I never particularly cared for Henry Fonda. There was always something too forced about his air of nobility, plus I don’t know that he had a great range as an actor, even though he played pretty much every type of movie character. Tall and lean – almost gaunt – and blessed with piercing blue eyes and good looks, he was a romantic lead, a comedic foil, a thoughtful hero, a standup guy, occasionally a tough one, and on one memorable occasion, a cruel and sadistic villain. For better or worse, in the public’s mind he got stuck in the mould of well-meaning liberal, the guy who’ll always fight for the underdog, the guy who’ll buck the system and cause trouble no matter the cost.
Interestingly, Fonda only got the part of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath after signing a seven-year deal at 20th Century Fox, and later complained about it because he’d been promised a better set of pictures than what they gave him afterwards.
Mind you, I don’t think he minded playing the part; looking back on his career, it seems almost inevitable that he wanted to play Abraham Lincoln.
And besides, The Ox-Bow Incident, one of Fonda’s great critical successes, was a Fox picture.
Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, Twelve Angry Men, Mister Roberts: these seem the definitive Fonda films, so much so that it’s easy to forget his earlier comedic work.
Although he played outlaw Frank James, it was Fonda the All-American Good Guy who most film buffs remember. Along with Gary Cooper and James Stewart, Fonda epitomised an ideal Everyman. In some ways he was much less of a mannered actor than either Cooper or Stewart, who both had a tendency to fall back on vocal schtick. Perhaps it was because of his Midwest background (he was raised n Nebraska) that there was a certain flattened, unaccented air to his speaking voice, which was slow and deliberate (he never liked how he spoke and felt that it limited him as an actor). Indeed, the quiet, calm voice is such a part of the Fonda persona that it’s difficult to imagine him yelling.
Mister Roberts was a Fonda-starring Broadway Play before it was a movie. Fonda wasn’t anyone’s first choice for the movie version. Brando was to star at one point, but director John Ford would work with Fonda and nobody else. Ironically, the two fought bitterly, and Fonda swore he would never work with Ford again.
Sergio Leone decided to perversely cast him as a villain in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Twelve Angry Men will always be one of my favourite movies.