Dec 102006

The star of films like Grapes of Wrath (1940), My Darling Clementine (1946) and 12 Angry Men (1957), Henry Fonda (May 16, 1905-August 12, 1982) was one of the great Hollywood icons but his greatest love was the theater. It is impossible to look at Henry Fonda and not think of integrity, therefore his image as a strong, silent hero was so entrenched in the minds of American moviegoers that that they rejected him as a cold-blooded killer in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and the movie had to be withdrawn.

Early Life

Born in 1905, Henry Fonda grew up in an upper class family in Omaha, Nebraska, and as a child Fonda witnessed first-hand a mob break into the town jail to lynch a black man accused of raping a white woman. He went to the University of Minnesota to get away from Omaha, but he was unable to keep up with his course work because he had to work as well, so he flunked out after two years. Back in Omaha, Fonda began acting in community theater while working as a credit clerk. It did not take long to realize that he had discovered his life’s calling, so he quit his job and became an assistant director at the Community Playhouse. He then joined a small theater company called the University Players, which was headed by Joshua Logan, for summer stock, while working in New York during the winter. Fonda began dating a fellow member of the company, Margaret Sullavan, but her career took off sooner than his did. After a tempestuous courtship, they married on Christmas morning, 1931, and divorced several months later.

Fonda’s acting career was going nowhere because it was the middle of the Depression, and theaters were closing all over the country. Life was so rough that he and his roommate Jimmy Stewart used to drink raw alcohol mixed with gelatin to make life seem brighter. When he did find work in a play, it was often as a set designer rather than as an actor. Things began to change in 1934 when several successful shows persuaded agent Leland Hayward to sign him as a client, and then get him a contract with producer Walter Wanger at a thousand dollars a week. Wanger’s publicity machine soon took over Fonda’s career and he became a star.


A temporary reconciliation with Margaret Sullavan proved short-lived. He met wealthy socialite Frances Brokaw while filming Wings of Eagles in Europe, and allowed her to sweep him off his feet. They visited Germany for the Berlin Olympics and found the ever-present military and zealotry oppressive. He also found himself uncomfortable around her blue-blood social circle but the marriage preparations proceeded smoothly. Frances quickly realized that her new husband took his acting so seriously that he basically disappeared when making a film. Since she had no interest in movies and had little in common with the wives of her husband’s friends, she focused her energies on trading stocks. Unlike most Hollywood stars, Fonda did not have any affairs. Daughter Jane was born in 1937, and his career was booming.

Fonda had already developed his persona of a quiet, honest, restrained man when John Ford convinced him to star in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), thus starting his career as an American hero. Fonda idolized Lincoln and had read many books about him but was daunted by the challenge of playing the Great Emancipator until Ford politely pointed out that he would be playing an inexperienced young lawyer. That film started a fruitful but relatively short relationship that included Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Grapes of Wrath (1940). Fonda was already a fan of John Steinbeck when he was offered the lead in The Grapes of Wrath. Unlike most stars at the time, Fonda had decided to remain independent once his contract with Wanger ran out, which meant that he had to beg Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox, for the role in the film, and Zanuck forced him to sign a seven-year contract.

Son Peter was born in 1940 and the family purchased nine acres in the hills high above Sunset Boulevard, where Fonda threw himself into farming and his wife looked after their finances. In fact, he was one of the first organic farmers and he did his own composting. However, aside from his idyllic home life, work had become hell due to Zanuck’s desire to wring as much as possible from Fonda by forcing him to do movies that he hated. Only occasionally did he feel satisfied with a film, such as when William Wellman managed to talk Zanuck into letting Fonda do The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).


Like most of Hollywood, Fonda enlisted after Pearl Harbor even though he qualified for a deferment since he was thirty-seven-years-old and married. However, all of his friends had joined up and he knew that he looked younger than he was, so he was afraid that people would presume he was not willing to do his share. Fonda joined the Navy the day he completed the Ox-Bow Incident, but he had underestimated Zanuck, who had persuaded the military to defer his service in order to film The Immortal Sergeant (1943), using the excuse that it would encourage people to enlist. Fonda hated making the film and his opinion of Zanuck managed to sink even lower.

