Henry Jaynes Fonda (May 16, 1905 August 12, 1982) was a highly acclaimed American film, stage and television 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. He was the patriarch of a family of famous actors, including son Peter Fonda, daughter Jane Fonda, granddaughter Bridget Fonda and grandson Troy Garity.
Fonda was born to William Brace Fonda and Herberta Jaynes. From his humble upbringing in a Nebraskan Christian Scientist family, 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 1930's Dust Bowl. Throughout six decades in Hollywood, Fonda cultivated a versatile career and a concrete screen image in such classics as The Ox-Bow Incident, Mister Roberts and 12 Angry Men.
Later in his life, Fonda moved both toward more challenging and lighter roles in such epics as Once Upon a Time in the West and family comedies like Yours, Mine and Ours. He earned a Tony nomination for his role in 1974's Clarence Darrow (having previously won a Tony in Mister Roberts in 1948), and finished his career with a critically-acclaimed performance in On Golden Pond in 1981, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Fonda was also honored with "Lifetime Achievement" Academy Awards, Golden Globes and Tony Awards. He died in 1982, leaving behind a legacy of classic performances, many of which are considered the finest examples of the "Golden Age of Hollywood."
Family history and early life
He was born in Grand Island, Nebraska to William Brace Fonda and Herberta Krueger Jaynes, observant Christian Scientists. The Fonda family had emigrated westward from New York in the 1800s, and can trace its ancestry from Genoa, Italy, to The Netherlands in the 1500s, and then to the United States of America in the 1600s, where they founded a still-extant town called Fonda, New York. In Henry Fonda's autobiography, he wrote:
Early records show the family ensconced in northern Italy in the sixteenth century where they fought on the side of the Reformation, fled to Holland, intermarried with Dutch burghers' daughters, picked up the first names of the Low Countries, but retained the Italianate Fonda. Before Pieter Stuyvesant surrendered Nieuw Amsterdam to the English the Fondas, instead of settling in Manhattan, canoed up the Hudson River to the Indian village of Caughawaga. Within a few generations, the Mohawks and the Iroquois were butchered or fled and the town became known to mapmakers as Fonda, New York.
As a youth in Nebraska, Fonda was active in the Boy Scouts of America as a youth and was a Scoutmaster, but was not an Eagle Scout as some report. He then attended the University of Minnesota, majoring in journalism, although he did not graduate. 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 and incubator of rising stars, where he worked with Margaret Sullavan, his future wife, and began a lifelong friendship with Jimmy Stewart.
Along with Stewart, Fonda 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 earned his first film appearance (1935) as the leading man in 20th Century-Fox's screen adaptation of The Farmer Takes a Wife. He reprised his role from the Broadway production of the same name. When Fonda joined Stewart in Hollywood, Fonda shared Stewart's house, and the two young glamorous stars gained a reputation for womanizing.
Fonda's film career blossomed, as he followed up with an appearance in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the first outdoor Technicolor movie, and the lead role in You Only Live Once (1937), 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 with Ford 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. Although his performance is often listed among the greatest in Hollywood history, Fonda was edged out by Jimmy Stewart, who won the award for his role as "Macaulay 'Mike' Connor" in The Philadelphia Story.
World War II service
Fonda played opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941), and was acclaimed for his role in The Ox-Bow Incident, 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."
Previously, he and Stewart had helped raise funds for the defense of Britain from the Nazis. 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.
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 1955 film version opposite James Cagney, 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.
Career in the '50s and '60s
After a six-year break from Hollywood, Fonda returned in the critically acclaimed Mister Roberts, as Lt. Douglas Roberts, a role he had originated in the play. He followed this success with a string of classic films, the first being the big-budget Paramount Pictures 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 coproducer Reginald Rose and won the 1958 BAFTA Award for Best Actor for his performance as the logical "Juror #8." Henry Fonda vowed that he would never produce a movie ever again. After a series of ordinary western movies, Fonda returned to the production seat for the NBC series The Deputy, in which he also starred.
