Henry Fonda waited nearly three-quarters of a century to tell his life story. When he finally decided to do so, the writer he chose was Howard Teichmann -- a decision suggesting that Fonda's literary judgment is hardly as keen as his acting talent. "Fonda: My Life" is a badly written, adulatory, fatuous book. But never mind. This is Henry Fonda speaking, and that is enough.

For some reason he speaks through Teichmann's voice rather than his own; this is the only "as told to" autobiography that I know of that is narrated in the third person. It makes for peculiar reading at times, but it does offer Teichmann the opportunity to reflect upon the nature of his subject -- and if nothing else, Teichmann does seem to understand Fonda. In a paragraph that comes close to summarizing the themes of the book, and that provides a representative sample of his egregious prose, he writes:

"As an actor, he was a 'type.' Taller than Clark Gable, thinner than John Wayne, slower than Tyrone Power, Fonda, his long-time friend Jimmy Stewart, and Gary Cooper were the American versions of Robin Hood, of the gallant knights of Arthur's Round Table; these three played cowboys better than any other actors. They shared many traits. They were lanky, supposedly slow to anger, supposedly quick on the draw. Actually, Stewart was an ace bomber pilot, Cooper was a genuine bronco buster, but Fonda was quite different. He would have nothing to do with guns, he hated horses. Despite his slow speech and crinkling blue eyes, Fonda was more a closet intellectual than a cow puncher, but he hid this side of his nature almost as well as he concealed his shyness. There was nothing simple about him. He was as complex as the lighting charts backstage on Broadway and as complicated as the camera angles on a sound stage on the West Coast. Part dreamer, part painter, he was captivated by farming, politics, women, and above all by his work."

The man who in his own fashion personifies the myth of the cowboy as much as John Wayne did turns out, upon close examination, to be a cowpoke only in his love for the land. Otherwise, Fonda the man seems to have little direct relationship to Fonda the myth. The self-confidence that he radiates from the stage or screen is not a characteristic of his own; he calls himself a "self-doubting man" who was attracted to acting because "writers give you words and you can become another person." Similarly, the warmth and gentleness he conveys in some of his most notable roles -- in particular that of Doug Roberts in "Mister Roberts" -- are often replaced in private life by what Teichmann describes as "his temper, his aloofness, and the frequent and sometimes powerful silences he inflicted upon those near to him."

He has been through five marriages. The first, to Margaret Sullavan, was a tempestuous war of theatrical egos that quickly came to an end. The second, to Frances Brokaw, ended with her suicide -- one of five suicides that, by a cruel quirk of fate, have haunted Fonda's life. The third, to Susan Blanchard, was a mismatch that ended reasonably amicably; Blanchard says: "I had mistaken Hank's silent shyness when I met him. Perhaps I thought of him as an American Gothic. It was part of his attractiveness. Later, I understood it reflected a rigidity. His was a personality completely different from my own." The fourth, to a glamorous Italian named Afdera Franchetti, collapsed after her wild social life exhausted Fonda. Only his fifth marriage, to Shirlee Adams, seems to click. His daughter, Jane, says:

"Shirlee is quite a remarkable woman. My father likes to play the hermit act, but Shirlee doesn't allow him to get away with it. He is the center of her life. She's exactly what he needed . . . I mean, she's on to him all the time, all the time, all the time!"

But Fonda's silences, terrible though they may be, do not seem to dominate his private life. The impression he gives in this book is that his life for the most part has been full and happy, and that he has known how to enjoy its pleasures. He also leaves no doubt that he has earned them. Beginning with his introduction to the theater in Omaha in the '20s, he had to suffer through a decade in which deprivation was more often than not the rule; wages of $5 a week were common, for work at such places as a junior theater in Washington and a repertory in Baltimore. He stuck to his craft because he believed in it, and in the '30s he was at last recognized.

It's impossible to write about Fonda's early life without mentioning a couple of coincidences that are the stuff of legend. One involves Dorothy Brando, the Omaha housewife who introduced him to the theater. She had a daughter named Joycelyn, who later played the nurse in the Broadway production of "Mister Roberts." She also had a baby son, named Marlon.

The other involves a trip Fonda made to Princeton while still a very young man. He and a friend had dates with two sisters, also from out of town, staying with their mother at an inn. For a lark the friends challenged each other to see who could get the most kisses. Dutifully, Fonda kissed his 17-year-old date and took her back to the inn. The next morning, clearly out to twit him, she sent him a note that read: "I've told mother about our lovely experience together in the moonlight. She will announce the engagement when we get home." Her name was Bette Davis.

Obviously Fonda is a fairly tough cookie, but equally obvious is that he is a decent man with a clear sense of himself. By contrast with most of the stars now glittering in the movies, he is his own creation rather than that of the gossip magazines and the machinery of hype. He is an actor, not a celebrity. There are very few men and women in Hollywood today of whom that can be said.

That Fonda has chosen an inept writer to tell his story is unfortunate. But it is good to have him on the record.

The reviewer is Book World's resident critic.