After completing basic training, Fonda became a quartermaster third rank, and he served on a destroyer for a couple of cruises before he was sent to Officer Training School, even though he would rather have stayed in the ranks. Washington wanted him to narrate training films but he managed to wrangle an assignment to an anti-submarine warfare course and then the battleship Curtis in the Gilbert Islands. He took part in the Marines’ steady advance from island to island on the way to Tokyo. Despite the size of the ship, it was not a safe assignment since the battleship was frequently the target of kamikaze attacks. In fact, his cabin was destroyed by a kamikaze attack while he was on leave. Aside from his anti-submarine duties, Fonda was also made an officer courier, so he frequently took dispatches to Admiral Nimitz, which must have been useful during the two times that he played him on screen. Fonda won a bronze star for helping to sink a Japanese submarine and he was released just after the bombing of Hiroshima.


With the war over, everyone was throwing parties. Jimmy Stewart was staying with the Fondas and they spent the period from September 1945 to June 1946 going to parties. However, his children sometimes saw a terrible rage consume him, as if all of the pent-up tension from the war was coming out. Fonda was content farming his land until John Ford called him up for My Darling Clementine (1946). He frequently joined Ford and John Wayne on Ford’s ship, the Araner, when it sailed around Mexico, where they could get stinking drunk without any attention from the press.

Fonda and his wife began drifting apart after he returned home from the war, partially because she had never embraced his circle of Hollywood friends. Furthermore, he was often away making films, where his wife knew that he was surrounded by young, attractive starlets. Pre-occupied with his career and unsatisfied with the quality of work that he was receiving, Fonda proved unable to give his wife the support that she needed. Fonda then went to New York in 1947 to star in the play Mr. Roberts, which quickly became a huge hit and gave him a joy that he did not find in films. Unfortunately, his family did not adapt well to living in the East and the marriage continued to deteriorate. His wife Frances saw numerous doctors and even checked herself into a sanatorium. When she learned of Fonda’s affair with Susan Blanchard, her depression worsened until she finally committed suicide in a sanatorium in 1950. Fonda kept the suicide a secret and told everyone that she had died of a heart attack. He then married Susan Blanchard in 1951 while sharing custody of the children with Frances’ parents.

Dissatisfied with Hollywood, Fonda remained in New York even after the play Mister Roberts ended its run in 1952. He only returned to Hollywood to make the film version of Mister Roberts with John Ford but the experience was a disaster, partially because Ford broke his own rule of only drinking after making a film, not during. Seeing the play that he loved and had performed for five years genuinely hurt Fonda, and when Ford punched him during an argument it basically terminated his relationship with his old drinking partner. Fort Apache (1948) had already heralded John Wayne’s replacement of Fonda as Ford’s leading man but the fiasco meant that there was no turning back. It also confirmed his dislike of Hollywood so he happily accepted Dino De Laurentiis’ offer to travel to Rome to star in War and Peace (1956). The filming proved to be an unhappy experience, especially since his marriage to Susan Blanchard ended at the same time. However, he met his fourth wife, twenty-four-year-old Afdera Franchetti, soon afterwards. Their marriage did not last long, roughly four years, because he was an intensely dedicated actor and she was part of the jet set, floating from party to party. Returning to America, Fonda continued to mainly act on stage but he still kept one foot in Hollywood by doing films.


Fonda was a patriotic man, but he hated the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and he supported the Hollywood Ten. He remained friends with Jimmy Stewart, a solid conservative, by agreeing to never discuss politics. However, his relationship with former drinking partner Ward Bond ended and he barely managed to stay on speaking terms with John Wayne.

