AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Movie Detail
Name Occurs Before Title Offscreen Credit Print Viewed By AFI
On Golden Pond
Director: Mark Rydell (Dir)
Release Date:   4 Dec 1981
Premiere Information:   Los Angeles premiere: 18 Nov 1981 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater; Los Angeles and New York openings: 4 Dec 1981
Production Date:   19 or 21 Jul--23 Sep 1980 in New Hampshire
Duration (in mins):   109
Print this page
Display Movie Summary

Cast:   Katharine Hepburn (Ethel Thayer)  
    Henry Fonda (Norman Thayer Jr. )  
    Jane Fonda (Chelsea Thayer Wayne)  
  Also starring: Doug McKeon (Billy Ray)  
    Dabney Coleman (Bill Ray)  
  [and] William Lanteau (Charlie Martin)  
    Chris Rydell (Summer Todd)  

Summary: Ethel Thayer and her retired English professor husband, Norman Thayer, Jr., arrive at their New England summer cottage, nestled in the woods next to a lake called Golden Pond. While Norman is a curmudgeon and exaggerates his senility, Ethel has a youthful spirit and is delighted by their holiday. She scolds Norman for his obsession with death. As the couple paddles in a canoe on the lake, Ethel spots two loons and interprets their call as a welcome, but Norman feigns disinterest. Sometime later, Norman grudgingly agrees to pick wild strawberries for Ethel; however, he becomes disoriented in the woods and returns home empty-handed. Meanwhile, postman Charlie Martin delivers the couple’s mail by motorboat, and Ethel insists he stay for coffee. Ethel reads a letter from her divorced daughter, Chelsea Thayer Wayne, announcing that she and her dentist boyfriend, Bill Ray, will be visiting the cottage to celebrate Norman’s eightieth birthday on their way to Europe. Norman is indifferent and preoccupies himself with the newspaper. When Charlie leaves, Norman admits fear that he is losing his wits, but Ethel consoles her husband, saying he is her “knight is shining armor.” Sometime later, on the evening of Norman’s birthday, Chelsea arrives. She refers to her father formally, by his first name, and Norman criticizes his thin daughter for being overweight. The Thayers are surprised that Chelsea is accompanied by thirteen-year-old Billy Ray, the surly son of Bill. Chelsea is shocked to see how much her father has aged. When Chelsea ducks out of the house to avoid her father, Bill remains with the old man and tries to be cordial. Speaking peevishly with his daughter’s suitor, Norman responds sarcastically when Bill asks for permission to sleep in the same room with Chelsea, but Bill refuses to be intimidated. Meanwhile, Ethel and Chelsea swim naked in the lake, laughing about old times. As Bill joins Chelsea outside, Ethel returns to the cottage and asks Norman to do a favor for his daughter; Chelsea has asked them to look after Billy while she and Bill travel in Europe. Sometime later, Chelsea laments her difficult relationship with Norman, and Ethel observes that her daughter has a chip on her shoulder. She warns that life passes too quickly to harbor bad feelings. In time, Chelsea and Bill leave for Europe. Billy is hostile to being left behind, but Norman wins the boy over. He takes Billy on fishing excursions and teaches him to perform a back flip dive off the dock. As days pass, Norman takes Billy fishing at a secret inlet on Golden Pond called Purgatory Cove and tells the boy about his nemesis, a large trout named “Walter” that has eluded him for years. Ethel surprises the men by tracking them down to deliver lunch. As she boats away, Norman is delighted to reel in an enormous rainbow trout, but insists it is not Walter. However, Norman’s spirits darken that evening when he nearly burns down the cottage after leaving the fireplace unattended. He blames Billy for the incident, and the boy’s feelings are hurt, but Ethel reminds Billy that Norman means well, despite his cantankerous demeanor. The following day, Billy is thrilled to motorboat across the Golden Pond on his own. Back at the cottage, Norman astonishes Ethel by stealing a kiss. In the evening, Norman and Billy fish for Walter and the boy helps his elderly friend navigate through a bed of rocks into Purgatory Cove. When they reach their destination and cast lines, Norman accidentally calls the boy “Chelsea,” and Billy admits he is going to miss Norman’s company. Just then, Billy hooks a large fish, but when Norman nets the catch they realize it is a dead loon. When Billy asks if Norman is afraid of dying, the old man dismisses him and insists they boat home. With Billy at the helm, Norman directs the boy through the rocks, but suddenly orders him to reverse. Panicked, Billy mistakenly gears the boat forward at full speed and Norman is thrown from the vessel as it collides with a nearby boulder. With his head bloodied, Norman comes to the surface and calls for Chelsea. Billy jumps into the water to save the old man and the two cling to a rock. Meanwhile, Ethel drives to the home of Charlie, the mailman, terrified by Norman and Billy’s disappearance. Charlie motorboats to Purgatory Cove, but insists no one would be crazy enough to navigate through the rocks. Knowing her husband’s stubbornness, Ethel forces Charlie to proceed into the cove as she scans the lake with a flashlight. Calling Norman’s name, Ethel sees the two and dives into the water to save them. One week later, back at the cottage, Norman and Billy pretend to immerse themselves in a jigsaw puzzle while Ethel goes to search the woods for mushrooms. When they sneak away to fish, Ethel calls them “juvenile delinquents” and they promise to stay close to home. While they fish in a rowboat, Chelsea returns home and startles her mother, who sings aloud while picking flowers. Ethel tells her daughter about Billy’s close relationship with Norman and their boating accident. Announcing her new marriage to Bill, Chelsea explains that the doctor returned to California for work. She is jealous of Billy’s connection to Norman and complains that her father is a “selfish son-of-a-bitch,” but Ethel hits her across the face. Meanwhile, Billy hooks a large fish, and Norman declares they have finally caught the “son-of-a-bitch,” Walter. Back on shore, Ethel encourages Chelsea to make amends with her father. As Norman and Billy pull toward the dock, Chelsea greets Billy and he announces their victory over Walter. However, Norman let the fish go. Billy rushes inside the cottage to share the news with Ethel, and Chelsea asks her father if they can be friends. Despite Norman’s petulance, he is happy to hear about his daughter’s new marriage. When he announces with pride that Billy has mastered the back flip, Chelsea concedes that she was always “too fat” to successfully follow her father’s instructions. Although Norman protests, Chelsea swims to the dock and makes the dive as Norman cheers his daughter’s courage. Sometime later, Chelsea and Billy pack their rental car to leave Golden Pond. Norman gives Billy a fishing rod, then places a second-place medal that he won at Princeton University around Chelsea’s neck. She calls him “dad” for the first time and they embrace. Later still, Norman and Ethel close the house for the winter and Norman suffers heart pains. Ethel gives her husband medication and attempts to phone the operator, but is unable to get through. Ethel fears Norman is dying, but he insists he feels better. As she helps him to his feet, Norman spots two loons on Golden Pond and declares that the birds have come to say goodbye. 

