The Fonda surname originated with immigrants from Genoa, Italy, to the Netherlands, in the 15th century. In 1642, a branch of the Fonda family immigrated to the Dutch colony of New Netherland, on the East Coast of North America. They were among the first Dutch population to settle in what is now upstate New York, establishing the town of Fonda, New York. By 1888, many of their descendants had relocated to Nebraska. Henry Fonda was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, to advertising-printing jobber William Brace Fonda, and his wife, Elma Herberta (née Jaynes), in the second year of their marriage. Fonda was brought up as a Christian Scientist, though he was baptized an Episcopalian at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Grand Island. He said, “[M]y whole damn family was nice.” They were a close family and highly supportive, especially in health matters, as they avoided doctors due to their religion. Despite having a religious background, he later on became an agnostic. Fonda was a bashful, short boy who tended to avoid girls, except his sisters, and was a good skater, swimmer, and runner. He worked part-time in his father’s print plant and imagined a possible career as a journalist. Later, he worked after school for the phone company. He also enjoyed drawing. Fonda was active in the Boy Scouts of America; Teichmann reports that he reached the rank of Eagle Scout. When he was about fourteen, his father took him to observe a lynching, from the window of his father’s plant, of a young black man accused of rape. This enraged the young Fonda and he kept a keen awareness of prejudice for his entire adult life.
By his senior year in high school, Fonda had grown to more than six feet tall, but remained shy. He attended the University of Minnesota, where he majored in journalism, but he did not graduate. He took a job with the Retail Credit Company. At age 20, Fonda started his acting career at the Omaha Community Playhouse, when his mother’s friend Dodie Brando (mother of Marlon Brando) recommended that he try out for a juvenile part in You and I, in which he was cast as Ricky. He was fascinated by the stage, learning everything from set construction to stage production, and embarrassed by his acting ability. When he received the lead in Merton of the Movies, he realized the beauty of acting as a profession, as it allowed him to deflect attention from his own tongue-tied personality and create stage characters relying on someone else’s scripted words. Fonda decided to quit his job and go East in 1928 to strike his fortune. He arrived on Cape Cod and played a role at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts; a friend took him over to Falmouth, where he quickly became a valued member of the new University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company. There he worked with Margaret Sullavan, his future wife. James Stewart joined the Players months after Fonda left, and they later became lifelong friends. He landed his first professional role in the University Players production of The Jest, by Sem Benelli. Joshua Logan, a young sophomore at Princeton who had been double-cast in the show, gave Fonda the part of Tornaquinci, “an elderly Italian with long, white beard and heavy wig.” Also in the cast of The Jest with Fonda and Logan were Bretaigne Windust, Kent Smith, and Eleanor Phelps. The tall (6’1.5″) and slim (160 lbs) Fonda headed for New York City, where he was soon joined by Stewart (after Fonda’s short marriage to Margaret Sullavan ended.) The two men were roommates and honed their skills on Broadway. Fonda appeared in theatrical productions from 1926 to 1934. They fared no better than many Americans in and out of work during the Great Depression, sometimes lacking enough money to take the subway.
Fonda got the first break, as he was hired to make his first film appearance in 1935 as Janet Gaynor’s 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, which had gained him critical recognition. Suddenly, Fonda was making $3,000 a week and dining with Hollywood stars such as Carole Lombard. Stewart soon followed him to Hollywood, and they roomed together again, in lodgings next door to Greta Garbo. In 1935 Fonda starred in the RKO film I Dream Too Much with the opera star Lily Pons. The New York Times announced him as “Henry Fonda, the most likable of the new crop of romantic juveniles.” 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. He starred with ex-wife Margaret Sullavan in The Moon’s Our Home, and a short re-kindling of their relationship led to a brief but temporary consideration of re-marriage. Fonda got the nod for the lead role in You Only Live Once (1937), also costarring Sidney, and directed by Fritz Lang. He was a critical success opposite Bette Davis, who had picked him, in the film Jezebel (1938). This was followed by the title role in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), his first collaboration with director John Ford, and that year he played Frank James in Jesse James (1939). Another 1939 film was Drums Along the Mohawk, also directed by Ford. Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve (1941). 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). A reluctant Darryl Zanuck, who preferred Tyrone Power, insisted on Fonda’s signing a seven-year contract with his 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. Fonda starred in The Return of Frank James (1940) with Gene Tierney. He then played opposite Barbara Stanwyck in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941), and again teamed with Tierney in the successful screwball comedy Rings on Her Fingers (1942). She was one of Fonda’s favorite co-stars, and they appeared in three films together. He was acclaimed for his role in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). Fonda after enlisting in United States Navy in November 1942. Fonda enlisted in the United States 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. 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 was awarded the Navy Presidential Unit Citation and the Bronze Star.