The sixties found Fonda 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 1964 suspense film Fail-Safe, about possible nuclear holocaust. He also returned to more lighthearted cinema in 1963's Spencer's Mountain, the inspiration for the television program The Waltons, and 1968's Yours, Mine and Ours.
He appeared against type as the villain "Frank" in 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West. After turning down the role, he was talked into it by actor Eli Wallach and director Sergio Leone, who flew from Italy to the United States to persuade him to play the part. Fonda had planned on wearing a pair of brown-colored contact lenses, but Leone had worked important close-up shots of Fonda's blue eyes into the film.
Fonda's relationship with Jimmy Stewart survived their disagreements over politicsFonda was a liberal Democrat, and Stewart a conservative Republican. After a heated argument, they avoided talking politics with each other. In 1970, Fonda and Stewart costarred in the western The Cheyenne Social Club, a minor film in which the two humorously argued politics. Previously, they had appeared together in On Our Merry Way, a 1948 comedy featuring Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer which also paired actors William Demarest and Fred MacMurray.
Marriages and children
Henry Fonda was married five times. His marriage to Margaret Brooke 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. In 1950, Fonda married Susan Blanchard, the stepdaughter of Oscar Hammerstein II. Together, they adopted a daughter, Amy (born 1953), but divorced three years later, and in 1957 Fonda married Italian Countess Afdera Franchetti. They remained married until 1961. Soon after, Fonda married Shirlee Mae Adams and remained with her for seventeen years, 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." Jane Fonda rejected her father's patriotism and his friendships with Republican actors such as John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, and as a result the father/daughter 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, he baffled her by answering, "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 methodand 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. 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.
Despite approaching his seventies, Henry Fonda continued to work in both television and film throughout the 1970s. 1970 found Fonda in three films, the most successful of these ventures being The Cheyenne Social Club. The other two films were Too Late the Hero, which did not feature Henry Fonda in a very important 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 72. 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, Il Mio nome è Nessuno (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.
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, a pacemaker was installed, and Fonda returned to the play in 1975. After the run of the 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 the Kings, based on Taylor Caldwell's novel. Three years later, he appeared in ABC's Roots: The Next Generation, but the miniseries was overshadowed by its predecessor, Roots. Also in 1976, Fonda starred in the World War II blockbuster Midway.
Like many aging actors, Fonda finished the seventies with a number of disaster movies, which cashed in on big names to drive box office sales. The first of these came in 1977 with the Italian killer octopus thriller Tentacoli (Tentacles) and the mediocre Rollercoaster, which found Fonda cast with Richard Widmark and a young Helen Hunt. He appeared once again with Widmark, Olivia de Havilland, Fred MacMurray and José Ferrer in the killer bee actioner The Swarm. With the disaster genre's popularity fading, Fonda filmed two last films; first the global disaster, Meteor, with Natalie Wood and Martin Landau; and then the Canadian production, City on Fire, which also featured Shelley Winters and Ava Gardner.
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 eighties, 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, the Emmy nominated Gideon's Trumpet and 1981's Summer Solstice, which teamed Fonda with Myrna Loy. This is the last film that Henry Fonda is credited for, and work began on it after the release of On Golden Pond.
Before Summer Solstice was made, however, 1981 brought Fonda's last cinematic film, an adaptation of Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond. The film, directed by Mark Rydell, provided unprecedented (and, as it turned out, never-to-be-repeated) 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 4th, On Golden Pond developed enough of an audience to be widely released on January 22nd. Thanks to 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), Pond finally brought Fonda his first, and as fate would have it, his only Oscar for Best Actor (it also earned him a Golden Globe Best Actor award). After Fonda's death, some film critics called his Pond performance "his last and greatest role." Indeed, his performance was the most critically acclaimed of all his roles.
Death and legacy
Fonda died at his Los Angeles home on August 12, 1982, at the age of 77 after suffering from both heart disease and prostate cancer. Fonda's wife Shirlee and daughter Jane were at his side when he died.
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 his 100th birthday, May 16, 2005, Turner Classic Movies honored him with a marathon of his films. Also in May of 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.
For a detailed filmography, click here.
From the beginning of Henry Fonda's 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. His roles in 1940's The Grapes of Wrath and 1981's On Golden Pond earned him Academy Award nominations (he won for the latter). 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
"I don't want to just sell war bonds. I want to be a sailor."
"I hope you won't be disappointed. You see I am not a very interesting person. I haven't ever done anything except be other people. I ain't really Henry Fonda! Nobody could be. Nobody could have that much integrity."
"I'm not that pristine pure, I guess I've broken as many rules as the next feller. But I reckon my face looks honest enough and if people buy it, hallelujah."
"Baby it out. That's an old marble shooter's expression for approaching your target cautiously instead of trying to take it out with one shot."
"Next to Clint Eastwood's father, he personally had done more for Clint Eastwood than anyone else." -on Sergio Leone.
[speaking in 1978] "I guess I go overboard to avoid taking credit for the image I have. That's why it's easier to live with myself. I don't feel I'm totally a man of integrity."
"If there is something in my eyes, a kind of honesty in the face, then I guess you could say that's the man I'd like to be, the man I want to be."
[on Jane Fonda and Peter Fonda, 1976] "I didn't help or discourage them or lead them by the hand. I'm not trying to set myself up as a good father, because I wasn't a good father. But I think I knew instinctively that if they did make it, they would like to know they'd done it on their own. I recognize all the problems my children have had, and I don't claim any credit for what they've become. They've become what they are in spite of me."
"I've been close to Bette Davis for thirty-eight years--and I have the cigarette burns to prove it."
"It has to do with the fact that Ford, for all his greatness, is an Irish egomaniac, as anyone who knows him will say." -on director John Ford
Studied acting with Dorothy Brando, mother of Marlon Brando.
Tony Award for Mister Roberts in the title role. 
Earned the rank of Life Scout and became a Scout Master as an adult.
During a Barbara Walters interview, Jane Fonda claimed that her father was deeply in love with Lucille Ball and that the two were "very close" during the filming of Yours, Mine and Ours (1968).
Hobbies: Making model airplanes and kites, and bee keeping.
His ancestors came from Genoa, Italy, and fled to the Netherlands around 1400. Among the early Dutch settlers in America, they established a still-thriving small town in upstate New York, Fonda, named after patriarch Douw Fonda in the early 1600s. Henry Fonda's paternal grandparents moved to Nebraska in the 1800s.
The oldest person ever to win a Best Actor Oscar (He was 76 at the time).
Was good friends with James Stewart.
Named the #6 greatest actor on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends by the American Film Institute.
Pictured on a 37˘ USA commemorative postage stamp in the Legends of Hollywood series, issued in his honor on 20 May 2005.
He and daughter Jane Fonda were the first father-daughter couple to be Oscar-nominated the same year (1982).
Fonda, who played the second Commander in Chief-Pacific (CINCPAC II) in In Harm's Way (1965), was actually a naval veteran of World War II who served in the Pacific Theater. After making The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Fonda enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II, saying, "I don't want to be in a fake war in a studio." He served in the Navy for three years, initially as a Quartermaster 3rd Class on the destroyer USS Satterlee; later, Fonda was commissioned as a Lieutenant Junior Grade (O-2) in Air Combat Intelligence. For his service in the Central Pacific, he won the Bronze Star, the fourth highest award for bravery or meritorious service in conflict with the enemy.
On April 12, 1967, he visited the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk for an overnight stay.
Formed a partnership with actors Robert Ryan and Martha Scott in 1968, co-founding the theatrical production company Plumstead Playhouse in New York. Later called the Plumstead Theatre Society, it co-produced the Broadway production of First Monday in October starring Fonda and Jane Alexander.
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