Production Company: ITC Films  
  IPC Films  
Production Text: Lord Grade Presents
An ITC Films/IPC Films Production
A Mark Rydell Film
Distribution Company: Universal Pictures (MCA, Inc.)
Director: Mark Rydell (Dir)
  Terry Carr (Unit prod mgr)
  Richard Y. Hashimoto (Unit prod mgr)
  Gary Daigler (1st asst dir)
  Venita Ozols (2d asst dir)
  Stephen Grimes (2d unit dir)
Producer: Bruce Gilbert (Prod)
Writer: Ernest Thompson Based on his play (Scr)
Photography: Billy Williams (Dir of photog)
  James A. Contner (Cam op)
  Hank Muller (1st asst cam)
  Gary A. Muller (2nd asst cam)
  Scott Rathner (Asst cam)
  Peter R. Norman (Dir of 2d unit photog)
  Rexford Metz (Dir of aerial photog)
  Adger W. Cowan (Still photog)
  Aggie Aguilar (Gaffer)
  Paul Caven (Best boy)
  Len Lookabaugh (Key grip)
Art Direction: Stephen Grimes (Prod des)
  Ida Random (Asst art dir)
Film Editor: Robert L. Wolfe (Ed)
  Greg Wong (Asst ed)
  Mark Conte (Asst ed)
  Adam Wolfe (Apprentice ed)
Set Decoration: Jane Bogart (Set dec)
  Emily Ferry (Prop master)
  Matthew Knox (Asst propmaster)
  Donald W. Krafft (Lead person)
  Emad Helmy (Set des)
  Gary Martin (Const coord)
  William Trobaugh (Const foreman)
  Ken Reed (Prop maker)
  Robert L. Clark (Painter)
Costumes: Dorothy Jeakins (Cost)
  Arlene Encell (Cost supv)
  Tony Faso (Cost supv)
Music: Dave Grusin (Mus)
  Else Blangsted (Supv mus ed)
  Dennis Sands (Mus rec by)
Sound: David Ronne (Prod sd mixer)
  Pat Suraci (Boomman)
  Kay Rose (Supv sd ed)
  Victoria Rose Sampson (Sd ed)
  Laurey Condon (Asst sd ed)
  Richard Portman (Re-rec mixer)
  Todd-AO (Sd)
Special Effects: Phill Norman (Title des)
  Matthew Sweeney (Spec eff supv)
Make Up: Tom Tuttle (Makeup)
  Ramon Gow (Hair styles)
  Jerry Masarone (Hairstylist)
Production Misc: Terry Carr (Prod supv)
  Richard L. O'Connor (Exec in charge of prod)
  James W. Gavin (Helicopter pilot)
  Marshall Schlom (Scr supv)
  James Potter (Post prod supv)
  Joe R. Sawyers (Transportation coord )
  William C. Bratton (Transportation capt)
  Barry Primus (Casting)
  Diane Crittenden (Casting)
  Victoria James (Extra casting )
  James Rosenfield (Loc mgr)
  Edna Tromans (Unit pub)
  Geralyn Miller (Prod coord)
  Dick Dixon (Loc auditor)
  Lydia Telo (Asst auditor)
  Eileen Peterson (Asst to the prod)
  Denise Kurtzman (Asst to the prod)
  Marie Melendez (Asst to the dir)
  Ann Bell (Asst to the dir)
  Anne Prager (Prod asst)
  Gayle Simon (Prod asst)
  Charlene Joyce (Prod asst)
  Carroll Blue (Prod asst)
  Peggy Gilder (Prod asst)
  Pat Curtin (Boat supv)
  Pickwick, Maslansky & Konigsberg (Pub)
Stand In: Walter Scott (Stunt coord/Double)
  Bobby Porter (Stunt double)
MPAA Rating: PG
Country: Great Britain and United States
Language: English

Source Text: Based on the play On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson (New York, 28 Feb 1979).
Authors: Ernest Thompson

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
ITC Films, Inc. 25/1/1982 dd/mm/yyyy PA126935

Physical Properties: Sd:
  Lenses: Lenses and Panaflex camera by Panavision®

Genre: Drama
Subjects (Major): Aged persons
  Death and dying
  Family relationships
  Fathers and daughters
Subjects (Minor): Adolescents
  Boating accidents
  Canoes and canoeing
  Divers and diving
  Mothers and daughters
  New England
  Personality change
  Premarital sex

Note: End credits include the following acknowledgements: “Special thanks to Roger Spottiswoode”; and, “The play produced on Broadway by Arthur Cantor and Greer Garson.” Also included in end credits is the statement: “The producers wish to acknowledge their appreciation to the people of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Film and Television Bureau in the making of this film.” Final credits in the picture read: “This film is respectfully dedicated to the memory and talent of Robert L. Wolfe.”
       According to production notes in AMPAS library files, actress Jane Fonda and producer Bruce Gilbert, her partner at IPC Films, acquired film rights to Ernest Thompson’s 1979 play On Golden Pond, with the assistance of Lord Lew Grade’s Incorporated Television Company (ITC) and Marble Arch for $287,500, according to a 29 Mar 1982 NYT article. Fonda was reportedly searching for “an appropriate vehicle” in which she could perform for the first time with her father, Henry Fonda.
       On 27 Nov 1979, HR announced that Henry Fonda and Ingrid Bergman were being courted by Lew Grade, who intended to film On Golden Pond in London, England. Less than one month later, a 19 Dec 1979 HR news item reported that Katharine Hepburn was “virtually signed” to star with Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda. Principal photography was scheduled to begin early 1980 in London. However, the 28 Mar 1980 DV noted that shooting had been rescheduled for summer 1980, as contracts had not yet been signed and the project was still without a director.
       A 2 May 1980 DV brief announced that Mark Rydell had been hired to direct and filming was set to begin Jul 1980 in New England. On 27 Jun 1980, the New England Entertainment Digest reported that the production was planning locations in NH, even though the play was set in ME. Production notes specified the location as a home in the Lake Winnipesaukee region of NH, and modern sources listed Squam Lake, situated near the town of Center Harbor, NH, as the film’s most prominent locale. An existing one-story residence was fashioned with a new wing that added two upstairs rooms and a balcony, and the set was dressed with personal items supplied by the Fondas and Hepburn, including a photograph of young Hepburn standing beside a plane during flight training and a picture of Fonda, in his youth, examining model airplanes with his friend, actor James Stewart. Although production notes stated that principal photography began 21 Jul 1980, other contemporary sources, including HR production charts published 1 Aug 1980, listed a start date two days earlier, on 19 Jul 1980.
       Shortly after filming began, a 22 Jul 1980 DV news item reported that the production was threatened by a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) strike, despite producer Bruce Gilbert’s efforts to request waivers for his stars. DV noted that the filmmakers had “limited time” to shoot in NH due to the changing season, and the “title scenes” were being filmed that day because they did not include actors. On 5 Aug 1980, HR announced that production had resumed after being shut down by the strike for over one week. The filmmakers were reportedly “among the first of the 31 motion pictures and TV movies” to sign SAG’s interim agreement.
       Location shooting in NH continued through Aug 1980. A 14 Aug 1980 DV brief reported that Jane Fonda led early morning aerobics classes for the cast and crew, and a 14 Aug 1980 HR column stated that Hepburn arrived on location in Laconia, NH, with a present for Henry Fonda, a cap that Spencer Tracy “always wore on set.” Despite their contemporary acting careers, Fonda and Hepburn had never before performed in a feature film together. On 11 Sep 1980, DV stated that Jane Fonda had returned to Los Angeles, CA, to co-host a SAG fundraiser and a Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED) “benefit fashion show,” but she was due back on set 15 Sep 1980 to perform the film’s climactic “final confrontation.” A 26 Sep 1980 HR news item announced that filming ended 23 Sep 1980 in NH after a ten-week shoot. According to a 12 Mar 1982 DV brief, the total budget was $7.5 million.
       On Golden Pond made its world premiere on 18 Nov 1981 at AMPAS’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, CA, as a benefit for AFI’s “new campus” in Hollywood, as noted in several contemporary sources including the 29 Oct 1981 LAT. The event was planned to include many celebrities, such as James and Gloria Stewart, Neil Simon and Marsha Mason, Burt Lancaster, and Gene Kelly, but according to the 11 Nov 1981 DV, Henry Fonda was in poor health at that time. A 17 Nov 1981 LAT brief announced that Fonda would be unable to attend the premiere, and the following day, an 18 Nov 1981 DV news item reported that the seventy-six-year-old actor had been hospitalized at Cedars Sinai Medical Center for observation related to his “heart problems.”
