Early life and Family
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.
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.
World War II
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.
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 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.
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.
Jane Fonda also reported feeling detached from her father, especially during her early acting career. Henry Fonda introduced her to Lee Strasberg. 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.”
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.
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, 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. 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 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.
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.