Juror #8: Henry Fonda (Part 2)

In part 1 of this article, I detailed Henry Fonda’s early life and film career through the end of the 1950s. After six years away from film, Fonda had come back in a big way with “Mister Roberts,” which had opened the door for some high-profile projects, including “War and Peace,” Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man,” and our personal favorite here, “12 Angry Men.” Unfortunately, a couple of box office disappointments and at least one unfathomable creative dud had left Fonda licking his wounds and retreating to the television western “The Deputy.” As he would prove, however, Fonda still had the prestige, popularity, and talent to hold a strong place in the industry.

Fonda approached his next return to film by taking supporting parts in big pictures, and it paid off for him. First on this list was Otto Preminger’s filming of the controversial political potboiler best-seller “Advise & Consent.” Fonda played disputed Secretary of State nominee Robert Leffingwell (above), who is accused by opponents of being “soft” on communism. Critics were split on the film, and it was not big at the box office, but it was a respected project with a strong cast, including Franchot Tone, Charles Laughton, Gene Tierney, and Burgess Meredith. Also, you can see a 40-year-old Betty White in this film on Youtube.

Fonda’s next release met with more universal acclaim and with big box office success. “The Longest Day” was released in late 1962 with a star-studded cast of American, British, French, and German actors including John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Red Buttons, and Robert Ryan. Fonda played brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of the late U.S. President, and the oldest man to personally take part in the D-Day invasion of World War II. Roosevelt walked with a cane onto Utah beach and famously declared “We’ll start the war from right here!” when it was revealed that they had landed a mile away from their intended position. Fonda’s primary scene is an argument with a fellow officer in which he forces his way onto the first wave beach attack. The role is not a large one in the 3-hour war epic, but it is memorable, and the character is historically significant. “The Longest Day” would be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1962, and despite being released in October of that year, still ended up as the #3 film at the box office in 1963.

The #1 box office winner of 1963 was yet another historical epic full of big-name performers, “How the West was Won.” This time, Fonda played the rough-hewn buffalo hunter “Jethro Stuart” alongside George Peppard and Richard Widmark in the George Marshall-directed section of the film known as “The Railroad.” Other well-known actors on the film included Spencer Tracy, Walter Brennan, John Wayne, Eli Wallach, James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck, Harry Morgan, Karl Malden, and Fonda’s “12 Angry Men” co-star Lee J. Cobb. “How the West was Won” was shot using the three-frame “Cinerama” process, which produced a fantastic concave picture in specially outfitted theatres. Unfortunately it also created complaints from veteran directors and difficulty in transferring the film for home video (notice the obvious seams in the above picture). “How the West was Won” took in a gargantuan (for the time) twenty million dollars, was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1963, and won three statues, for Best Writing, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.

A stand-alone lead in “Spencer’s Mountain” followed later in 1963. The film also starred Maureen O’Hara and was the basis for the television program “The Waltons.” Don’t expect to see the mountains of Virginia in “Spencer’s Mountain,” however, because the film’s director decided to set it in Wyoming even though the book it was based on was also set in Virginia.

“Fail-Safe” (1964) co-starring Walter Matthau, Dan O’Herlihy, Edward Binns, and Larry Hagman featured Fonda as a fictional U.S. President dealing with an accidental nuclear crisis. The film is beautifully filmed, full of strong performances, and builds in tension to an absolutely surreal and chilling ending. Unfortunately, “Fail-Safe” was released several months after “Dr. Strangelove,” which had an almost identical premise, but was played for black humor. Once the topic had been treated satirically by a masterpiece like “Dr. Strangelove,” the dramatic telling held little pull for audiences, and “Fail-Safe” earned less than two million dollars, less than half of what “Dr. Strangelove” tallied. I am a huge fan of “Dr. Strangelove,” but “Fail-Safe” did not deserve its fate. Check it out at home and tell me the hair does not stand up on the back of your neck. Its final line has been echoing in my head for over a month now.

