Henry Fonda – American Film Institute

Henry Fonda

6th AFI Life Achievement Award Honoree

Henry Fonda

Born in Grand Island, Nebraska, on 16 May 1905, Henry Fonda studied to be a journalist and spent some time as an office boy before deciding to pursue acting, which he began at the Omaha Community Playhouse, a local amateur theater troupe directed by Dorothy Brando (mother of Marlon.) He moved to the Cape Cod University Players and later to Broadway, New York to expand his theatrical career, from 1926 to 1934. In New York, Fonda was a roommate and close friend of another impoverished, struggling young actor, James Stewart. Both would eventually become screen legends, and would first appear onscreen together in 1948’s On Our Merry Way.

Fonda’s first Broadway appearance was in 1929’s “The Game of Life and Death.” His major Broadway roles included “New Faces of America” and “The Farmer Takes a Wife”. The latter play was turned into a film in 1935, thereby beginning the actor’s illustrious Hollywood career. Fonda was briefly married to fellow performer Margaret Sullavan from 1931 to 1933. In 1936, he married Frances Seymour, and their two children, Jane and Peter, would become movie stars in their own right.

His early unforgettable performances in three classic John Ford films — DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK and YOUNG MR. LINCOLN in 1939 and his Academy Award-nominated role of Tom Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) — established Fonda as a genuine movie star. Fonda worked again with Ford on such legendary movies as My Darling Clementine (1946), The Fugitive (1947), and Fort Apache (1948).

The actor’s commanding and affable demeanor made him the perfect embodiment of nobility in many films, and his performances as Abraham Lincoln, Tom Joad, and Wyatt Earp in the aforementioned Ford films attest to this fact. Furthermore, his quiet solemnity and tall, striking figure suited the Western genre perfectly, and throughout his career Fonda would come back to it. But he was known for more than just cowboy movies. His over 110-film oeuvre ran the gamut from romance to political drama, from slapstick comedy to war films.

Throughout his career, Fonda collaborated with some of the most respected directors in Hollywood, including William Wyler (Jezebel, 1938), Fritz Lang (You Only Live Once, 1937, and The Return of Frank James 1940) Preston Sturges (The Lady Eve, 1941), William Wellmann (The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943), Alfred Hitchcock (The Wrong Man, 1956), and Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, 1957, Star Struck, 1958, and Fail Safe, 1964). He starred opposite some of the greatest names in the business, including Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, James Cagney, John Wayne and Jack Lemmon.

Fonda’s many other legendary performances include the unlikely but unforgettable part of a ruthless, aging desperado in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969) and that of Norman Thayer, opposite his daughter Jane, in ON GOLDEN POND (1981), for which he received an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1982, shortly before his death at the age of 77. This was Fonda’s first Oscar win, after his nominations for The Grapes of Wrath and for producing 12 ANGRY MEN. He had also received an Honorary Oscar the previous year, for his contributions to the art of acting.

A genuine member of Hollywood royalty, Henry Fonda was always considered the consummate professional, devoted to the art and craft of acting. His nearly 50 year movie career was complemented by a significant body of work on television and stage.




The AFI Life Achievement Award — the highest honor for a career in film — was established by the AFI Board of Trustees on February 23, 1973 to celebrate an individual whose career in motion pictures or television has greatly contributed to the enrichment of American culture.

The award is given to a “recipient whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.”

In 1993, the AFI Board of Trustees extended the criteria to encompass individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished.