The Fonda surname originated with immigrants from Genoa, Italy, to the Netherlands, in the 15th century. In 1642, a branch of the Fonda family immigrated to the Dutch colony of New Netherland, on the East Coast of North America. They were among the first Dutch population to settle in what is now upstate New York, establishing the town of Fonda, New York. By 1888, many of their descendants had relocated to Nebraska.
Henry Fonda was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, to advertising-printing jobber William Brace Fonda, and his wife, Elma Herberta (née Jaynes), in the second year of their marriage.
Fonda was brought up as a Christian Scientist, though he was baptized an Episcopalian at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Grand Island. He said, "My whole damn family was nice." They were a close family and highly supportive, especially in health matters, as they avoided doctors due to their religion. Despite having a religious background, he later on became an agnostic. Fonda was a bashful, short boy who tended to avoid girls, except his sisters, and was a good skater, swimmer, and runner. He worked part-time in his father's print plant and imagined a possible career as a journalist. Later, he worked after school for the phone company. He also enjoyed drawing. Fonda was active in the Boy Scouts of America; Teichmann reports that he reached the rank of Eagle Scout. When he was about fourteen, his father took him to observe a lynching, from the window of his father's plant, of a young black man accused of rape. This enraged the young Fonda and he kept a keen awareness of prejudice for his entire adult life. By his senior year in high school, Fonda had grown to more than six feet tall, but remained a shy teenager. He attended the University of Minnesota, where he majored in journalism, but he did not graduate. He took a job with the Retail Credit Company.
At age 20, Fonda started his acting career at the Omaha Community Playhouse, when his mother's friend Dodie Brando (mother of Marlon Brando) recommended that he try out for a juvenile part in You and I, in which he was cast as Ricky. He was fascinated by the stage, learning everything from set construction to stage production, and embarrassed by his acting ability. When he received the lead in Merton of the Movies, he realized the beauty of acting as a profession, as it allowed him to deflect attention from his own tongue-tied personality and create stage characters relying on someone else's scripted words. Fonda decided to quit his job and go East in 1928 to strike his fortune.
He arrived on Cape Cod and played a role at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts; a friend took him over to Falmouth, where he quickly became a valued member of the new University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company. There he worked with Margaret Sullavan, his future wife. James Stewart joined the Players months after Fonda left, and they later became lifelong friends. He landed his first professional role in the University Players production of The Jest, by Sem Benelli. Joshua Logan, a young sophomore at Princeton who had been double-cast in the show, gave Fonda the part of Tornaquinci, "an elderly Italian with long, white beard and heavy wig." Also in the cast of The Jest with Fonda and Logan were Bretaigne Windust, Kent Smith, and Eleanor Phelps.
The tall (6'1.5") and slim (160 lbs) Fonda headed for New York City, where he was soon joined by Stewart (after Fonda's short marriage to Margaret Sullavan ended.) The two men were roommates and honed their skills on Broadway. Fonda appeared in theatrical productions from 1926 to 1934. They fared no better than many Americans in and out of work during the Great Depression, sometimes lacking enough money to take the subway.
Fonda got the first break, as he was hired to make his first film appearance in 1935 as Janet Gaynor's leading man in 20th Century Fox's screen adaptation of The Farmer Takes a Wife; he reprised his role from the Broadway production of the same name, which had gained him critical recognition. Suddenly, Fonda was making $3,000 a week and dining with Hollywood stars such as Carole Lombard. Stewart soon followed him to Hollywood, and they roomed together again, in lodgings next door to Greta Garbo.
Despite approaching his seventies, Fonda continued to work in theater, television and film through the 1970s. In 1970, Fonda appeared in three films, the most successful The Cheyenne Social Club. The other two films were Too Late the Hero, in which Fonda played a secondary role, and There Was a Crooked Man, about Paris Pitman Jr. (played by Kirk Douglas) trying to escape from an Arizona prison.
Fonda returned to both foreign and television productions, which provided career sustenance through a decade in which many aging screen actors suffered waning careers. He starred in the ABC television series The Smith Family between 1971 and 1972. A TV-movie adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, 1973's The Red Pony, earned Fonda an Emmy nomination. After the unsuccessful Hollywood melodrama, Ash Wednesday, he filmed three Italian productions released in 1973 and 1974. The most successful of these, My Name is Nobody, presented Fonda in a rare comedic performance as an old gunslinger whose plans to retire are dampened by a "fan" of sorts.
Fonda continued stage acting throughout his last years, including several demanding roles in Broadway plays. He returned to Broadway in 1974 for the biographical drama,Clarence Darrow, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. Fonda's health had been deteriorating for years, but his first outward symptoms occurred after a performance of the play in April 1974, when he collapsed from exhaustion. After the appearance of a heart arrhythmia brought on by prostate cancer, he had a pacemaker installed following cancer surgery.
As Fonda's health declined and he took longer breaks between filming, critics began to take notice of his extensive body of work. In 1979, the Tony Awards committee gave Fonda a special award for his achievements on Broadway. Lifetime Achievement awards from the Golden Globes and Academy Awards followed in 1980 and 1981, respectively.
On Golden Pond
brought Fonda his only Oscar - for Best Actor (he was the oldest recipient of the award; it also earned him a Golden Globe Best Actor award). Fonda was by that point too ill to attend the ceremony, and his daughter Jane accepted on his behalf. She said when accepting the award that her dad would probably quip, "Well, ain't I lucky." After Fonda's death, some film critics called this performance "his last and greatest role".
Fonda's final performance was in the 1981 television drama Summer Solstice with Myrna Loy. It was filmed after On Golden Pond had wrapped and Fonda was in rapidly declining health.
Fonda was married five times and had three children, one of them adopted. His marriage to Margaret Sullavan in 1931 soon ended in separation, which was finalized in a 1933 divorce.
In 1936, he married Frances Ford Seymour Brokaw, widow of a wealthy industrialist, George Tuttle Brokaw. The Brokaws had a daughter, Frances de Villers, nicknamed "Pan," who had been born soon after the Brokaws marriage in 1931.
Fonda met his future wife Frances at Denham Studios in England on the set of Wings of the Morning, the first British picture to be filmed in technicolor. They had two children,Peter and Jane, both of whom became successful actors. They have each had Oscar nominations and wins.
In August 1949, Fonda announced to Frances that he wanted a divorce so he could remarry; their thirteen years of marriage had not been happy ones for him. Devastated by Fonda's confession, and plagued by emotional problems for many years, Frances went into the Austen Riggs Psychiatric Hospital in January 1950 for treatment. She committed suicide there on April 14. Before her death she had written six notes to various individuals, but left no final message for her husband. Fonda quickly arranged a private funeral with only himself and his mother-in-law, Sophie Seymour, in attendance.
Later in 1950, Fonda married Susan Blanchard, with whom he had been having an affair since sometime in 1948. She was twenty-one years old and the stepdaughter of Oscar Hammerstein II. Together, they adopted a daughter, Amy Fishman (born 1953). They divorced three years later. Blanchard was in awe of Fonda, and she described her role in the marriage as "a geisha," doing everything she could to please him, dealing with and solving problems he would not acknowledge.
In 1957, Fonda married the Italian countess Afdera Franchetti; they divorced in 1961. Soon after, Fonda married Shirlee Mae Adams, and remained with her until his death in 1982.