A strong supporter of liberal politics, Fonda campaigned for Adlai Stevenson in 1956, delivering speeches written by John Steinbeck. He then backed John F. Kennedy in 1960. Despite his disapproval of sending troops to Vietnam, Fonda did a handshaking tour, where he spent twenty-three days traveling around Vietnam, flying from base to base. Like Charlton Heston and Robert Mitchum, he called dozens of families when he returned to the United States but he still supported Eugene McCarthy in 1968.

Career Decline

As Fonda’s children grew up, their own acting careers proved to be as successful as his, and even surpassed him when Easy Rider was an overnight success. This was a low period in his career when he was doing movies like The Battle of the Bulge (1965), which he considered to be crap. Unlike his friend Jimmy Stewart, who was able to unleash his dark side by making noir westerns with Anthony Mann, Fonda was still imprisoned by his heroic image. He had made attempts to break free of that image in The Tin Star (1957) and Warlock (1959) where he played a tarnished hero, but he was still a hero. In a way it was a tribute to his acting ability that he was able to conceal his cold personality until Sergio Leone convinced him to play a ruthless killer in Once Upon the Time in the West (1968). However, he became happier when he met Shirlee Adams in 1962 and they stayed together until he died. They married in 1965, and it was his fifth marriage.

Fonda was not happy when Jane entered her radical phase as an anti-war activist. Although he shared her opposition to the Vietnam War, he did not mock the patriotism of the men who were fighting there, partially because one of Jimmy Stewart’s sons had died in Vietnam. Overwhelmed by her zealous radicalism, he told her he would turn her in himself if he ever found out that she was a communist. When she made her famous trip to Hanoi, he refused to defend or attack her. Jane repaid his loyalty by successfully crusading to ensure that her father received an Oscar for On Golden Pond (1981). He died on August 12, 1982.

Historical Movies:

Blockade (1938)

Directed by William Dieterle, starring Henry Fonda and Madeleine Carroll
A peasant is forced to rally his neighbors to defend their farms against invaders during the Spanish Civil War

Jesse James (1939)

Directed by Henry King, starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda
When a railroad company tries to force farmers off their land, the James brothers try to organize their neighbors to oppose the company. After their mother is killed when their home is bombed, they form a gang to rob the railroad company and banks. After many attempts to capture Jesse James fail, a detective agency hires Jesse’s friend Bob Ford to kill him. (full review)

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)

Directed by Irving Cummings, starring Don Ameche and Loretta Young
Alexander Graham Bell falls in love with a deaf girl and invents the telephone as a by-product of trying to transmit the human voice.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Directed by John Ford
Starring Henry Fonda and Alice Brady
Abraham Lincoln prepares for his first big case, courts his future wife and debates whether to enter politics. (full review)

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert
A young couple lose their farm in the Mohawk Valley during an Indian raid at the beginning of the American Revolution. When the British and their Indian allies invade the valley, the community is forced to seek shelter in the local fort. (full review)

Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell
A poor family in Oklahoma lose their land during the Great Depression and travel to California in search of a better life but find that life is just as harsh there.

The Return of Frank James (1940)

Directed by Fritz Lang, starring Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney
When his brother’s killers are pardoned, Frank James decides to hunt them down himself.

Immortal Sergeant (1943)

Directed by John Stahl, starring Henry Fonda and Thomas Mitchell
A timid Canadian studying in Britain enlists in the British Army and is sent to serve in the desert, where under the leadership of an experienced sergeant, he finds confidence in himself.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Directed by William Wellman, starring Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews
Two drifters ride into a town shortly before news arrives that a local man has been murdered and his cattle stolen. Drafted into a posse, they attempt to prevent the three men caught with the cattle from being hung on the basis of flimsy evidence.

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda and Victor Mature
Wyatt Earp and his brothers ride into town after leaving the youngest brother with their cattle. When he is murdered, the brothers decide to stay, and Wyatt becomes town marshal and makes his brothers his deputies. While searching for their brother’s killers, they come into conflict with the Clantons, and Wyatt befriends Doc Holliday.

Fort Apache (1948)

Directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda and John Wayne
A strict martinet is posted to a frontier outpost and tries to win glory by luring Apache chief Cochise into battle instead of negotiating a peaceful settlement as advised by his more experienced subordinates.

