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Fonda, Henry
Written by Diana Saenger   

Date of Birth: May 16, 1905

Place of Birth: Grand Island, Nebraska

Date of Death: August 12, 1982

Place of Death: Los Angeles, California

Cause of Death: cardiorespiratory arrest

Henry Jaynes Fonda started life a long way from the ocean and an even longer way from Hollywood. He was born the son of a printer and grew up in Omaha where he was raised with the Christian Scientist values of honesty, hard work and forthrightness. At a young age he developed ambitions to become a newspaperman and after graduating from high school enrolled in the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism.

He dropped out after two years to take a job as an office boy, and it was during this period that he started to develop an interest in the theater.

He eventually went to work full time for the Omaha Community Playhouse under the direction of Dorothy Brando, Marlon Brando's mother. She saw the potential in young Henry and encouraged him to go to New York and pursue a career in acting.

In 1928 he made the acquaintance of some members from the University Players, a theater stock group headquartered in Falmouth, Massachusetts and they persuaded him to join their company. At this time The University Players was a training ground for stars who would become major talents; in addition to Fonda there was Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart.

Fonda had been there off and on for four years and had already married (1931) and divorced (1932) his first wife, Margaret Sullavan. They had a short tumultuous marriage during which Fonda was surprised to learn he had a temper. It was the first time he ever had to use it, but not the last.

By 1934 Fonda and Stewart decided to try their hand at Broadway. While trying to find acting work they shared expenses as roommates. Paying jobs were hard to come by and during one particularly bleak period Fonda lived for several days on nothing but unsalted rice.

He got his first big break on Broadway in 1934 when he was cast as the farmer in The Farmer Takes a Wife. Hollywood took notice of the play, and Fonda, and made plans to adapt it into a movie in 1935 starring Janet Gaynor as the wife with Fonda reprising his role as the farmer.

Fonda started life in Hollywood earning $3,000 per week. For a guy who just three years earlier had been living on rice and making seven to twenty-five dollars a week to suddenly find himself making $3,000 per week must have seemed like a fortune. Stewart joined Fonda in Hollywood later that year and the two friends roomed together in a rented Mexican style villa in Brentwood, next door to .

Some of his more memorable films during this period where Jezebel (1938) with Bette Davis, Jesse James in 1939 with Tyrone Power in the title role, and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) starring Don Ameche. The year 1939 was a banner one for the movies in general and for Fonda in particular. In addition to the films mentioned above, Fonda gave two of his most memorable performances, both in films directed by John Ford, Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk.

The following year Fonda made what many consider to be his finest film, playing Tom Joad in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. The movie chronicled the experiences of a family of "Okies" leaving the depression era dust bowl of Oklahoma to embark on a fruitless search for a better life in California. Ford got great performances from his entire cast, especially some heart wrenching scenes between Fonda's Tom Joad and his mother, beautifully played by Jane Darwell.

Prior to entering the navy Fonda made two comedies, The Male Animal and The Magnificent Dope, both released in 1942, and the hard hitting western The Ox-Bow Incident. His performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor but the award went to Jimmy Stewart for the Philadelphia Story. Even Stewart was stunned that the Oscar didn't go to his good friend.

When the United States entered WWII after Pearl Harbor, Fonda was 36 years old. He had been married to his second wife, Frances Seymour Brokaw, for five years and they had two children, Jane born in 1937 and Peter born in 1940. He could have stayed home during the war and continued making movies, doing USO benefits and heading up bond drives, but Fonda wanted to actively serve. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and was shipped to San Diego, CA, for boot camp.

He intended to train as a gunner's mate after boot camp, but a chief petty officer diverted Fonda for training to become a quartermaster. He earned his quartermaster third class rating and was assigned to his first ship, a destroyer, the USS Saterlee, which departed in May 1943 for its sea trials short a signalman, before a short leave and then returning for duty at naval headquarters in New York City for officer's training.

More about Henry Fonda on the next page.

After reporting to New York, Fonda was discharged as an enlisted man and sworn in as an officer. The newly commissioned Lt. (jg.) Henry Fonda was then ordered to Washington to make training films. He didn't want to do that and convinced his boss to reassign him to the Naval Training School to study air combat intelligence (ACI). Fonda graduated in the top quarter of his class and received orders to report to the USS Curtiss as the assistant air operations officer assigned to the staff of Vice Admiral John Hoover, Commander Forward Area Central Pacific.

In the film The Battle of the Bulge Fonda played a conscientious intelligence officer who repeatedly risked life and limb trying to find out what the Germans were up to. As a real life Naval Intelligence Officer he displayed the same characteristics of dependability and conscientiousness.

Fonda, a Lieutenant Junior Grade in Air Combat Intelligence in the Central Pacific, won a Presidential Citation and the Bronze Star. He left active service but remained in the reserves for another eight years.

Back in Hollywood, Fonda and war hero Jimmy Stewart made memorable films their first time at bat following the war. Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life and Fonda, back with John Ford, in My Darling Clementine (1946). Other films followed including The Fugitive (1947) and Fort Apache (1949), both with John Ford. Fonda still loved the stage and in the late forties was offered the chance to play a Naval Officer in Mr. Roberts. He jumped at it. The play was a big hit and had a long run on Broadway.

The film version of Mr. Roberts, starring Fonda and James Cagney, went into production in the mid fifties under the direction of his old pal, John Ford. The two friends clashed during the filming when Fonda objected to what he thought was Ford's interjection of too much horseplay into the action. The dispute got so heated that at one point Ford sucker-punched Fonda, pretty much ending their friendship and destroying any chance of future projects between the two men. Shortly thereafter John Ford left the company due to "illness" and Mervyn Leroy finished directing the film.

Fonda married Susan Blanchard in 1950. The couple had a daughter, Amy and divorced in 1956. He married Afdera Franchetti the next year and divorced her in 1961. They had no children. In 1982 Fonda married Shirlee Adams whom he was married to until his death.

Fonda's film career thrived into his golden years, and he won his only Best Actor Academy Award at the age of seventy-six for On Golden Pond, starring Katharine Hepburn  and Fonda's daughter, Jane. That same year he published his auto-biography Fonda: My Life, and the next year he passed away.

In the thirties and forties nothing displayed to the world the uniquely American character, American humor and the American persona, more than the motion picture industry based in Hollywood. No one portrayed the quintessential American better than Henry Fonda during his long film career. On screen he personified Americans like Gil Martin during the revolutionary war in Drums Along the Mohawk, Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln and outlaw Frank James in Jesse James. And who better to play these uniquely American persons than Henry Fonda, whose roots extended back to Douw Fonda, the founder of the town of Fonda in New York in the early 1600s.

He has been quoted as saying "I'm not really Henry Fonda. Nobody could have that much integrity." In 1978 he said "I guess I go overboard to avoid taking credit for the image I have. That way it's easier to live with myself. I don't feel I'm totally a man of integrity."

Fonda was a complicated man, a perfectionist about his work, and he didn't suffer fools lightly. He had a temper and at times seemed remote and distant, even unapproachable. He had solid mid-western values and felt "damned ashamed" about having been married five times. He was also a man of loyalty to his friends, family and country. He was a man of character. Whatever his shortcomings may have been, his "longcomings" more than made up for them and his film legacy is unsurpassed by anyone.

Henry Fonda profile from authors Richard and S. Joy Williams, from their book Reel Heroes to Real Heroes & Real Heroes to Reel Heroes .

Review of Reel Heroes to Real Heroes & Real Heroes to Reel Heroes .

 



                       

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