Today is the birthday of one of the greatest actors of American stage and cinema, Henry Fonda.
Henry Fonda: "A Hard Nut to Crack"
I didn’t become a Fonda fan until adulthood. Now, I count him among my favorite stars of the Golden Age.
I’ve spent the last few years trying to figure out who this elusive man really was. From his own autobiography to the few Fonda biographies out there, nothing gives deep insight into who Henry Fonda was offscreen [aff. link]. It really puts Katharine Hepburn‘s words about Hank into perspective. After making On Golden Pond (1981) with Fonda, Kate said that:
“Henry Fonda was the hardest nut I ever tried to crack. I didn’t know any more about him after we had made the picture than I did at the beginning.”
Kate still gifted Hank a beloved hat of Spencer Tracy’s–which touched Fonda so deeply, he wore it throughout the film. So it’s clear Kate liked Hank even though she didn’t get to know him very well.
Which, really, is another telling insight into the Fonda character.
Henry Fonda & Jimmy Stewart: The Famous Friendship
One thing I can say with certainty about Henry Fonda is that he was an exceptionally loyal friend. There is no greater evidence of this loyalty than his nearly lifelong friendship with Jimmy Stewart.
Fonda and Stewart stuck together through thick and thin: these two were buddies from the time they met as struggling actors, to when they both became mega stars, to when they became cute old men.
To celebrate Fonda’s birthday, I want to share a sweet story about Hank and Jim that exemplifies just what a loyal and thoughtful friend Henry Fonda was.
Jimmy's Great Loss
Hank and Jim made four films together. The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), a comedy-Western directed by Gene Kelly (yes, you read that right), was their last.
During filming of The Cheyenne Social Club, Jimmy tried desperately to be his usual, friendly self on set. But it was a struggle: just before filming began, his son Ron died in Vietnam. Jim was understandably in no mood to make a movie, let alone a comedy. But Jimmy was a professional, so he put on a brave face and continued with the film.
Just the opposite of Jim, Henry Fonda tended to keep to himself on film sets. So much so that some found Fonda’s anti-social behavior rude. But his buddy was having a tough time, so on the Social Club set, Hank did his best to lift Jimmy’s spirits, telling jokes and reminiscing about the good old days. As Fonda recalled:
“I did everything I could to take his mind off it.”
Often, Jim’s grief over losing Ron was so great that he couldn’t bring himself to talk or laugh at Hank’s jokes. But it was clear that Jimmy appreciated what his friend was trying to do.
During filming, the perceptive Hank noticed that one of the few things that lifted Jimmy’s spirits was spending time with his horse in the film, Pie. Pie had been Jim’s horse in most of the Westerns he made throughout his career. Whenever a film required a horse, Jim always requested Pie.
Fonda's Heartfelt Gift
It was clear to Hank that this horse was very important to Jim. As Fonda observed:
“His [Jimmy’s] boy was gone and I couldn’t do anything about that, but now seeing the expression on Jim’s face when he reached for something to take to his horse…”
Henry Fonda was not a horse person. To use his own words, the only way to get Hank on a horse was to pay him. But Fonda knew he could really be a help to Jim if he could figure out a way to do something for his friend that related to Pie.
And so Fonda, an accomplished artist, decided to paint a watercolor portrait of Pie. Whenever Hank had downtime on the set, he snuck away to paint Jimmy’s beloved horse.
Once finished, Hank framed the portrait and gifted it to his friend.
For a man of few words like Henry Fonda, such a heartfelt, personal gesture was the deepest expression of friendship. And Jimmy Stewart knew it. The thoughtful gift meant so much to Jim, he hung the framed portrait in his home, and had a little light installed above the portrait to show it off. Jim kept the watercolor proudly on display for the rest of his life. Jimmy was known to often look admiringly at the portrait by his friend, and simply say:
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“I’ll never forget Pie. And Fonda.”
Happy Birthday, Henry Fonda!
Here’s to friendship, here’s to Henry Fonda. Happy Birthday, Hank. While I await the day we’ll have a fuller picture of who you were off-camera, the rich film legacy you’ve left, and the dedicated friend you were, speak of a golden character.