One of the cinema's most enduring actors, Henry Fonda enjoyed a highly successful career spanning close to a half century. Most often in association with director John Ford, he starred in many of the finest films of Hollywood's golden era. Born May 16, 1905, in Grand Island, NE, Fonda majored in journalism in college, and worked as an office boy before pursuing an interest in acting. He began his amateur career with the Omaha Community Playhouse, often performing with the mother of Marlon Brando. Upon becoming a professional performer in 1928, Fonda traveled east, tenuring with the Provincetown Players before signing on with the University Players Guild, a New England-based ensemble including up-and-comers like James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and Joshua Logan. Fonda's first Broadway appearance followed with 1929's The Game of Life and Death. He also worked in stock, and even served as a set designer.
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In 1931, Fonda and Sullavan were married, and the following year he appeared in I Loved You Wednesday. The couple divorced in 1933, and Fonda's big break soon followed in New Faces of '34. A leading role in The Farmer Takes a Wife was next, and when 20th Century Fox bought the film rights, they recruited him to reprise his performance opposite Janet Gaynor, resulting in his 1935 screen debut. Fonda and Gaynor were slated to reunite in the follow-up, Way Down East, but when she fell ill Rochelle Hudson stepped in. In 1936 he starred in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (the first outdoor Technicolor production), the performance which forever defined his onscreen persona: Intense, insistent, and unflappable, he was also extraordinarily adaptable, and so virtually impossible to miscast. He next co-starred with Sullavan in The Moon's Our Home, followed by Wings of the Morning (another Technicolor milestone, this one the first British feature of its kind).
For the great Fritz Lang, Fonda starred in 1937's You Only Live Once, and the following year co-starred with Bette Davis in William Wyler's much-celebrated Jezebel. His next critical success came as the titular Young Mr. Lincoln, a 1939 biopic directed by John Ford. The film was not a commercial sensation, but soon after Fonda and Ford reunited for Drums Along the Mohawk, a tremendous success. Ford then tapped him to star as Tom Joad in the 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a casting decision which even Steinbeck himself wholeheartedly supported. However, 20th Century Fox's Darryl Zanuck wanted Tyrone Power for the role, and only agreed to assign Fonda if the actor signed a long-term contract. Fonda signed, and Zanuck vowed to make him the studio's top star -- it didn't happen, however, and despite the success of The Grapes of Wrath (for which he scored his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination), his tenure at Fox was largely unhappy and unproductive.
The best of Fonda's follow-up vehicles was the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy The Lady Eve, made at Paramount on loan from Fox; his co-star, Barbara Stanwyck, also appeared with him in You Belong to Me. After a number of disappointing projects, Fox finally assigned him to a classic, William Wellman's 1943 Western The Ox-Bow Incident. Studio executives reportedly hated the film, however, until it won a number of awards. After starring in The Immortal Sergeant, Fonda joined the navy to battle in World War II. Upon his return, he still owed Fox three films, beginning with Ford's great 1946 Western My Darling Clementine. At RKO he starred in 1947's The Long Night, followed by Fox's Daisy Kenyon. Again at RKO, he headlined Ford's The Fugitive, finally fulfilling his studio obligations with Ford's Fort Apache, his first unsympathetic character. Fonda refused to sign a new contract and effectively left film work for the next seven years, returning to Broadway for lengthy runs in Mister Roberts, Point of No Return, and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.
Outside of cameo roles in a handful of pictures, Fonda did not fully return to films until he agreed to reprise his performance in the 1955 screen adaptation of Mister Roberts, one of the year's biggest hits. Clearly, he had been greatly missed during his stage exile, and offers flooded in. First there was 1956's War and Peace, followed by Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man. In 1957, Fonda produced as well as starred in the Sidney Lumet classic Twelve Angry Men, but despite a flurry of critical acclaim the film was a financial disaster. In 1958, after reteaming with Lumet on Stage Struck, Fonda returned to Broadway to star in Two for the Seesaw, and over the years to come he alternated between projects on the screen (The Man Who Understood Women, Advise and Consent, The Longest Day) with work on-stage (Silent Night, Lonely Night, Critic's Choice, Gift of Time). From 1959 to 1961, he also starred in a well-received television series, The Deputy.
By the mid-'60s, Fonda's frequent absences from the cinema had severely hampered his ability to carry a film. Of his many pictures from the period, only 1965's The Battle of the Bulge performed respectably at the box office. After 1967's Welcome to Hard Times also met with audience resistance, Fonda returned to television to star in the Western Stranger on the Run. After appearing in the 1968 Don Siegel thriller Madigan, he next starred opposite Lucille Ball in Yours, Mine and Ours, a well-received comedy. Fonda next filmed Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West; while regarded as a classic, the actor so loathed the experience that he refused to ever discuss the project again. With his old friend, James Stewart, he starred in The Cheyenne Social Club before agreeing to a second TV series, the police drama Smith, in 1971. That same year, he was cast to appear as Paul Newman's father in Sometimes a Great Notion.
After a pair of TV movies, 1973's The Red Pony and The Alpha Stone, Fonda began a series of European productions which included the disastrous Ash Wednesday and Il Mio Nome è Nessuno. He did not fare much better upon returning to Hollywood; after rejecting Network (the role which won Peter Finch an Oscar), Fonda instead appeared in the Sensurround war epic Midway, followed by The Great Smokey Roadblock. More TV projects followed, including the miniseries Roots -- The Next Generation. Between 1978 and 1979, he also appeared in three consecutive disaster movies: The Swarm, City on Fire, and Meteor. Better received was Billy Wilder's 1978 film Fedora. A year later, he also co-starred with his son, Peter Fonda, in Wanda Nevada. His final project was the 1981 drama On Golden Pond, a film co-starring and initiated by his daughter, Jane Fonda; as an aging professor in the twilight of his years, he finally won the Best Actor Oscar so long due him. Sadly, Fonda was hospitalized at the time of the Oscar ceremony, and died just months later on August 12, 1982. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi