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Fonda, Henrylocked

(16 May 1905–12 August 1982)
  • Melissa Vickery-Bareford

Henry Fonda.

The figure on the left. Movie still from The Grapes of Wrath.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-99727).

Fonda, Henry (16 May 1905–12 August 1982), actor, was born Henry Jaynes Fonda in Grand Island, Nebraska, the son of William Brace Fonda, a printer, and Herberta Jaynes. When Fonda was six months old, the family moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where his father set up a print shop. Fonda began working at the shop at the age of twelve. After graduating from the local public high school in 1923, Fonda attended the University of Minnesota and prepared to follow a career in journalism. His father insisted that he work while attending school, but the hectic daily schedule that included five hours of classes and a full eight hours of work was too much for Fonda, and he flunked out in the middle of his sophomore year.

Back in Omaha, Fonda had difficulty finding a full-time position until Dorothy Brando (the mother of actor Marlon Brando and a family friend) suggested that he audition at the Omaha Community Playhouse, of which she was a founding member. With little else to do, Fonda agreed, but after getting the part of Ricky in Philip Barry’s You and I Fonda admitted that “I was too self-conscious to say I didn’t want to do it or didn’t know how to do it” (My Life, p. 30). Despite his inexperience and a lack of confidence, Fonda fell in love with the theater and for the next year worked at the Omaha Community Playhouse building sets, ushering, and doing anything else that needed to be done. By the spring of 1926, however, Fonda’s father had had enough of his son’s “playing around,” so Fonda got a job as a clerk at the Retail Credit Company of Omaha. The next season Gregory Foley, the director of the playhouse, cast Fonda in the title role in Merton of the Movies, and Fonda’s love of the theater increased. In 1927 Fonda became an assistant director at the playhouse, where he soon met George Billings, an actor famous for his impersonation of Abraham Lincoln. Fonda wrote a sketch for Billings that included the role of Lincoln’s private secretary, John Hay. Fonda got the part and began touring with Billings at $100 a week—the most Fonda had ever earned—but the venture lasted only three months because of Billings’s alcoholism.

Fonda returned to Omaha but was determined to go to New York City. He got a free ride to the East Coast with a family friend who was driving to Cape Cod. Fonda joined a summer stock company in Dennis, Massachusetts, as a third assistant stage manager. He soon got a small juvenile role and later that summer joined the University Players Guild in Falmouth, Massachusetts. His first roles were bit parts, but, despite a critically unsuccessful performance as the dumb boxer in Is Zat So?, Fonda began playing bigger roles. When the season ended, Fonda finally moved to New York, where he soon learned how difficult it was to find an acting job. The next few years would be lean ones. That winter, he accepted a job at the National Junior Theatre in Washington, D.C., and acted in Close Up at Harvard with some of his University Players friends. In this production he met actress Margaret Sullavan.

For the next few years, Fonda spent his summers in Falmouth with the University Players, playing in The Devil and the Cheese, The Firebrand, Juno and the Paycock, and The Masque of Venice during the summer of 1929; Paris Bound, Ghost Train, Silent House, A Kiss for Cinderella, and Merton of the Movies during the summer of 1930; and Hell Bent Fer Heaven, Holiday, The Watched Pot, The Constant Nymph, and Crime during the summer of 1931. Back in New York during the winter months, Fonda made an inauspicious Broadway debut on 25 November 1929 in a walk-on part in The Game of Love and Death, starring Claude Rains at the Guild Theatre; the play closed after six weeks. The following winter Fonda returned to the National Junior Theatre to play the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz and also appeared in Penrod and Sam, Little Women, Tom Sawyer, and Treasure Island. The next winter the University Players decided to produce a full year in Baltimore, with Fonda appearing in Mr. Pim Passes By, The Second Man, Mary Rose, and The Dark Hours. In 1931 Fonda married his costar Sullavan, but they separated shortly after and divorced in 1933.

For the next few years, Fonda was offered larger roles in New York, including Eustace in I Loved You Wednesday (opening at the Harris Theatre on 11 Oct. 1932) and a Gentleman in Forsaking All Others (opening at the Times Square Theater on 1 Mar. 1933). He worked at the Westchester Playhouse in Mount Kisco, New York, during the summer of 1933, but overall it was a difficult financial and professional time for Fonda. While appearing at the Westchester Playhouse, however, Fonda came to the attention of actress June Walker, who had just signed a contract to appear in Marc Connelly’s The Farmer Takes a Wife. Walker thought Fonda would be ideal for the role of the farmer and arranged an audition with Connelly. Fonda got the part and the play opened to critical if not popular success on 30 October 1934 at the 46th Street Theatre in New York after playing successfully in Washington, D.C.

