Sunday, August 12, 2012

What We Lost When We Lost Henry Fonda

When I was growing up, I couldn't imagine a world that didn't have Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart in it.

They were always two of my favorite actors, still are even today. In fact, they were both in the first movie I can remember seeing at the movie theater in my hometown — "How the West Was Won" — which wasn't a new release when it came to my then–tiny hometown (but nothing ever was).

I guess every year has its share of deaths of irreplaceable people.

It is often said that a recently deceased person will be missed. And often, I suppose, that is true.

But I guess it was never more relevant than it was to the movie industry — and, by extension, the world — in late 1982.

In September, Grace Kelly died when she suffered a stroke while driving on the winding, hilly roads of Monaco and crashed her car. She died without regaining consciousness.

And about a month earlier, on Aug. 12, 1982 — 30 years ago today — Fonda died. His death had been anticipated — he'd been ill for awhile — but it was no less devastating.

Audiences had come to take him for granted, I guess. I know I did. He was a steady, reliable performer. You knew what you would be getting when you saw a Henry Fonda movie — well, most of the time you did. When he played against type in "Once Upon a Time in the West," it was more than some moviegoers could fathom.

When he died in 1982, he had been in Hollywood for nearly half a century, and he had just been honored by the Academy Awards with the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in "On Golden Pond."

It was recognition that he had long deserved but had been denied to him. His career had been filled with exceptional performances, but only once before had he been nominated for Best Actor — in 1940, when he was nominated for "The Grapes of Wrath" (but lost to Stewart for "The Philadelphia Story").

His performances in movies like "The Lady Eve," "The Ox–Bow Incident," "Mister Roberts," "Fail–Safe" and "Once Upon a Time in the West" — and dozens of others — went unnoticed repeatedly at Oscar time.

Over the years, Oscar didn't treat Fonda so well. The American Film Institute included two of Fonda's movies on its list of the top 100 movies of all time, but the only time one of his movies was nominated for Best Picture — "12 Angry Men" in 1957 — it lost (to "The Bridge on the River Kwai").

At the time that he died, it occurred to me that the old adage about not knowing what you've got until you no longer have it may never have been more relevant than it was when applied to Fonda's life and career.

On countless occasions in my life, I have been guided by the memory of the words and actions of characters that Fonda played in his life.

In his personal life, as I understand it, Fonda was a flawed individual, perceived by many of those closest to him, especially his children, as aloof and distant. And perhaps he was.

But when he was in front of a camera, the words he was given to speak and the roles he was asked to play took on even greater meaning because Fonda brought so much strength of character to each.

I suppose that was also what made his performance in "Once Upon a Time in the West" so menacing. In the hands of another actor who didn't command the respect Fonda did, that role might have been almost laughable.

But Fonda, cast as a cold–blooded, indiscriminate killer, had a nearly immortal aura to him. He was kind of the Freddy Krueger of the spaghetti Western.

Fonda was truly a gifted actor. In most of his movies, his gift came across in an almost "aw, shucks" kind of way. On the night in 1982 when his daughter accepted his Best Actor Oscar for him because he was too ill to attend, she told the audience she was sure her father's reaction would be to praise those with whom he worked and, of his own recognition, to say, "Ain't I lucky?"

And that was how he looked at his accomplishments in his life, Jane Fonda said. He gave all the credit to those with whom he worked and paid little if any attention to his own skill.

We were the lucky ones — to have had him as long as we did.