Henry Fonda

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It got ecstatic reviews and a spread in Life magazine, but essentially bombed at the box office in 1957. Yet by 2002, Twelve Angry Men would be listed 23rd among the best films of all time in an Internet Movie Database poll.

The compelling, provocative film examines twelve men’s deep-seated personal prejudices, perceptual biases and weaknesses, indifference, anger, personalities, unreliable judgments, cultural differences, ignorance and fears, that threaten to taint their decision-making abilities, cause them to ignore the real issues in the case, and potentially lead them to a miscarriage of justice.

Fortunately, one brave dissenting juror – played by Henry Fonda in one of his finest roles – votes ‘not guilty’ at the start of the deliberations, because of his reasonable doubt. Persistently and persuasively, he forces the other men to slowly reconsider and review the shaky case (and eyewitness testimony) against the endangered defendant.

When I met Jane Fonda in 2006, I had the opportunity of telling her how much her father’s film meant to me. There was a quiet nod of approval, before she answered me; “yes that was a great one, wasn’t it?”

During his long career, Henry Fonda starred in every existing film ‘genre,’ yet curiously never imparted any of his extensive experience to his two children Jane and Peter. Interviewed in 2011, Jane would elaborate further, stating that she wished he had;

“See, my father was a loner. He was not a Hollywood insider and he never talked about the business with us, so I never learned or understood that this business is built on relationships. I did my first screen test with Warren Beatty, and he knew this from the get-go. Warren had a long list of directors he’d worked with – I didn’t have anything. I was just glad that anyone asked me to work. I didn’t know how to say no. Part of me wishes I’d known about all that; that someone had taken me under their wing, even though I was very shy. But part of me is glad I didn’t. If I had, I would have stayed here in Hollywood and built relationships, and not lived all over the world.”

Her father is best remembered for his roles as Abe Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), for which he received an Academy Award Nomination.

He would save one of his very best performances for late in his career, playing a hired killer, in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West,’ in 1968. The actor would receive an Academy Award for Best Actor, for his role as Norman Thayer, in On Golden Pond,’ in 1981. At the age of 76, he became the oldest man at the time to win this accolade; an award that I felt was richly deserved after seeing a theatrical showing of the movie. There may have been a high degree of sentiment involved – his health was fading at the time – but it would have been a superlative performance under any circumstance.

Fonda’s hobby was making model airplanes and kites, and he was famously honest and self-effacing. He once said, “I hope you won’t be disappointed. You see I am not a very interesting person. I haven’t ever done anything except be other people. I ain’t really Henry Fonda!”

Widely considered to be one of Hollywood’s old-time legends, and a friend and contemporary of James Stewart, John Ford and Joshua Logan, his career in film and television would span almost fifty years. He died of a heart-attack in 1982, surrounded by his wife and two children. In the years since his death, Fonda has become even more highly regarded as an actor than during his lifetime, the centenary of his birth commemorated in 2005, when the United States Post Office released a stamp bearing his image.

Fonda’s autobiographical volume “My Life,” is redolent with reminiscences about his private life and theatrical work, whilst somewhat marginalising his cinematic output; the absence of any filmographical listing a clear marker for the general tone of the book. Fonda’s problematic personality does emerge – geniality and upright posturing counterbalanced with an excessive work ethic and stunted emotiveness – his early show-biz struggles in an entertaining first third of the book, merely serving to wet the reader’s appetite for more.

Raised middle-class in Omaha – “my whole damn family was nice” – shy college flunk-out Hank was badgered into local amateur-theatre, caught the bug, and spent the next seven hungry years in $5-a-week summer stock, in walk-ons, as a “ringer” in college shows, or making the N.Y. rounds. Sharing his trek: a remarkable slew of new friends-like roommates Josh Logan and Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan “Cream and sugar on a dish of hot ashes” – in a stormy four-month marriage. Success finally came, however, with New Faces of 1934 – which led to super-agent Leland Hayward and Hollywood. But, except for a few biggies like Grapes of Wrath, the emphasis once Hank becomes a star is largely on his non-movie life: wartime service; Mr. Roberts on B’way; marriage to rich society widow Frances, a money-obsessed hypochondriac whose mental illness ended in suicide after Hank asked for a divorce (to marry Oscar Hammerstein’s stepdaughter Susan); the brief marriages to Susan (““It was as though Yente the Matchmaker . . . lived with Ibsen’s uncompromising minister Brand,”“ she says) and to a vivacious Italian jet-setter; tensions with Jane and Peter (both extensively quoted); happy marriage to stewardess Shirlee; and recent serious illnesses.

Fonda always preferred theatre to film, so the book is light on film-making lore. Nevertheless, there’s much to commend the tome, if only for the ever-presence of Fonds’s own voice – on the one hand, touchingly timid – yet also chilly and flinty when required – and everything caoalesces to make this a solid, endearing semi-memoir.

Recommended viewing

Young Mr Lincoln (1939)

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Mister Roberts (1955)

The Wrong Man (1956)

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

Once upon a time in the West (1968)

Gideon's Trumpet (1980)

On Golden Pond (1981)

Recommended reading

Fonda - My Life (As told to Howard Teichmann) (1981)

Fonda would commit his reflections on a well travelled life to tape three years before his death.

The book would be published nine months before his passing, yet sales were sufficiently sluggish to postpone any notion of an updated edition. There is therefore, no personal insight into his Oscar win for On Golden Pond or the health complications that would dog his final years.

Nevertheless, it’s the closest to a fully fledged autobiography imaginable; and the frankest admission of his own shortcomings. Halfway through the book’s introduction, Teichmann recalls his first meeting with the star in October 1979, before Fonda had committed to the project.

“I’ve been married five times,” he said abruptly, “and I’m goddamn ashamed of it.”

Leaning forward, before setting his jaw, the star further added:

“My life has been peppered with suicides and I don’t like to think back on them. Dozens of writers and publishers have asked me to cooperate on a book about my life. I’ve always said no.”

The project seemingly stalled, Fonda would request a copy of the author’s biography of George S. Kaufman, the American playwright, theatre director, producer, humorist, and drama critic. Within 24 hours, a single phone call would signify the reluctant star’s commitment:

“Let’s do it. I’m ready.”

Seemingly appreciative of the writer’s work – Fonda had read two of his earlier works – it’s difficult to second guess what brought about such a change of heart, but once underway, the actor would be unflinching about key aspects of his life, replying to Teichmann’s promptings with forthright candour.

Whilst Teichmann merely uses Henry Fonda’s taped reminiscences as the major source of quotation, along with testimony from wives, children, and friends, the result is ultimately, much better balanced than any conventional autobiography would be.