Fonda’s success in the stage role led the producers of the film version to offer him the role opposite Janet Gaynor. Richard Watts, Jr., of the New York Herald Tribune called Fonda a “rarity of the drama, a young man who can present naive charm and ingratiating simplicity which will quickly make him one of our most attractive screen actors” (3 Oct. 1934). Watts was prophetic: the success of the film catapulted Fonda into stardom even though his next few films did not equal the acclaim of his first. He scored another hit in 1936 with The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. While filming Wings of Morning in 1936 in Europe, Fonda met Frances Seymour Brokaw, whom he married that year; they had two children, Jane and Peter, both of whom successfully followed their father into the movie business in the 1960s.

Fonda spent most of his career living on both coasts—performing in the movies but always returning to his first love, the live theater. He starred with Sylvia Sydney in Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once in 1937 then returned to New York to perform in Blow Ye Winds and The Virginian, both moderately successful, before going back to Hollywood to star opposite Bette Davis in William Wyler’s Jezebel. Fonda’s next film, The Young Mr. Lincoln, teamed him with renowned director John Ford and garnered critical praise; Variety called Fonda’s performance “impressively realistic” (7 June 1939). They worked together again in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Fonda’s portrayal of the dispossessed Okie Tom Joad was considered one of the best performances of his career and earned him his first Academy Award nomination for best actor. Frank Nugent of the New York Times said Fonda’s portrayal “is precisely the hot-tempered resolute saturnine chap Mr. Steinbeck had in mind” (14 Dec. 1940). The role came at a high price for Fonda, though: Darryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century–Fox studios, had required Fonda to sign a long-term contract with the studio in exchange for the opportunity to play Tom Joad. As a result, Fonda had to accept many roles he would not have chosen for himself over the next seven years. Nevertheless, Fonda took pride in his work in The Lady Eve (1940), The Male Animal (1942), The Big Street (1942), The Return of Frank James (1940), and The Ox Bow Incident (1943).

During World War II, Fonda tried to enlist in the navy, but Zanuck pulled strings so that Fonda could star in The Immortal Sergeant (1943). Zanuck’s actions greatly angered Fonda, who enlisted as soon as the picture was completed. For the next three years, Fonda served in the navy, attaining the rank of senior lieutenant and being awarded the Bronze Star and a Presidential Citation. After the war, Fonda did not return to the studios for a year and then appeared in My Darling Clementine (1946), Daisy Kenyon, and The Fugitive (1947), the last movies to be made under his Fox contract. In 1948 Fonda teamed with Joshua Logan, whom he had first met during his University Players days, to play his most acclaimed theatrical role, Doug Roberts in Mister Roberts. The play was an unparalleled success; he played the role for more than three years, receiving a Tony Award and a Barter Theatre Award as best actor for his work. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times called Fonda “lanky and unheroic, relaxed and genuine, he neatly skirts the maudlin when the play grows sentimental, and he skillfully underplays the bombastic scenes” (19 Feb. 1948). Ten days later Atkinson continued in the same vein, saying that Fonda “gives a perfect human performance. … It is difficult to define the perfection of Mr. Fonda’s acting … simple and genuine” (29 Feb. 1948). On 14 April 1950, while Fonda was still playing Roberts, his wife, who had placed herself in a sanatorium, committed suicide after it became clear that Fonda was seeing another woman named Susan Blanchard. Less than a year later, Fonda and Blanchard were married, and Fonda adopted her daughter Amy.

Fonda had not acted on film for nearly seven years when he was lured back to Hollywood in 1955 to do the film version of Mister Roberts, but the filming was racked with trouble. Fonda sided against his longtime friend Logan, who had directed the stage version and had been slated to direct the film, in favor of John Ford, who according to those involved mishandled the film and had to be replaced by Mervyn LeRoy. Fonda, always the perfectionist regarding his own performances, was disappointed with the finished product. In 1956 Fonda went to Rome to film War and Peace; there he became involved with Afdera Franchetti. Back in New York, his wife Susan filed for divorce after Fonda’s affair became public. Fonda married Franchetti in March 1957 (they had no children) and returned to New York to play in Two for the Seesaw, which opened at the Booth Theatre on 18 January 1958. Over the next few years, Fonda also appeared in Silent Night, Lonely Night, which opened at the Morosco Theatre on 3 December 1959, and Critic’s Choice, which opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on 14 December 1960. During the late 1950s, Fonda took several breaks from New York to make films, including The Wrong Man (1957), Stage Struck (1958), Warlock (1959), and The Man Who Understood Women (1959). In 1957 Fonda was named as best foreign actor by the British Academy for his role in Twelve Angry Men. In 1962 his marriage to Franchetti ended in divorce, and in 1965 he married Shirlee Adams, a former model and stewardess. They had no children.

For the rest of his career, Fonda searched for challenging roles but often ended up in films like Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and Welcome to Hard Times (1967)—neither of the caliber Fonda had come to expect of himself. Fonda did continue to tackle challenging roles on the live stage, including the Stage Manager in Our Town, produced by American National Theatre and Academy and opening on 27 November 1969, and he toured in a one-man show titled Fathers against Sons against Fathers in 1970. His successful one-man show Clarence Darrow opened at the Helen Hayes Theatre in New York City on 26 March 1974 and the following year reopened at the Minskoff Theatre on 3 March. After its New York run, Fonda took the show on the road in the United States and England. Fonda received a Drama Desk Award for his portrayal of Darrow in 1974.

Fonda appeared in several short-lived television series. In 1959–1960 he coproduced and starred in “The Deputy” for NBC, and in 1971–1972 he appeared in “The Smith Family” for ABC. He appeared in two miniseries for television: “Captains and the Kings” (1976) and “Roots, the Next Generation” (1979); both received mediocre notices. Fonda also narrated the television special “John Steinbeck’s America and Americans” (1967).

In 1978 Fonda was honored by the American Film Institute with a Lifetime Achievement Award—he had appeared in more than 100 films during his career. He continued to make films, appearing in The Oldest Living Graduate in 1980 and Summer Solstice, with Myrna Loy, in 1981. In 1979 Fonda received an honorary Tony Award for a lifetime of contribution to the theater; in 1980 he received an honorary Academy Award “in recognition of his brilliant accomplishments and enduring contribution to the art of the motion picture”; and in 1981 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. One of his greatest roles was also his last. In 1981 he starred opposite his daughter Jane and Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond. Fonda received the Academy Award for best actor for this performance just months before his death in Los Angeles.

Throughout his career, Fonda personified for his audience decency, honesty, and integrity. According to Ephraim Katz, the author of the Film Encyclopedia (1994), “Fonda’s engaging sincerity, natural style of delivery and characteristically ‘American’ personality proved ideal for the screen” (p. 466). Of his acting Fonda said: “My goal is that the audience must never see the wheels go around, not see the work that goes into this. It must seem effortless and real. I don’t do anything very consciously except that my end results must never be obvious in any way” (New York Times, 13 Aug. 1982). John Steinbeck, the novelist whose character of Tom Joad Fonda brought to life in The Grapes of Wrath, said that Fonda “carries with him that excitement that can’t be learned, but he backs up his gift with grueling, conscientious work and agony of self-doubt” (New York Times, 13 Aug. 1982). At the ceremony given by the American Film Institute that honored Fonda, actor Jack Lemmon called him “the definitive American actor,” while actor Charlton Heston remarked that he “was one of the best actors America has produced this century. He proved it again and again both on stage and screen; the fact that he constantly divided his talent between the two, as few actors do, showed how much he cared about acting” (New York Times, 13 Aug. 1982).


Fonda’s autobiography My Life (1981), told to Howard Tiechmann, is informative. A number of biographies are also helpful, including Allen Roberts and Max Goldstein, Henry Fonda: A Biography (1984); Norma Goldstein, Henry Fonda (1982); and Michael Krebel, Henry Fonda (1975). Also of note, although incomplete, is John Springer, The Fondas: The Films and Careers of Henry, Jane and Peter (1970). A listing of the most important interviews and trade magazine articles regarding Fonda is included in the International Dictionary of Film and Filmmakers, vol. 3: Actors and Actresses (1986). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, 13 Aug. 1982.