After the war, Fonda took a break from movies and attended Hollywood parties and enjoyed civilian life. He and Stewart would listen to records and invite Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Dinah Shore, and Nat King Cole over for music, with the latter giving the family piano lessons. Fonda played Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946), which was directed by John Ford. Fonda did seven post-war films until his contract with Fox expired, the last being Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon (1947), opposite Joan Crawford. He starred in The Fugitive (1947), which was the first film of John Ford’s new production company, Argosy Pictures. In 1948 he appeared in a subsequent Argosy/Ford production, Fort Apache, as a rigid Army colonel, along with John Wayne and Shirley Temple in her first adult role. 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, where Fonda, a junior officer, wages a private war against the captain. He won a 1948 Tony Award for the part. Fonda followed that by reprising his performance in the national tour and with successful stage runs in Point of No Return and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. After an eight-year absence from films, he starred in the 1955 film version of Mister Roberts 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, who punched him during filming, and Fonda vowed never to work for the director again. While he kept that vow, Fonda spoke glowingly of Ford in Peter Bogdanovich’s documentary Directed by John Ford. Fonda next acted in Paramount Pictures’s production of the Leo Tolstoy epic War and Peace (1956), in which he played Pierre Bezukhov opposite Audrey Hepburn; it took two years to shoot. Fonda worked with Alfred Hitchcock in 1956, playing a man falsely accused of robbery in The Wrong Man; the unusual semi-documentary work of Hitchcock’s was based on an actual incident and partly filmed on location. Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, and Fonda in a live 1955 TV version of The Petrified Forest. In 1957, Fonda made his first foray into production with 12 Angry Men, based on a teleplay and a script by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet. The low-budget production was completed in seventeen days of filming, mostly in one claustrophobic jury room. It had a strong cast, including Jack Klugman, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam, and E. G. Marshall. The intense film about twelve jurors deciding the fate of a young Puerto Rican 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 “Juror #8”, who with logic and persistence eventually sways all the jurors to an acquittal. Early on the film drew poorly, but after winning critical acclaim and awards, it proved a success. In spite of the good outcome, Fonda vowed that he would never produce a movie again, fearing that failing as a producer might derail his acting career. After acting in the 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 starred as Marshal Simon Fry. His co-stars were Allen Case and Read Morgan. Fonda in How the West Was Won During the 1960s, Fonda performed 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. In the Cold War suspense film Fail-Safe (1964), Fonda played the President of the United States who tries to avert a nuclear holocaust through tense negotiations with the Soviets after American bombers are mistakenly ordered to attack the USSR. He also returned to more light-hearted cinema in Spencer’s Mountain (1963), which was the inspiration for the TV series, The Waltons. Fonda 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. Fonda’s relationship with Jimmy Stewart survived their disagreements over politics — Fonda was a liberal Democrat, and Stewart a conservative Republican. After a heated argument, they avoided talking politics with each other. The two men teamed up for 1968’s Firecreek, where Fonda again played the heavy. In 1970, Fonda and Stewart costarred in the western The Cheyenne Social Club, a minor film in which they humorously argued politics. They had first appeared together on film in On Our Merry Way (1948), a comedy which also starred William Demarest and Fred MacMurray and featured a grown-up Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, who had acted as a child in Our Gang.
Despite approaching his seventies, Fonda continued to work in theater, television and film through the 1970s. In 1970, Fonda appeared in three films, the most successful The Cheyenne Social Club. The other two films were Too Late the Hero, in which Fonda played a secondary role, and There Was a Crooked Man, about Paris Pitman Jr. (played by Kirk Douglas) trying to escape from an Arizona prison.
Fonda returned 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 1972. A TV-movie adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, 1973’s The Red Pony, 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, 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. 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, he had a pacemaker installed following cancer surgery. 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. Fonda appeared in a revival of The Time of Your Life that opened in March 17, 1972 at the Huntington Hartford Theater in Los Angeles where Fonda, Richard Dreyfuss, Gloria Grahame, Ron Thompson, Strother Martin, Jane Alexander, Lewis J. Stadlen, Richard X. Slattery and Pepper Martin were among the cast with Edwin Sherin directing. 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 Kings, based on Taylor Caldwell’s novel. Three years later, he appeared in ABC’s Roots: The Next Generations, but the miniseries was overshadowed by its predecessor, Roots. Also in 1976, Fonda starred in the World War II blockbuster Midway. Fonda finished the 1970s in a number of disaster films. The first of these was the 1977 Italian killer octopus thriller Tentacoli (Tentacles) and Rollercoaster, in which Fonda appeared with Richard Widmark and a young Helen Hunt. He performed again with Widmark, Olivia de Havilland, Fred MacMurray, and José Ferrer in the killer bee action film The Swarm. He also acted in the global disaster film Meteor (his second role as a sitting President of the United States after Fail-Safe), with Sean Connery, Natalie Wood and Karl Malden, and the Canadian production City on Fire, which also featured Shelley Winters and Ava Gardner. Fonda had a small role with his son, Peter, in Wanda Nevada (1979), with Brooke Shields. As Fonda’s health declined and he took longer breaks between filming, critics began to take notice of his extensive body of work. In 1979, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame 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, though all but one of the productions he was featured in before his death were for television. The television works included the critically acclaimed live performance of Preston Jones’ The Oldest Living Graduate and the Emmy nominated Gideon’s Trumpet (co-starring Fay Wray in her last performance) about Clarence Gideon’s fight to have the right to publicly funded legal counsel for the indigent.Fonda won an Academy Award for his work with Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond. On Golden Pond in 1981, the film adaptation of Ernest Thompson’s play, marked one final professional and personal triumph for Fonda. Directed by Mark Rydell, the project provided unprecedented collaborations between Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, along with Fonda and his daughter, Jane. The elder Fonda played an emotionally brittle and distant father who becomes more accessible at the end of his life. Jane Fonda has said that elements of the story mimicked their real-life relationship, and helped them resolve certain issues. She bought the film rights in the hope that her father would play the role, and later described it as “a gift to my father that was so unbelievably successful.” 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 10 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 (he was the oldest recipient of the award; it also earned him a Golden Globe Best Actor award). Fonda was by that point too ill to attend the ceremony, and his daughter Jane accepted on his behalf. She said when accepting the award that her dad would probably quip, “Well, ain’t I lucky.” After Fonda’s death, some film critics called this performance “his last and greatest role”. Fonda’s final performance was in the 1981 television drama Summer Solstice with Myrna Loy. It was filmed after On Golden Pond had wrapped and Fonda was in rapidly declining health.
