Yet another May birthday today! How many incredibly talented, Classic Hollywood legends were born in May?!!
Henry Fonda is a star I didn’t appreciate until about three years ago. I never disliked him, I just hadn’t ever gone out of my way to find and watch his films. Then I saw The Lady Eve (1941). And I became an instant fan! I now count many Fonda films among my favorites (Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) is the BEST!!!), and have spent the last few years trying to figure out who this elusive man was off-camera.
A Hard Nut to Crack
I’ve read a few books on him now, particularly enjoying The Man Who Saw a Ghost: the Life and Work of Henry Fonda, and Hank & Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart. (I highly recommend both!) Though these are great books with plenty of information and insights, I still don’t really have a solid picture of who Henry Fonda was. I must agree with Katharine Hepburn, who said after making On Golden Pond (1981) with him,
“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.”
The Famous Friendship
One thing I can say with certainty about Henry Fonda is this: he was an exceptionally loyal friend. Once he considered you a friend, you were a friend for life. And there is no greater evidence of this loyalty than his friendship with James Stewart.
Oh my goodness, there are so many entertaining anecdotes about the fun these two had! Fonda and Stewart stuck together through thick and thin from the time they met as struggling actors, to when they both became mega stars, to when they became cute old men.
The story I want to share today touched me very deeply the first time I read it, and I continue to be moved by it.
Stewart's Great Loss
Fonda and Stewart made four films together, the last one being The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), a comedy-Western directed by Gene Kelly. Yes, you read that right, Gene Kelly directed Henry Fonda and James Stewart in a Western! Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?!?
Jimmy was trying desperately to be his usual friendly self on set, but he was struggling: just before filming began, one of his sons died in Vietnam. He was understandably in no mood to make a movie, let alone a comedy. But Stewart was a professional, and not about to drop out of the film on such late notice.
Henry Fonda had a reputation for keeping to himself on film sets. But his buddy was having a tough time, so Fonda did his best to lift Jimmy’s spirits, reminiscing about the good old days, telling jokes, etc. Even if Jimmy couldn’t bring himself to talk or laugh with his friend,
“I did everything I could to take his mind off it.”
Fonda said. Henry noticed that one of the few things on the Social Club set that lifted Stewart’s spirits was visiting his horse in the film. “Pie,” as Stewart named the horse, had been Jimmy’s horse in most of the Westerns he made throughout his career, and Stewart always requested Pie for his films. This horse was very important to him.
Fonda's Heartfelt Gift
Now Fonda was not a horse person. The only way to get him on a horse was to pay him! (Literally, his own words.) But,
“His [Stewart’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…”
And so Fonda, who was quite an accomplished artist, decided to paint a watercolor portrait of Pie. Whenever Henry had downtime on the set, he would sneak away to paint Jimmy’s beloved horse. Once finished, he framed the portrait and gifted it to Stewart.
For a man of so few words, such a heartfelt, personal gesture was the deepest expression of friendship. And Jimmy knew it. The thoughtful gift meant so much to him, he hung the framed portrait in his home, had a little light installed over it to show it off, and kept the watercolor proudly on display for the rest of his life. Stewart was known to often look admiringly at the portrait by his friend, and simply say,
“I’ll never forget Pie. And Fonda.”
Happy Birthday, Mr. Fonda!
Here’s to friendship, here’s to Henry Fonda! Happy Birthday, Mr. Fonda! While I anxiously await the day I’ll have a fuller picture of who you were off-camera, I’ll be satisfied with the rich film legacy you’ve left us, and the knowledge that the type of friend you were speaks of a golden character.