HENRY FONDA STOOD up to bullies. He didn't usually shoot them, like John Wayne did, but he stood up to them. He confronted them, he talked them down, he shamed them into submission. There never has been a shortage of bullies for the shaming.
And because Henry Fonda did that in some of his best movies, he came to epitomize the proud, tough, lean, individualist who sticks to his principles so firmly they become part of his skin. Henry Fonda grew to symbolize some of the aspects of the American character that we prize most, and there is considerable reason to believe he tried to bring those qualities to his personal life as well. Nobody wanted to see him knuckle under in the movies. And no one wanted to see him knuckle under to his own mortality, his own deteriorating health, in real life.
He lost that fight -- one of the few we know of him losing -- yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 77.
As Tom Joad, the oppressed Everyman of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," Fonda promised he would be around forever, and in roles like that, he will be. In good movies he could be great; in bad movies, he kept his dignity. From his craggy, sinewy portrayal of "Young Mr. Lincoln" in 1939, to the role of the cantankerous, death-defying Norman Thayer of "On Golden Pond" in 1981 (the only performance for which he won an Academy Award), Fonda was the picture of resolve on the screen.
He became emblematic of the frontier traits it has often been said this country was built on: independence, determination, grit, pluck and stubbornness. He was steadfast. As the lone dissenter at a lynching party in "The Ox-Bow Incident," he spoke out against mob justice. As the lone dissenter on a hanging jury in "Twelve Angry Men" 14 years later, he spoke out for the rights of a wrongly accused man.
As the president of the United States in "Fail Safe," in 1964, Henry Fonda somehow made it seem reasonable to sacrifice the city of New York when U.S. missiles accidentally wiped out Moscow in the course of a colossal Cold War snafu.
He made many films that were not successful, and he proved his versatility by playing a wide variety of characters, but he was at his best when, as might have been said of him in a detracting way, "he was always the same." Not just in the sense of his trademarked, tight-lipped, midwestern-twanged delivery, either. It became with Fonda less a matter of acting than a matter of being what people wanted him to be. The camera smiled on him as it did on a few others of his generation and turned him into something more, in the mass mind, than an actor, and something more than a movie star. He was lucky enough to become a symbol, one that could survive box office clinkers or the occasionally embarrassing public utterances of his children Peter and Jane.
He will be remembered for himself, and not for them.
Fonda and his "image" grew so inseparable that when he finally was given an Oscar for a performance (one year after receiving an "honorary" one), it was generally acknowledged that the trophy was less kudos for "Golden Pond," with its slim conceit and banal characters, than an expression of gratitude for a life's work. It was the Henry Fonda award for being Henry Fonda.
Italian director Sergio Leone has said that he cast Fonda as a cold-blooded killer in his western epic "Once Upon a Time in the West" purely out of mischief -- to shock an audience accustomed to identifying Fonda with the good guys. In an early scene, an entire red-haired family, children included, is wiped out by a vicious outlaw gang whose members' faces are not seen until the massacre is over. Then they, and their blue-eyed leader, walk out of the brush, and Leone recalled later that what he wanted audiences to say at that point was, "My God -- it's Henry Fonda!"
Only Fonda himself could know how much courage it took to keep working after repeated hospitalizations, heart surgery, the implanting of a pacemaker and other infirmities. It must have taken plenty -- courage or just ornery defiance, which is what we expected Fonda to stand for on the screen. In one of his last performances, a TV movie called "Gideon's Trumpet," he played Clarence Earl Gideon, the impoverished Florida man who, when sent to prison, learned enough law there to challenge his conviction and help establish the precedent that every accused person is entitled to legal counsel. Gideon got a new stature, one even history books couldn't bestow, because he was being played by Henry Fonda.
In a way, Gideon was kin to Tom Joad. And to Mr. Roberts, whom Fonda played on the stage and the screen and who made a heroic act of standing up to a tyrannical Navy captain obsessed with a palm tree. And to Wyatt Earp, played by Fonda in the classic 1946 John Ford western "My Darling Clementine," which had Fonda setting a whole town on the straight and narrow.
It was in that film that Fonda made something curiously indelible out of a simple scene in which Earp sat on a front porch, leaned back in his chair, and did a little dance with his feet on the railing. It's one of those tiny movie moments that, once seen, is not forgotten. The film, meant as a radiant celebration of Americana, is now Americana itself, a memento of another era in filmmaking that celebrated simplicity, decency and heroism. Fonda had a way of making simple decency look heroic on the screen. And soon he will be as much a part of Americana as the characters he played.
Perhaps Tom Joad was right when he said he would always be "there" -- at least in the sense that a part of him was always there in a Fonda performance. In the late '60s, at a dinner honoring Fonda and recalling "The Grapes of Wrath," author Steinbeck remembered first seeing Fonda in the role of Joad. "A lean, stringy, dark-faced piece of electricity walked out on the screen, and he had me," Steinbeck said. "I believed my own story again. It was fresh and happening and good. Hank can do that."
Steinbeck called Fonda "devoted, hard-working and responsible, with a harsh urge toward perfection" and said he thought of him as "a man reaching but unreachable, gentle but capable of sudden and dangerous violence, sharply critical of others, but equally self-critical, caged, and fighting the bars, but timid of the light . . ."
Producer Darryl F. Zanuck was said to have written Tom Joad's final speech in "Grapes of Wrath," but there is obviously a lot of Steinbeck in it. And as Library of Congress film historian David Parker says, "Ninety years from now, people are still going to be choked up when they hear Fonda say those words again. And that's no small thing."
What Tom Joad said to his mother when she asked what would become of him was, "Well, maybe it's like Casey says: A fella ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody. And then, it don't matter; I'll be all around. In the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad, and I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. And when people are eatin' stuff they raise, and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too."
Ma Joad: "I don't understand it, Tom."
Tom: "Me neither, Ma. It's just somethin' I've been thinkin' about. Give me your hand.