Childhood & Early Life
Henry Fonda was born on May 16, 1905 in Grand Island, Nebraska, to William Brace Fonda, and his wife, Elma Herberta (née Jaynes). His father was an advertising-printing jobber. Henry often worked at his father’s plant after school.
Initially, he wanted to become a journalist. Therefore, after graduating from school he enrolled at the University of Minnesota with journalism as his major; but did not finish his course. Instead, he took up employment at a Retail Credit Company Equifax Inc.
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Henry Fonda began his acting career in 1925 at Omaha Community Hall, Nebraska at the behest of Dorothy Brando. At that time he did not take it as a career option. Three years later, he made up his mind to be an actor.
Accordingly, he left his job in 1928 and set out for New England. Here he began performing first for Provincetown Players and then for Joshua Logan's University Players Guild in Massachusetts and finally headed for New York City to work in the Broadway in 1932.
In New York, he struggled for two years; but everything changed when ‘The Farmer Takes A Wife’ opened at Broadway on October 30, 1934. In this show, Fonda played the part of Dan Harrow and received critical acclaim.
The success of the play induced Victor Fleming to adapt the drama for a comedy film and chose Fonda for the same role. Accordingly, Fonda moved to Hollywood and began shooting for the film version of ‘The Farmer Takes A Wife’. The film, released in 1935, helped him find a foothold in Hollywood.
In 1935, Fonda was cast in ‘Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ as Dave Tollivert. His acting ability attracted the attention of celebrated actress Batte Davis, who picked him up to play the part of Preston Dillard against her in the 1938 production of ‘Jezebel’. The role established him as successful leading man.
Next, in 1939, Fonda was chosen by eminent director John Ford to play the part of Abraham Lincoln in ‘Young Mr. Lincoln’. It marked the beginning of a long association. In fact in the same year, he starred in Ford’s next venture and his first color feature ‘Drums Along the Mohawk’.
However, when in 1940 Ford tried to engage him in his next venture ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, Darryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century Fox insisted that Fonda sign a seven year contact with the company, which he happily did. Ultimately he won his first Oscar nomination for the role of ex-convict and dispossessed farmer, Tom Joad, in this film.
He also received critical acclaim for his part of Charles Poncefort Pike in ‘The Lady Eve’ (1941) and for Augustus Pinkerton in ‘The Big Street’ (1942). At the same time, as World war II set in he began raising funds for the Allied forces for the defense of Great Britain.
In 1943, Fonda acted in ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’, an American western film noir directed by John Ford. Although the movie failed at the box office, he enjoyed portraying the character Gil Carter and his performance was highly appreciated.
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In 1943, he joined United States Navy as a Quartermaster 3rd Class on the destroyer USS Satterlee. Later, he was commissioned as a Lieutenant Junior Grade in Air Combat Intelligence in the Central Pacific.
On returning from war in 1946, Fonda portrayed the character of the legendary sheriff Wyatt Earp in the movie ‘My Darling Clementine’. The film directed by John Ford is considered a classic even today.
Subsequently, he did six more films before his contact with Twentieth Century Fox expired in 1947. Next he started working with Ford's new production company, Argosy Pictures, without going into any long term contract. ‘The Fugitive’ (1947) and ‘Fort Appache’ (1948) are two most significant films of this period.
Henry Fonda next returned to Broadway to star in ‘Mister Roberts’, which opened at the Alvin Theatre on February 18, 1948 and ran for 1,157 performances over three years; Fonda received ‘Tony Award’ for his performance in the play.
The play ended in January 1951. Subsequently, Fonda went on national tour and successfully staged plays like ‘Point of No Return’ (December 1951 – November 1952) and ‘The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial’ (January 1954 – January 1955).
in 1955, Fonda returned to films after a gap of eight years with the film version of ‘Mister Roberts’. This was followed by ‘War and Peace’ and ‘The Wrong Man’, both released in 1956.
In 1957, Fonda made his first venture into production with ‘12 Angry Men’, in which he played the Juror Number 8. The low budget film shot in just seventeen days is considered to be a classic.
In 1960s, he took part in number of war films and Western epics like ‘The Longest Day’, ‘How The West Was Won’, ‘Fail Safe’, ‘In Hams Way’ and ‘Battle of the Bulge’ etc. At the same time, he also did light hearted cinemas like ‘Spencer’s Mountain’ and ‘Yours Mine and Ours’
In 1970s, Henri Fonda took part in a series of disaster films, which had impending or ongoing disasters as its subject. ‘Tentacles’ (1977) and ‘The Swarm’ (1978) fall in this category.
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Awards & Achievements
In 1981, Henry Fonda received the Academy Awards in the Best Actor category for his role in ‘On Golden Pond’. In 1982, he received Golden Globe Award in Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama category for the same work.
In 1948, he won Tony Award for his role in ‘Mister Roberts. In 1958, he received BAFTA Award in the Best Actor category and Golden Globe Award in Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama category for his role in ‘12 Angry Man’.
In 1977, he received Grammy Awards in the Best Spoken Word Album for his work in ‘Great American Document’. He was also awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ by Academy Awards in 1980, by Tony Awards in 1979 and by AFI Awards in 1978.
For his role during the Second World War he was awarded the Navy Presidential Unit Citation and the Bronze Star.
Personal Life & Legacy
Henry Fonda married five times. He first married Margaret Sullavan in 1931; it ended in a divorce in 1933. Next in 1936, he married Frances Ford Seymour Brokaw, with whom he had two children, Jane and Peter Fonda. Both the children grew up to be renowned actors.
Henry Fonda ended his thirteen year old marriage with Frances in 1949. The following year he married twenty-one year old Susan Blanchard. Together they adopted a child, Amy Fishman. This marriage too ended in a divorce within three years.
Next in 1957, Fonda married Italian baroness Afdera Franchetti; the union ended in a divorce in 1961. Finally, in 1965 he married Shirlee Mae Adams and remained wedded to her until his death in 1982.
Towards the end of his life, Fonda developed prostate cancer. However, he died from heart disease at his Los Angeles home on August 12, 1982. As Fonda was an agnostic, he did not want any funeral. Consequently, his body was promptly cremated.
Today, he is widely recognized as one of the Hollywood Greats of the Classic Era. To celebrate his birth centenary, the United States Post Office had released a thirty-seven cent postage stamp, which bore an artist’s impression of Fonda, as part of their ‘Hollywood Legends’ series in May 2005.