Henry Fonda (1905-1982)

Henry Fonda
Henry Fonda
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Henry Fonda had a long and extremely successful career which lasted almost half a century, and he appeared in some of the finest and most influential films of Hollywood's Golden Age, including such classics as '12 Angry Men', 'The Grapes Of Wrath' and 'The Ox-Bow Incident'.

His subtle, laid-back acting style which has been much imitated, gave him an air of moral certainty and correctness, making him best known for his roles as the plain-speaking, honest and decent common man.

He played American Presidents on numerous occasions, and it was said that had he ever run for president, he would have won by a landslide.

He was nominated three times for the Best Actor Academy Award, winning once, in 1982, for his moving performance in 'On Golden Pond'. He also received an honorary award from the Academy in 1981 "in recognition of his brilliant accomplishments and enduring contribution to the art of motion pictures." In 1999, he was named the sixth Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute.


Henry Fonda was born Henry Jaynes Fonda in Grand Island, Nebraska, in 1905. His family were Christian Scientists and he was brought up in a strict but loving environment. His father ran a small printing company in Omaha and the family were comfortably off.

Early Days

As a youth Henry was only an average student but excelled at sports. After graduating from the Omaha Central High School in 1923, he studied journalism at the University of Minnesota although he did not complete the course. He also worked part-time in his father's printing works and as a physical-education instructor at a settlement house.

His early ambition was to be a journalist but whilst still a student he got the acting bug and was persuaded by a family friend to join a local amateur theater company, the Omaha Community Playhouse. The family friend who did the persuading was Dorothy Brando, mother of the future movie star, Marlon.

After working backstage at the Playhouse, learning everything from scene painting to set construction, Henry started taking acting seriously and decided to make the theatre his career. Aged 21, in 1926, he made a big impact in the lead role of 'Merton of the Movies' at the Playhouse.

Professional Actor 1928

Within 2 years he had turned professional and in 1928 he moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where he spent 5 years with the University Players. It was his acting education and he learned rapidly and avidly, his reputation, and the roles he played, getting bigger each year. At the University Players he met his first wife, Margaret Sullavan, whom he married in 1931. The marriage lasted only two months. He also met and worked with James Stewart who was to become a lifelong friend.

Fonda was talented and successful. He began to get bit roles on Broadway and by the early 1930s, he was appearing in regular New York productions such as 'New Faces of 1934', and in 1935, after he had starred in the gentle comedy, 'The Farmer Takes a Wife', on Broadway, he got his first movie break when he was chosen to play the leading man in the screen adaptation of the play, co-starring Oscar winner, Janet Gaynor. The movie was well received and Fonda was catapulted into instant fame.

Hollywood Actor

The next few years saw Fonda maturing as an actor and beginning his rise to major stardom. In 1936 he appeared in 'The Trail of the Lonesome Pine', and then Fritz Lang's 'You Only Live Once' in 1937. The following year he received a major accolade when Bette Davis chose him for the film 'Jezebel' which was well received by the critics, and was followed in 1939 by the title role in 'Young Mr. Lincoln which was his first of many collaborations with director John Ford.

Two more Ford movies quickly followed, 'Drums Along the Mohawk' in 1939 and 'The Grapes Of Wrath,' in 1940, for which Fonda received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Tom Joad. Joad is generally regarded as Fonda's finest role, but the Best Actor award went instead to James Stewart for his role in 'The Philadelphia Story'.

Fonda's ability to play comedic roles was shown in 'The Lady Eve' in 1941, appearing opposite Barbara Stanwyck, and in the successful screwball comedy 'Rings on Her Fingers' in 1942, partnering Gene Tierney.

World War II

With America's entry into WWII, Fonda expressed a keen desire to become a member of the armed forces instead of portraying them on screen, and after making 'The Ox Bow Incident' in 1943, he enlisted in the Navy. He served in all for 3 years and was awarded a Presidential Citation and the Bronze Star after serving as as a Lieutenant Junior Grade in Air Combat Intelligence in the Central Pacific.

Postwar Career

After the war, his partnership with Ford was resumed and he played Wyatt Earp in 'My Darling Clementine' in 1946, a priest in 'The Fugitive in 1947, and then as a ramrod straight, and frankly unpleasant, army colonel, in 'Fort Apache' the following year. After a total of seven post-war films Fonda's contract with Fox expired and he began to explore more live theatrical opportunities.

He started by returning to Broadway to play his most popular (and Tony Award-winning) role in 'Mister Roberts', a comedy in which Fonda, a junior officer in a US navy ship in World War II, wages a private war against the ship's captain. In 1955 he co-starred with James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon in the movie version of 'Mister Roberts'. It was a pet project of Fonda's and he had much invested in it. John Ford was the director but he wanted more changes than was acceptable to Fonda. At one stage their heated disagreement came to blows. Ford was replaced as director by Mervyn LeRoy, and he and Fonda never worked together again. Fonda's next movie was directed by Alfred Hitchcock who coaxed a masterful performance from the actor in 1956 in 'The Wrong Man'.