       As noted in the 13 Nov 1981 DV review, On Golden Pond opened 4 Dec 1981 in New York City and Los Angeles, before its general release on 22 Jan 1982. After two days at New York City’s Cinema 1 and Los Angeles’ Avco Cinema, the film earned remarkable grosses, according to a 7 Dec 1981 DV column. The opening weekend at Cinema 1 grossed $31,570, including house record-breaking Saturday box-office receipts of $17,880. An 8 Dec 1981 LAHExam article stated that the picture’s three-day opening earnings of $41,544 at Avco Cinema marked “the biggest weekend in the theater’s history.”
       Despite generally mixed reviews, with the 18 Nov 1981 hailing the picture as a “class act” and the 4 Dec 1981 NYT complaining about the conventionality of the pastoral narrative, the film continued to fare well at the box-office. On 10 Feb 1982, HR announced that On Golden Pond was at the top of box-office charts after its second week of release, grossing over $4.9 million “during the latest three days” and increasing its total earnings to $19,255,967. A 29 Mar 1982 NYT article noted that the film’s popularity benefitted theatrical productions of On Golden Pond, even though the play had not previously been a success on Broadway.
       On Golden Pond marked Henry Fonda’s final performance in a theatrically released feature film before his death on 12 Aug 1982. Several reviews, including the 4 Dec 1981 LAHExam, noted that the strength of Fonda’s role was due, in part, to its reflection of his true life, ill health and “well-publicized rifts” with Jane Fonda. A 13 Dec 1981 NYT article, written by Vincent Canby as a follow-up to his lukewarm 4 Dec 1981 review, stated that Fonda’s “performance that engages and delights us by being something of an astonishment” was solely responsible for giving the “homogenized” film a “center of gravity.” In the month following Fonda’s death, a 30 Sep 1982 HR article announced Universal’s plans to reissue the picture, which had a domestic gross of $116,466,064 to date. The studio claimed that the reissue decision was made before Fonda’s death, and no mention of his passing would be made in advertisements.
       On 14 Oct 1982, HR announced that ITC Films had failed to win a legal battle contesting ownership of the picture’s rights, and a partnership of New York City investors called “Golden Film Partners,” who had reportedly purchased the rights from ITC for $10.4 million on 3 Dec 1981, was named sole owner. In addition, ITC was charged with miscalculating the film’s production costs and was “imposed a judgment of $433,000.” Golden Films’s claims against Universal were dropped when the Universal “placed $19 million in escrow pending the outcome of the case,” to be used as a “first payment of profits” to Golden Films. According to HR, the ownership exchange between ITC and Golden was initially a two-picture deal that included Barbarosa (1982, see entry); when Golden decided to eliminate Barbarosa from the contract, ITC sought to rescind the sale of On Golden Pond, claiming that Golden breached the obligations of their oral agreement. ITC’s Los Angeles lawyer, Robert Kaplan, was fined $10,000 for failing to register the “required assignment of copyright” for On Golden Pond after the disputed 3 Dec 1981 sale to Golden Films, and ITC later filed a $2 million malpractice suit against Kaplan for this oversight, as announced in a 15 Feb 1983 HR article.
       Later that year, on 2 Aug 1983, HR stated that the New York City Federal District Court judge who issued the Oct 1982 ruling against ITC had changed his opinion about the case. He “considerably reduced the cash payment awarded” to Golden Film Partners, rejected the jury’s findings of fraud, and repudiated the $10,000 judgment against Kaplan. The judge explained that ITC had only received one-forth of the film rights’ purchase price, and therefore the settlement should also be divided in fourths. A 15 Jun 1988 Var column announced that ITC was awarded $4.3 million for Golden Film Partners’ failure to honor their oral agreement to purchase rights to Barbarosa.
       On Golden Pond became the subject of another lawsuit, when Hepburn, Shirlee Fonda, (Henry Fonda’s widow), writer Ernest Thompson, along with Jane Fonda and Bruce Gilbert under the banner of their production company, IPC Films, sued Marble Arch, ITC, and Associate Communications for $1 million, claiming that the actors and writer had been denied pay. Discrepancies between reported and actual net profits for the film were discovered during a routine audit in 1984. The outcome of the case is undetermined.
       As noted in the 4 Apr 2005 Var, On Golden Pond was remade as a stage musical and as a 2001 CBS television movie starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. A Broadway revival of the play opened 7 Apr 2005 at the Cort Theater with an African American cast, starring Leslie Uggams and James Earl Jones. However, a 23 Jun 2005 Playbill announced that the production closed early due to Jones’ “bout with pneumonia.”
       The film received three Academy Awards in the categories: Actor in a Leading Role (Henry Fonda), Actress in a Leading Role (Katharine Hepburn), and Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium). It was also nominated for seven Academy Awards in the following categories: Actress in a Supporting Role (Jane Fonda), Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Music (Original Score), Sound, and Best Picture. The film was included in three AFI “100 Years” lists, ranking #22 on “100 Years… 100 Passions,” #24 on “100 Years of Film Scores,” and #45 on “100 Years… 100 Cheers.”


Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Daily Variety   28 Mar 1980.   
Daily Variety   2 May 1980.   
Daily Variety   22 Jul 1980.   
Daily Variety   14 Aug 1980.   
Daily Variety   11 Sep 1980.   
Daily Variety   11 Nov 1981.   
Daily Variety   13 Nov 1981   p. 3, 8.
Daily Variety   18 Nov 1981.   
Daily Variety   7 Dec 1981.   
Daily Variety   12 Feb 1982.   
Daily Variety   16 Mar 1982.   
Hollywood Reporter   27 Nov 1979.   
Hollywood Reporter   19 Dec 1979.   
Hollywood Reporter   1 Aug 1980.   
Hollywood Reporter   5 Aug 1980.   
Hollywood Reporter   26 Aug 1980.   
Hollywood Reporter   26 Sep 1980.   
Hollywood Reporter   13 Nov 1981   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   10 Feb 1982.   
Hollywood Reporter   30 Sep 1982   p. 1, 4.
Hollywood Reporter   14 Oct 1982   p. 1, 16.
Hollywood Reporter   15 Feb 1983   p. 1, 27.
Hollywood Reporter   2 Aug 1983   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   23 May 1985.   
LAHExam   4 Dec 1981.   
LAHExam   8 Dec 1981.   
Los Angeles Times   29 Oct 1981   Section V, p. 4.
Los Angeles Times   17 Nov 1981.   
Los Angeles Times   29 Nov 1981   p. 37.
New England Entertainment Digest   27 Jun 1980   pp. 1-2.
New York Times   4 Dec 1981   p. 10.
New York Times   13 Dec 1981   Section A, p. 17.
New York Times   29 Mar 1982   Section C, p. 11.
New York Times   29 Mar 1982   Section C, p. 11.
Playbill   23 Jun 2005.   
Variety   18 Nov 1981   p. 14.
Variety   15 Jun 1988.   
Variety   4 Apr 2005.   

Display Movie Summary
The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
Advanced Search
Support our efforts to preserve hisotory of film
Help AFI Preserve Film History

© 2015 American Film Institute.
All rights reserved.
Terms of use.