After so much epic drama, 1964’s “Sex and the Single Girl” proved a distracting trifle. It was the sort of battle-of-the-sexes comedy that was very prominent at the time, but this one starred Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Fonda, and Lauren Bacall. If this sort of film is your cup of tea, I’d recommend you try something with Doris Day or Tony Randall in the cast. Even 2003’s “Down With Love,” which appears to have been partly inspired by “Sex and the Single Girl” gets the genre better. The leads in “Sex and the Single Girl” are appealing, but this is nothing more than something you might take in on a lazy Saturday if it pops up on TMC or AMC.

Fonda with Charles Bronson in “Battle of the Bulge”

The next year brought another World War II drama, “The Battle of the Bulge.” The film was almost as long and almost as star-studded as “The Longest Day” had been, but historical inaccuracies helped to blunt public and critical enthusiasm, and it was not a big hit. I remember seeing this movie on television when I was about twelve. It impressed me then as being a fun and rousing war film. The almost entirely fictionalized version of this 3-month-long battle would probably impress less if I saw it now.

Fonda stayed busy over the next few years, appearing with Joanne Woodward and Jason Robards in “A Big Hand for the Little Lady,” alongside Richard Widmark in the crime drama “Madigan,” and with old friend James Stewart in the western “Firecreek.”

1968’s family comedy “Yours, Mine, and Ours” co-starred Lucille Ball and was based on a real life couple who had married and combined into a huge family which included 18 children. The story was noticed in 1960 by Desilu productions and the rights to the story were purchased for adaptation there. Fonda beat out several other prominent leading men for the role of Frank Beardsley, including James Stewart, Desi Arnaz, Art Carney, and John Wayne. Though the film was given only mediocre critical notices, it was a big hit with the public, who made “Yours, Mine, and Ours” the tenth-highest-grossing film of the year. The same concept was pared down and developed for television at ABC, where it was called “The Brady Bunch.”

Fonda’s big 1968 continued with “The Boston Strangler,” a pretty mundane police protocol story that perks up a bit when Fonda’s character joins the proceedings, and then becomes fascinating once Tony Curtis appears as the “strangler.” The interview scenes between the leads, while slightly “stagey” are intercut effectively with flashbacks and the performances from Curtis and Fonda carry the day. Many critics of the time, including Roger Ebert, considered the film to be lurid and irresponsible in its portrayal of the crimes and of a man who was never actually convicted of them. From the point of view of a jaded modern viewer, I found the crime scenes and information to be just shocking enough to help drive the story forward and offer counter-point when you are later asked to feel a little bit of sympathy for the perpetrator. This is one which I’d love to get other opinions on.

While Fonda played the virtuous chief detective in “The Boston Strangler,” his role in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” is widely considered to be by far his most villainous. “Frank” was such a departure for Fonda that he initially turned down the role, and then attempted to drastically change his appearance for it, growing a moustache and wearing brown-tinted contact lenses for darker eyes. Leone rejected these ideas, preferring that the audience stare directly into Fonda’s trusted steely blue eyes knowing what a ruthless killer he was. Fonda starred alongside Charles Bronson and Jason Robards and impressed in the uncharacteristic part. Leone’s editing slowed and his camera lingered on the characters, helping to increase the tension, and Fonda pounced on the opportunity, giving some of his most memorable close-up performances. Though the film was not a big success, it has gained a reputation as an iconic western. Leone’s direction and the lead performances make this a must-see to my mind.

Fonda’s 1970 western team-up with pal Jimmy Stewart was a very different story, featuring the pair in a comedy about an aging cowboy who inherits a brothel. The suggestive material was a departure for Stewart, who had specifically asked for Fonda as his co-star. Shirley Jones played another prostitute. Long-time friends Fonda and Stewart playfully bantered as their characters over the various merits of Republican and Democratic ideas. Fonda was a devoted liberal Democrat who had campaigned in favor of John F Kennedy, while Stewart was rather traditional and voted Republican. More than twenty years prior, the men had nearly destroyed their friendship in an argument over the HUAC hearings. The row was serious enough that Fonda and Stewart agreed not to talk politics anymore. The fact that they were willing to do so publicly indicated a softening, or maybe just a shared sense of good humor.