Mister Roberts (1955)

Directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda and James Cagney
A naval lieutenant stuck on a cargo ship in the Pacific during WWII tries to protect the crew from a tyrannical captain, while dreaming of being posted to a destroyer.

War and Peace (1956)

Directed by King Vidor, starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn
An adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel about the lives of several Russian families during Napoleon’s invasion.

The Tin Star (1957)

Directed by Anthony Mann, starring Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins
An experienced bounty hunter and ex-sheriff rides into town and teaches a raw young sheriff how to keep order in a town.

Warlock (1959)

Directed by Edward Dmytryk, starring Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark
A town hires a famous gunman to serve as marshal and deal with a gang of outlaws that is terrorizing the inhabitants. However, the situation becomes complex when a group of townspeople decide that hiring a gunman is illegal and persuade a reformed member of the gang to serve as sheriff.

The Longest Day (1962)

Directed by Ken Annakin, starring Henry Fonda and John Wayne
Tells the story of D-Day (June 6, 1944), from both the Allies’ and the Germans’ point of views.

In Harm’s Way (1965)

Directed by Otto Preminger, starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas
As the US Navy struggles to transform itself from a peacetime navy to a wartime navy, a captain who was reprimanded for showing too much initiative during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is given the opportunity to redeem himself by ejecting the Japanese from a key island.

Battle of the Bulge (1965)

Directed by Ken Annakin, starring Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw
In the winter of 1944, the Allies believe that Germany is about to fall, so they are caught unprepared by a surprise German offensive in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium.

Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

Directed by Sergio Leone, starring Henry Fonda and Claudia Cardinale
A mysterious gunman joins forces with an outlaw to protect a woman from a deadly hired gun working for a powerful railroad company.

Too Late the Hero (1970)

Directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Cliff Robertson and Michael Caine
British and Japanese troops occupy different parts of an island in the Pacific and an American joins a war-weary British unit when it is sent behind enemy lines on a dangerous mission but the mission proves to be more dangerous than expected

My Name is Nobody (1973)

Directed by Torino Valerii, starring Henry Fonda and Terence Hill
An aging gunfighter on the verge of retirement encounters a young gunfighter who is both fascinated by him and wants to replace him.

Midway (1976)

Directed by Jack Smight, starring Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda
The American Navy wins its first decisive victory against the Japanese Navy following Pearl Harbor during WWII.

Further Reading:

The Fondas: A Hollywood Dynasty-Peter Collier, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1991.

The book concentrates on detailing the traumas experienced by the family, their effects on the children and the ups and downs of Fonda’s relationship with his two children, Jane and Peter. John Ford’s influence on Henry Fonda’s career receives far too little attention and Fonda’s gray-listing after opposing HUAC is only briefly mentioned. Collier is far from impartial, treating Jane Fonda in a very sympathetic manner, while relentlessly criticizing Peter Fonda. It is the only in-depth look at the Fondas as a family, but it is not the definitive work.


Fonda: My Life. As told to Howard Teichmann, The New American Library, Inc, New York, 1981.

Based on 200 hours of recordings by Fonda and 117 interviews with family and friends, Teichman had access to all of Fonda’s files and letters. It is a very entertaining book and you feel that you are actually there listening to Fonda telling stories about his life. Unfortunately, it ignores his gray-listing during HUAC and his political clashes with Ward Bond and John Wayne. Still, Fonda deserves praise for having the courage to discuss his life in such a public manner.


Don’t Tell Dad: A Memoir-Peter Fonda. New York: Hyperion, 1998.

It is an incredibly honest book. Fonda calls people ‘assholes,’ and tells an entertaining, moving story. He sure did a lot of drugs, and some of his drug hallucinations are pretty funny. The scene near the end where his father tells him that he loves him is genuinely touching. However, his constantly saying that women let him explore the beauty of their bodies gets a bit tiring. He unsurprisingly trashes Peter Collier’s biography of the Fondas several times.