Very late one night, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart had a bright idea as they were walking back to their room at New York City’s Madison Square Hotel. “We were in a play together. After the closing night party, we were not completely sober,” recalled Jimmy. “Fonda stopped and said, ‘If you started playing your accordion in the middle of Times Square at 3:30 a.m., would anybody come?’ In 5 minutes, there were 10 people. I looked, Fonda was passing the hat … We got 12 cents.”
But some things are worth more than money. For over 50 years, these two legendary, Golden Age actors shared a rich, warm friendship that helped them through good times and bad. “They were very much alike,” Robert Matzen, author of Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, tells Closer. “They were both quiet introverts. Tall guys who were not really comfortable in their own skin.”
Their friendship blossomed in 1932 when they were both budding actors doing summer stock in Cape Cod, Mass. “We were so skinny, the two of us only cast one shadow,” Henry once joked.
They shared a love of acting and airplanes. In 1934, they splurged on the largest model airplane kit Macy’s carried as a Christmas present to each other. “Both of us were working in shows and every night we’d rush home and start putting the plane together,” Jimmy remembered. “First thing we knew it was 6 in the morning!”
While they shared similarities in pastimes, humor and temperament, they were opposites in many ways. Henry was agnostic, while Jimmy was a churchgoing Presbyterian. During their friendship, Henry would have five wives and endured complicated relationships with his children, while Jimmy remained happily wed to Gloria McLean and was adored by his kids.
They also disagreed on politics. Henry was a Democrat while Jimmy voted Republican, but after one blow-up argument early on they agreed to avoid further debates. “There were certain subjects we just didn’t talk about,” said Jimmy. Despite their differences — and the fact that Jimmy won the Best Actor Oscar in 1941 for The Philadelphia Story over Henry, who was nominated for The Grapes of Wrath — they remained brothers until the end.
When Jimmy returned home from WWII suffering from PTSD from the combat missions he’d flown as an Army pilot, he sought refuge with Henry, who had won a Bronze Star in the Navy. For a time, Jimmy lived in the “playhouse” Henry had built for his children Peter and Jane behind his Hollywood Hills home.
“What each needed from the other was quiet and space,” explains Matzen. They helped each other by flying kites and listening to music — unwinding from everything they had been through.
Jimmy repaid the favor when Henry fell ill with cancer in the early ’80s, “He was there for him,” says Matzen. “The two of them would sit there, not talking. They spent hours just being friends. Henry “was my oldest and dearest friend,” Jimmy said upon his passing in 1982. “The world has lost a great talent and I have lost a very dear friend.”