Henry Fonda

From New World Encyclopedia

Henry Fonda
Henry Fonda in Warlock.jpg
Henry Fonda in Warlock, 1959.
Birth name: Henry Jaynes Fonda
Date of birth: May 16 1905(1905-05-16)
Birth location: Flag of United States Grand Island, Nebraska, U.S.
Date of death: August 12 1982 (aged 77)
Death location: Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Academy Awards: Academy Honorary Award
1980 Lifetime Achievement
Best Actor
1981 On Golden Pond
Spouse: Margaret Sullavan (1931-1932)
Frances Seymour Brokaw (1936-1950)
Susan Blanchard (1950-1956)
Afdera Franchetti (1957-1961)
Shirlee Maye Adams (1965-1982)

Henry Jaynes Fonda (May 16, 1905 – August 12, 1982) was a highly acclaimed, Academy Award-winning American film and stage 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. Throughout six decades in Hollywood, Fonda cultivated a strong, appealing screen image.

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.

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

Life and career

Early life

Fonda was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, to advertising-printing jobber William Brace Fonda and Herberta Krueger Jaynes. The Fonda family had emigrated westward from New York in the 1800s, and traces its ancestry from Genoa, Italy, to The Netherlands in the 1500s, and then to the United States of America in the 1600s, settling in the town now called Fonda, New York.[1]

As a youth in Nebraska, Fonda was active in the Boy Scouts of America and was a Scoutmaster. Fonda related the story in his autobiography 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.[1]

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 James 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.

Henry Fonda and Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938)

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.[2] 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 edged out by Stewart, who won the award for his role in The Philadelphia Story.

World War II service

Henry Fonda after enlisting in United States Navy in November 1942

Fonda played opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941), and was acclaimed for his role in The Ox-Bow Incident. The following year he played opposite Gene Tierney in the screwball comedy, Rings on Her Fingers (1942), 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."[3]

Previously, he and Stewart had helped raise funds for the defense of Britain from the Nazis.[4] 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.[5]

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, 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 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).

Career in the 1950s and 1960s

Fonda followed Mr. Roberts 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." However, Fonda vowed that he would never, ever produce a movie again. 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.

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 Cold War suspense film, Fail-Safe (1964), about a possible nuclear holocaust. He also returned to more light-hearted cinema in Spencer's Mountain (1963), 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 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.

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.

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 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.

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, most notably the movie adaptation of Ernest Thompson's play On Golden Pond. This 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). After Fonda's death, some film critics called this performance "his last and greatest role."

Marriages and children

Jane Fonda, Henry Fonda, and Peter Fonda in the 1950s

Henry Fonda was married five times. 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. They had two children, Peter and Jane. 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.

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."[6] 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.

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, 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.

In 1999, he was named the sixth Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute.


Year Award Work
Academy Awards
1981 Best Actor On Golden Pond
1981 Honorary Award Lifetime Achievement
1957 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


  1. 1.0 1.1 Henry Fonda and Howard Teichmann, Fonda: My Life (New York: New American Library, 1981, ISBN 9780453004022).
  2. Kenn Rabin, The Grapes of Wrath Retrieved July 16, 2022.
  3. Henry Fonda IMDb. Retrieved July 16, 2022.
  4. Tyrone-Power, Life Goes to a Party. Retrieved July 16, 2022.
  5. Fondas in American Military Service Retrieved July 16, 2022.
  6. Peter Fonda, Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir (New York: Hyperion, 1998, ISBN 9780786861118).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Fonda, Henry, and Howard Teichmann. Fonda: My Life. New York: New American Library, 1981. ISBN 9780453004022
  • Fonda, Jane. My Life so Far. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 9780375507106
  • Fonda, Peter. Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir. New York: Hyperion, 1998. ISBN 9780786861118
  • Eames, John Douglas. The MGM Story: The Complete History of Fifty Roaring Years. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975. ISBN 9780517523896
  • Roberts, Allen, and Max Goldstein. Henry Fonda: A Biography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co, 1984. ISBN 9780899501147
  • Sweeney, Kevin. Henry Fonda: A Bio-Bibliography. Bio-bibliographies in the performing arts, no. 25. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. ISBN 9780313265716
  • Thomas, Tony. The Films of Henry Fonda. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1983. ISBN 9780806508689

External links

All links retrieved June 25, 2024.


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