12 Angry Men 1957

The following year Fonda made his first, very creditable, attempt at producing a movie. He chose '12 Angry Men' in which he also appeared as 'Juror 8' who with common sense, tact and moral courage is able to sway his fellow jurors to an acquittal. The production was tightly controlled on a very low budget and was completed in only seventeen days. It was warmly praised by critics worldwide and Fonda shared the Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations with co-producer Reginald Rose. In addition he won the 1958 BAFTA Award for Best Actor.

During the 1960's and 1970's Fonda changed direction slightly and began to appear in war movies and westerns, including 1962's 'The Longest Day' and 'How the West Was Won', and 'Battle of the Bulge' in 1963. Having played the young Lincoln early in his career he now played a more modern President in the cold war film 'Fail-Safe' in 1964.

Fonda changed tack completely in Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon A Time In the West' in 1968, when, for a change he played the bad guy, Frank, a cold-hearted killer, and also in 1968 he teamed up again with James Stewart, in 'Firecreek', with Fonda once again taking on the bad guy role. In 1970, he and Stewart again co-starred in the western 'The Cheyenne Social Club'.

As the new medium of television began to get more popular in the late 1950's, Fonda began to alternate his movie commitments with TV appearances. He starred in the popular series, 'The Deputy' from 1959 to 1961, and in 'The Smith Family' from 1971 to 1972, and he made guest appearances on a regular basis on many other shows. His celebrated one-man show on the trial lawyer Clarence Darrow was broadcast by NBC in 1974.

Later Career

Fonda continued to appear on TV and to make movies during the 1970's and 1980's. His health was not good - he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and heart arrhythmia - and the scripts were not of the quality he had used earlier in his career. He appeared in a number of disappointing disaster movies like 'Rollercoaster' and 'The Swarm' but he took longer breaks between films. His earlier work was gaining more acceptance and appreciation from the critics and in 1979, the Tony Awards committee gave him a special award for his theatrical achievements. He also received Lifetime Achievement awards from the Golden Globes and Academy Awards in 1980 and 1981.

On Golden Pond 1981

In 1981 Fonda finally won the one major award which had eluded him. He appeared in 'On Golden Pond' as an irascible old professor, nearing the end of his life and pondering its meaning. The film co-starred, his daughter, Jane Fonda, and was a professional and personal triumph for Fonda. The film was well received by critics, and it earned nearly $120 million at the box office, becoming an unexpected blockbuster. It received eleven Academy Award nominations and in addition to wins for Katharine Hepburn (Best Actress), it brought Fonda his only Oscar - for Best Actor (it also earned him a Golden Globe Best Actor Award). Fonda's health prevented him from attending the ceremony, and his daughter Jane accepted on his behalf. He was 76, and the oldest person ever to win the Best Actor award.


As a young actor, Fonda developed a reputation for being a ladies' man and his name was linked to many actresses. He was married five times. The first time was to actress, Margaret Sullavan in 1931, and ended in separation after 2 months and divorce after 2 years. In 1936, he married Frances Ford Seymour, a New York socialite. They had two children, Peter and Jane. The marriage was marked by constant quarrels. Frances was mentally unstable and was several times committed to an institution. During one such time, in 1950, shortly after Fonda had demanded a divorce, she committed suicide by slitting her throat with a razor.

Fonda's third marriage was to Susan Blanchard,the stepdaughter of Oscar Hammerstein II, in December,1950. He adopted her daughter, Amy, from a previous relationship. The couple divorced in 1956. His fourth marriage was in 1957, to Afdera Franchetti, the daughter of Italian aristocrat. She was 28 years his junior and they divorced in 1961.

Soon after, Fonda married the model, Shirlee Mae Adams, and remained with her until his death in 1982.

Away from the camera Fonda's character was completely different to his heroic, honest and kindly screen persona. He was often described as being cold, aloof and self-absorbed off-screen.

Henry Fonda died of heart failure on August 12, 1982, in Los Angeles. He was an exceptionally talented actor, who never appeared to be acting. He was one of the greats of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Henry Fonda Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actor ... On Golden Pond (1981)

One Honorary Award
The consummate actor, in recognition of his brilliant accomplishments and enduring contribution to the art of motion pictures. (1980)

Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Best Picture ... 12 Angry Men (1957) (Shared with Reginald Rose)

Henry Fonda Filmography

The Farmer Takes a Wife
Way Down East
I Dream Too Much
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine
The Moon's Our Home
Wings of the Morning
You Only Live Once
That Certain Woman
I Met My Love Again
Spawn of the North
The Mad Miss Manton
Jesse James
Let Us Live
The Modern Miracle
Young Mr. Lincoln
Drums Along the Mohawk
The Grapes Of Wrath
Lillian Russell
The Return of Frank James
Chad Hanna
The Lady Eve
Wild Geese Calling
Good Morning, Doctor
Rings on Her Fingers
The Male Animal
The Magnificent Dope
Tales of Manhattan
The Big Street
The Ox-Bow Incident
Immortal Sergeant
The Long Night
The Fugitive
Daisy Kenyon
On Our Merry Way
Fort Apache
Jigsaw (uncredited)
The Wrong Man
War and Peace
12 Angry Men
The Tin Star
Rangers of Yellowstone
Stage Struck
The Man Who Understood Women