During the filming of On Golden Pond, actor Henry Fonda created a water-color painting of the three hats he wore in the film. “I can sometimes hardly believe a painting is mine when I’ve finished,” said the humble star, who was also a talented artist.
After the film wrapped, Henry made 200 lithographs of his hats painting. Everyone who worked on On Golden Pond received a signed and numbered print, along with a personalized thank-you note.
When someone coined the phrase “strong, silent type,” they could have been talking about Henry. The Nebraska-born actor, who won his sole Oscar for playing On Golden Pond’s curmudgeonly patriarch, spent his life as a man of few words. “Dad was a very shy, withdrawn person,” says Jane Fonda, 84. “He always said that acting provided that mask behind which he could express the emotions he couldn’t in real life.”
Introduced to acting by Dorothy Brando, the mother of Marlon Brando, Henry thrived at the Omaha Community Playhouse. He moved to New York to seek his fortune and became the roommate of another hopeful young actor, Jimmy Stewart. “Their friendship was based on being comfortable in silence,” Jimmy’s daughter Kelly Stewart-Harcourt tells Closer. “Those guys could spend time together building a model airplane and not really saying anything.” It was a friendship that would last until Jimmy’s passing in 1997.
In theater and on screen, Henry would find great success playing men with a strong sense of morality. Off screen, he didn’t like attention or care about accolades. “He was not ego-driven and was about as down-to-earth as you can get,” says biographer Robert Matzen.
But in his private life, the five-times married actor knew much heartache. His second union, to socialite Frances Ford Seymour, the mother of Jane and Peter Fonda, was tragically troubled. Frances suffered from depression and saw Henry’s silences and multiple infidelities as rejection. She took her life on her 42nd birthday, just months after Henry told her he was leaving her for another woman.
Guilt-ridden Henry withdrew from his children, who didn’t find out the truth about their mother’s death until years later. “I don’t think I’ve been a particularly good father,” Henry admitted, “but I’ve been lucky.”
Jane, who had always looked up to her father, tried to get closer before Henry’s passing in 1982, but she kept her expectations in check. “You don’t become somebody that you’ve never been at the end of your life,” she notes. “My dad was not a communicative person. He just didn’t know how.”
But like On Golden Pond’s Norman and Chelsea, they found a way to express their love. “All I could do was to tell him, ‘I’m sorry that there were times when I made you unhappy. I’m sorry that I wasn’t always a great daughter. I totally forgive you for not always being a great father. I know that you did the best you could,’ ” Jane recalls. “I was sitting at his feet, and he began to cry — and my dad did not cry, especially in front of people. So, I know that he took in what I said to him.”