented, he was withdrawn and taciturn. When in 1979, he was presented by his daughter Jane with a surprise special Tony Award for his life in the theatre, he took full measure of the moment when he spontaneously said: "I've never been wildly happy about being me. I never really liked myself. But in the theatre, I was given chances to pretend I was Mister Roberts, Clarence Darrow and Justice Dan Snow. You gotta be sure I'm grateful."
I was especially fortunate to have had the experience of seeing him on the Broadway stage. And even if it was only twice, the memory of his one-of-a-kind stage presence has stayed with me now for nearly fifty years. First, there was the voice. His particular drawl was so much a part of who he was that he never did anything to change it, regardless of whether he was a foolish bumpkin or the President of the United States. He just "was"—which is about as much as any actor hopes to achieve in their work. Fonda excelled at that, in ways that his contemporary (and best friend for decades) James Stewart did not. Don't get me wrong ... I loved Jimmy Stewart. But he and Fonda were very different actors. There was no shtick with Fonda. He wouldn't know how to do that if he had even tried (and he was smart enough never to do so).
In his earliest movie roles he was devilishly handsome. And he could be very sexy when he wanted to be, usually in a repressed way, like in The Lady Eve. He and his co-star Barbara Stanwyck positively smolder in their scenes together, which involve little (if any kissing). But man it is all there! And though he took on the mantle of "seriousness," he was never too serious in the way he went about it in his acting. His film career was defined by his intensity; void of histrionics. You always believed the man when he spoke. It's one reason why he was so good at playing Presidents (because after all, isn't that what we want in a leader—maybe now more than ever?). His performance in the nuclear drama Fail Safe (1964), entirely contained to scenes set in a small room with no windows, is one to really study. Every movement of thought which crosses his face is profound. He doesn't "milk" anything, as that actorly expression goes. It's all there in the moment-to-moment realism he brings; all of it in service to the character and his place in the story. It's the same with 1957's Twelve Angry Men, a film he also produced. It was a drama Fonda wanted the world to see, believing as he did in the power of its story, which told of how one lone-juror brings around eleven others to a more rational and less overheated judgment, with regard to one young man's guilt or innocence. It is a beautiful, understated performance.
Clockwise from top left: Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath; Doug Roberts in Mister Roberts;
Juror #8 in Twelve Angry Men and the President in Fail Safe.
What I think I loved most about Fonda was that even though he could play natural realism on film, he knew exactly how to pump up the volume on stage (literally). I was twelve-years-old when I first saw him in Thornton Wilder's Our Town and he blew me away. From way up in the cheap seats, not only did his blue eyes dazzle me from that considerable distance, but again—there was the rich quality of his voice, instantly recognizable and not easily forgettable. He had enormous reserves of power with it, and this in the days before microphones were attached to the heads of every actor. And a few years later, when I saw him in the Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee comedy First Monday in October, at the Majestic Theatre, no less (which rarely houses straight plays), he surprised me with the majesty of that voice. I mean, you had to be impressed by it. It just boomed!
What Fonda loved most about acting is best expressed by the man himself, in a chapter devoted to his life and work in the indispensable book The Player: A Profile of an Art, by Lillian and Helen Ross. "The thing I try to do onstage is to create the illusion that it's happening for the first time. In two years, not a performance got by all of the performances we did [in Mister Roberts] that the audience didn't get what it came for; for them it was happening for the first time. I never got tired of it ... When my emotions take over in a part, it's like a seaplane taking off on the water. I feel as if I were soaring. If five tries out of eight a week the emotions take over, you're magic. But you hold it back just enough. It's just like holding a horse back. It's got to be thought out, and you've got to listen to the others ..."
Important words from an important actor. Due to his many film and television parts, Henry Fonda will never be forgotten. But the lessons he taught us about acting is what makes his legacy a special one. Of course, he would probably have had none of that. As his Norman Thayer from On Golden Pond, for which he won his one and only competitive Oscar (and was his last role in a theatrical film), might have said: "Bullshit."
Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond (1981).
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.