Fonda was married six times and had seven children, one of them adopted. 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 Brokaw, widow of a wealthy industrialist, George Tuttle Brokaw. The Brokaws had a daughter, Frances de Villers, nicknamed “Pan,” who had been born soon after the Brokaws marriage in 1931. Fonda met his future wife Frances at Denham Studios in England on the set of Wings of the Morning, the first British picture to be filmed in technicolor. They had two children, Jane (born December 21, 1937) and Peter (born February 23, 1940), both of whom became successful actors. They have each had Oscar nominations and wins. In August 1949, Fonda announced to Frances that he wanted a divorce so he could remarry; their thirteen years of marriage had not been happy ones for him. Devastated by Fonda’s confession, and plagued by emotional problems for many years, Frances went into the Austen Riggs Psychiatric Hospital in January 1950 for treatment. She committed suicide there on April 14. Before her death she had written six notes to various individuals, but left no final message for her husband. Fonda quickly arranged a private funeral with only himself and his mother-in-law, Sophie Seymour, in attendance. Years later Dr. Margaret Gibson, the psychiatrist who had treated Frances at Austen Riggs, described Henry Fonda: “He was a cold, self-absorbed person, a complete narcissist.” Later in 1950, Fonda married Susan Blanchard, with whom he had been having an affair since sometime in 1948. She was twenty-one years old, the daughter of Australian-born interior designer Dorothy Hammerstein, and the step-daughter of Oscar Hammerstein II. Together, they adopted a daughter, Amy Fishman (born 1953). They divorced three years later. Blanchard was in awe of Fonda, and she described her role in the marriage as “a geisha,” doing everything she could to please him, dealing with and solving problems he would not acknowledge. In 1957, Fonda married the Italian countess Afdera Franchetti; they divorced in 1961. Soon after, Fonda married Shirlee Mae Adams, and remained with her until his death in 1982. Fonda’s relationship with his children has been described as “emotionally distant.” Fonda loathed displays of feeling in himself or others, and this was a consistent part of his character. Whenever he felt that his emotional wall was being breached, he had outbursts of anger, exhibiting a furious temper that terrified his family. In Peter Fonda’s 1998 autobiography Don’t Tell Dad (1998), he described how he was never sure how his father felt about him. He never volunteered to his father that he loved him until he was elderly, and Peter finally heard, “I love you, son.” His daughter Jane rejected her father’s friendships with Republican actors such as John Wayne and James Stewart. Their relationship became extremely strained as Jane Fonda became a left-wing activist. Jane Fonda reported feeling detached from her father, especially during her early acting days. In 1958 she met Lee Strasberg while visiting her father at Malibu. The Fonda and Strasberg families were neighbors, and she had developed a friendship with Strasberg’s daughter, Susan. Jane Fonda began studying acting with Strasberg, learning the techniques of “The Method” of which Strasberg was a renowned proponent. This proved to be a pivotal point in her career. As Jane Fonda developed her skill as an actress, she became frustrated with her father’s talent that, to her, appeared a demonstration of effortless ability.
Fonda died at his Los Angeles home on August 12, 1982, from heart disease. Fonda’s wife, Shirlee, his daughter Jane and his son Peter were at his side when he died. He suffered from prostate cancer, but this did not directly cause his death and was noted only as a concurrent ailment on his death certificate. Fonda asked that no funeral be held, and he was promptly cremated. President Ronald W. Reagan, himself a former actor, hailed Fonda as “a true professional dedicated to excellence in his craft. He graced the screen with a sincerity and accuracy which made him a legend.” In the years since his death, Fonda has become more highly regarded as an actor 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 37-cent postage stamp with an artist’s drawing of Fonda as part of their “Hollywood legends” series. The Fonda Theatre in Hollywood, California, originally known as the Carter DeHaven Music Box, was named for the actor in 1985 by the Nederlander Organization.
- May, 16, 1905
- Grand Island, Nebraska
- August, 12, 1982
- Los Angeles, California