1970 also included solid efforts in “There Was a Crooked Man…” with Kirk Douglas and Hume Cronyn and “Sometimes a Great Notion,” directed by and co-starring Paul Newman. The latter was the very first film to be shown on HBO just a couple of years after its theatrical release. Fonda then spent another couple of years on the short-lived television family drama “The Smith Family,” which aired 39 episodes from 1971-72.

His role as Carl Tiflin in a television movie version of John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” earned him an Emmy nomination. It was the first Steinbeck adaptation he had appeared in since “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1940.

When he returned to film again in 1973, a poorly received pairing with Elizabeth Taylor (“Ash Wednesday”) was followed by another western written by Sergio Leone and shot in a Leone-“light” style through director Tonino Valerii. The western comedy has some highlights and has attracted some enduring affection amongst fans of spaghetti westerns. One glaring fault is the anachronistic and fingernails-on-chalkboard grating 70s pop soundtrack that makes getting through the first 20 minutes of the film difficult. If you succeed, you’ve got an entertaining movie to see.

In 1974, while appearing on Broadway in the title role of “Clarence Darrow,” Fonda collapsed backstage. A heart arrhythmia was detected along with a previously existing prostate cancer and he had a pacemaker installed. Fonda was nominated for a Tony Award for his work in “Clarence Darrow” and returned to the production in 1975. Based on doctor’s recommendation, he retired from the stage in 1978, but continued film and television work.

Fonda returned to the historical epic with his role as Admiral Chester Nimitz “Midway” (1976). Fonda was well-suited for the role, and got to share the screen with other big-name actors, including James Coburn, Charlton Heston, Hal Holbrook, and another “12 Angry Men” castmate Robert Webber. Fonda had helped narrate a documentary about the battle which John Ford had produced in 1942, and some of the footage from that film was included in “Midway.” Though real battle footage from the World War II era was used to help depict the events of the film, some will be clearly from other military actions for those with great knowledge of such things. Though critical reaction to “Midway” was split (it currently sports a 50% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes), audiences made it a hit at the box office, where it took in more than twenty million dollars, making it the #6 money-earning film of 1976.

The late 70’s saw Fonda take part in a series of disaster films, in hopes of capturing some of the zeitgeist of “Jaws” and “The Towering Inferno.” First among these was “Tentacles” (1977), about a giant killer octopus (never mind that octopi have arms, not tentacles). That same year, Fonda appeared with George Segal, Richard widmark, and a young Helen Hunt in the scariest idea many of us at LeBlog can think of…

“Rollercoaster” (1977) was about a mad bomber who is (successfully!) targeting amusement parks. Amazingly, the film was shot on location in three different amusement parks, including Ocean View Amusement Park and King’s Dominion in Virginia, and Magic Mountain in California. Kennywood in the Pittsburgh area refused once they had read the script. Ocean View’s shoot happened on the last day the park was open, but the coaster used in the film was not really destroyed until two years later. Some of the featured rides at King’s Dominion are still there and in operation. Even though “Rollercoaster” was released the same summer as “Star Wars,” it made enough money to be considered a modest hit.

“The Swarm” (1978) featured a stunning cadre of teflon actors, including the ultimate in no-stick panned, Michael Caine, Richard Widmark, Olivia de Haviland, Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Slim Pickens, Fred MacMurray, and Henry Fonda. It is about an enormous swarm of killer bees which attacks and kills thousands in the U.S. “The Swarm” was a high-profile box office and critical flop, and was removed from theatres just two weeks after it opened (a rarity at a time when films were given more time to find their audiences). Michael Caine claims it as the worst film he has ever made, but to be fair, he’s made lots of awful movies, so maybe “The Swarm” is just in his bottom five.

