That Afternoon With Henry Fonda

In a fit of nostalgia yesterday I pulled John Ford’s 1946 western, My Darling Clementine, off my DVD shelf and watched it on our new fifty-five-inch Sony television screen. Magical: it brings old movies to life again with a sharpness and clarity that is breath-taking.

Seeing a young Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in a performance so fluid and natural that you forget this is a movie–at times you feel as if you are inhabiting a man’s life–brought memories flooding back. It would be unfair to say Henry Fonda has been forgotten in the years since his death in 1982, but as is the case with so many iconic stars from that era, he has certainly faded.

Not for me, though.

I was writing about television for The Windsor Star and Fonda was across the river in Detroit appearing at the Fisher Theater in a long-forgotten play titled The Trial of A. Lincoln. Fonda, who had previously played the role onscreen for John Ford, was playing Lincoln.

Somehow I managed to convince my editors that I should talk to Fonda about television (he had done a couple of short-lived TV series). But I had no more interest in his television views than I had in flying to the moon. What I wanted to discuss with Henry Fonda was his movies–from The Grapes of Wrath to 12 Angry Men to Once Upon A Time in the West. He had arrived in Hollywood, a young man from Nebraska, and had been appearing in films for nearly forty years.

I encountered him in the lobby of the small hotel where he was staying. “You’re early,” he snapped as we shook hands.

“Well, come on up,” he said, softening. “But you’ll have to wait until I’ve read my sports scores.”

I remember trailing him across the lobby, focused for some bizarre reason on the back of his neck, thinking, irrationally, This is the back of Henry Fonda’s neck. What can I say? I was young and highly impressionable.

Upstairs in his small apartment, he leaned on the kitchenette counter intently reading the sports section. Then he settled into a sitting room sofa and began to talk in the laconic, mid-western drawl that was so distinctive on the screen. He was dressed in a denim shirt and a pair of jeans, still whip thin at sixty-five and looking younger than his years (although at the time, barely in my twenties, I thought sixty-five ancient; it has become much younger over the years).

I had expected to talk to him for an hour or so surrounded by publicity people. Instead, it was just the two of us, and as the afternoon wore on the one hour became two and then three. The phone never rang. Shadows lengthened and evening fell, and I believe the only thing that stopped Henry Fonda talking through the night was the fact that he had to go to the theatre for an eight o’clock performance.

He talked frankly about why he had become an actor: “I don’t like myself, so I like becoming someone else.” He spoke, sadly, about his relationship with the great John Ford (they’d had a falling out shooting Mr. Roberts; Ford had actually struck Fonda), and said the director was ill and would never make another movie (which turned out to be the case). He talked about how director King Vidor was losing it while making War and Peace, and that had a lot to do with why the movie turned out to be so disappointing.

He was disgusted at some of the movies he had allowed himself to make for money, particularly The Battle of the Bulge. “They had me winning the whole goddamned war single-handedly,” he said angrily.

He told a great story about how he agreed for the first time in his career to play a bad guy in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. He showed up in Rome having carefully cultivated a beard and mustache for the part. Leone was appalled. “He made me shave immediately,” Fonda recalled. “‘I want Henry Fonda,’ he said. ‘You must look like Henry Fonda.'”

The fact that he had been married so many times, amazed and embarrassed him: “I can’t believe I ended up being married five times!”

After we finally parted company, I spent a lot of time wondering why Fonda spent so much time and was so painfully open with a young reporter who was a complete stranger.

I had the idea that he saw himself as something of an old shaman, sitting around the camp fire, passing down tales of an ancient Hollywood to the next generation–and I believe there was some truth to that. An entire era of movie-making was fast disappearing even back then, and I think he wanted to make certain some record of it was left behind.

In her autobiography his daughter, Jane Fonda, writes about the distance he kept from his family and how she seldom talked to him, and yet he would speak to strangers on a plane for hours. That would certainly help explain why he spent so much time with me.

But I think there was something else.

Several years later, now a feature writer in Toronto, I flew to Chicago to interview Fonda again. This time he was appearing in a much-more acclaimed one-man show playing Clarence Darrow.

We met at the Ambassador East Hotel where he was staying with his wife, Shirlee. He had aged considerably since our last encounter–which, incidentally, he only vaguely remembered (a valuable lesson in celebrity interviewing; you remember everything, they remember nothing).

Despite the fact he had been ordered to conserve his voice for the stage, we once again talked through the afternoon. Finally, Shirlee poked her head in the door and said in a warning voice, “Fonda, that’s enough.” He shrugged, and we stood to say good-bye.

As I waited down the hall for the elevator, I could hear the Fondas, their voices raised in anger. Shirlee Fonda was not happy that her husband had spent so much time with a reporter. “Shirlee,” Fonda replied sharply. “It’s my job.

At the end of My Darling Clementine, Henry Fonda as Earp says good-bye to the lovely Clem and then rides off down a long and winding road. I found myself suddenly choked with emotion, not only at the simple beauty of John Ford’s neglected masterpiece, but also by the memory of that long-ago afternoon in Detroit with a legendary movie star doing his job–and doing it so very well.


Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

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6 comments on “That Afternoon With Henry Fonda
  1. My favorite Oscar line ever was Jane Fonda accepting Oscar for “On Golden Pond” when she says “Dad, me and all the grandchildren are coming over with it right away.”

    • ronbase says:

      It won Oscars for Fonda and Kate Hepburn and was a big hit at the time, but is almost forgotten today–but you’re right, Emily, Jane Fonda’s line lives on…

  2. Robert Witmer says:

    This was an outstanding read.
    Thank you for your work.

  3. Bob Pomerantz says:

    Ron: Great read! Please do more of these!

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