Theatre yesterday and today



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Yesterday I wrote a column on the actor Jack Warden, citing his performance as Juror #5 in the 1957 film 12 Angry Men. It got me to thinking I might write about another of those dozen grand actors, and it dawned on me that I already did (which is not too surprising, as I've written more than 350 of these "Theatre Yesterday and Todays" over what still feels like a short three-year period). In December 2017, I put together a take on the long and enviable career of Henry Fonda, which I am amending a bit to emphasize his contribution to 12 Angry Men. For not only did he play the lone holdout juror, he was also the film's producer, and therefore responsible for bringing it to the screen.

To start with, 12 Angry Men began as a teleplay, broadcast on the drama anthology series Studio One. ​In a one-hour format, it aired live (as many did in those days) on September 20, 1954, and starred Robert Cummings in Fonda's role; a popular actor of the day in both comedy and drama. It also featured such splendid actors as Edward Arnold (famous as the villain in a couple of Frank Capra films); Group Theatre member and film star Franchot Tone, and Norman Fell (who would later become a familiar face as Mr. Roper on the ABC sitcom Three's Company). It also boasted two actors who would repeat their roles when the film was cast three years later: Joseph Sweeney and George Voskovec, as Jurors #9 and #11, respectively.

The first 12 Angry Men: Front row (l to r): Norman Fell, John Beal, Franchot Tone, Walter Abel, Lee Philips, Bart Burns (Second row (l to r): Paul Hartman, Robert Cummings, Joseph Sweeney, Edward Arnold, George Voskovec and Larkin Ford.

This first version was helmed by future Academy Award winning director Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton), and its original story was written by Reginald Rose, who would continue to adapt the property in perpetuity. He not only wrote the screenplay for the film version, but later turned it into a stage play, that was consistently produced all over the world for more than fifty years in amateur and professional mountings, only arriving on Broadway in 2004. Due to a splendid production, the Roundabout Theatre wound up with a sleeper of a hit on its hands, forcing numerous extensions, and finally closing a year and a half later. Sadly, Rose never knew about it any of it, as he had died two years earlier, at age eighty-one.

As I mentioned, Fonda bought the property to produce and for himself to star in. It was a drama he 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, that is skillfully directed by then first-timer Sidney Lumet (who, like Schaffner, was at that time a young, though seasoned veteran of the early days of television). Time has proven Lumet a master craftsman, with his going on to direct dozens of films, many of which are now considered classics. However, 12 Angry Men, though well received, was not a box office success at the time, in spite of its being nominated for the Academy Award as Best Picture. Subsequently, and for reasons all his own, Fonda vowed never to produce another picture—holding true to that promise for the rest of his career.

The second 12 Angry Men: From front center and clockwise: John Fiedler, E.G. Marshall (seated), George Voskovec, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Webber, Jack Warden (seated) Jack Klugman, Ed Begley (standing), Joseph Sweeney & Henry Fonda (seated), Martin Balsam and Edward Binns.

Which brings us back to Henry Jaynes Fonda, 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 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.

Clockwise from top left: Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath; Doug Roberts in Mister Roberts; Juror #8 in 12 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 has rarely housed 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).

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