The very next year saw Fonda in another big screen star-studded disaster flop, this time playing another fictional U.S. President in “Meteor.” The cast also included Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, and Martin Landau. “Meteor” was critically panned and never made up its production costs, losing millions for American International Pictures, which collapsed and was sold later that same year.

With Fonda’s health deteriorating and his films declining in quality and success, everybody can be forgiven for believing that his acting career had already seen any high points it was going to hit. With this in mind, Fonda began receiving “honorary” awards from a variety of organizations, including the Tonys in 1979 and the Golden Globes in 1980. When the Academy Awards decided to have Robert Redford present Fonda with an honorary statuette, his acceptance speech was appreciative, but a little vague and brief. You can see that on Youtube too.

Henry Fonda’s family life had never been ideal, and he bore some of the responsibility for it. He’d been married five times, with one divorce ending in his wife’s suicide. His relationship with his daughter, controversial actress Jane Fonda, had always been a bit distant, and he had exhibited a sharp temper with his family members. Jane was conscious that their relationship was not what she wanted it to be and that his health was failing. With this in mind, she bought the rights to “On Golden Pond,” a stage play written by Ernest Thompson with the idea that they make the film together.

Concerns were high on set due to Henry’s health, and an accidental spill out of a canoe only heightened those feelings. Along with the father and daughter Fondas, Katherine Hepburn (who Henry had somehow never before managed to meet!) was brought on to play the wife and mother role, Dabney Coleman was cast as Jane’s boyfriend, and young Doug McKeon as Coleman’s son, Billy. The film was shot simply and beautifully by cinematographer Billy Williams, emphasizing natural golden light and practical light sources. “On Golden Pond” opened on December 4th, 1981, just in time for awards season consideration.

The film, and Henry Fonda’s performance were, for the most part, received very favorably by the critics, but a real boost was given to the film when it was honored with 11 Oscar nominations. Box office began to really pick up, and “On Golden Pond” ended up as the #3 earning film of 1982, taking in a whopping sixty-three million dollars. On March 29th, 1982, “On Golden Pond” won three Oscars, first one for Ernest Thompson’s script, and the second for Katherine Hepburn as Best Actress. Finally, the film won Henry Fonda his first competitive Academy Award for Best Actor.

It is easy to see what the critics and voters saw in Fonda’s turn as Norman Thayer. His normally stolid and straightforward acting style fell away and we got a much freer, much more expressive Henry Fonda than we do in most of his films. The fact that the performance remains footed in honest realism and in service of an emotionally sentimental piece only makes it a more significant accomplishment. I honestly found myself wondering where this guy had been through the rest of Fonda’s career. Was it that he’d finally been given a piece and collaborators that fit just right? Or did he finally, as an actor of such advanced years, just have nothing to lose? Other performances of his had been great. Other performances of his had been iconic, even. But this is the one in which we saw the most of Henry Fonda.

Unfortunately, by the time of the Oscar ceremony Fonda was too ill to attend. His daughter Jane, herself an Oscar winner just a few years earlier, accepted the statuette on his behalf, saying that he would probably quip “Well, ain’t I lucky.” Fonda’s nomination and win set a couple of records. The gap between his nominations for “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1940 and for “On Golden Pond” in 1981 was the greatest in Oscars history, and when he won he became the oldest man to be named Best Actor by the Academy.

Less than five months later, Henry Fonda passed away due to heart failure at the age of 77. By his own request, there was no funeral or memorial service held. In 2005, the U.S. Post Office released a stamp with Henry Fonda’s likeness on it.

Read about all 12 Angry Men here-
Martin Balsam
John Fiedler
Lee J Cobb
E G Marshall
Jack Klugman
Edward Binns
Jack Warden
Henry Fonda 1
Joseph Sweeney
Ed Begley
George Voskovec
Robert Webber


Posted on June 10, 2012, in 12 Angry Men, Movies, reviews, TV and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Much to my own shame, I have only just tonight figured out how to effectively add videos to my posts, so I’ve been going through and adding some after the fact. It’s a big improvement!


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