He turns 70 next month, but Henry Fonda still finds that he has to be aged for the part. First he dons a foam rubber paunch, then a special hairpiece with an unruly, gray forelock. By the time he strolls onstage an hour later, he has transformed himself into the stooped, suspender-tugging hero of David W. Rintels’ hit one-character play, Clarence Darrow.
Not bad at an age when most actors must content themselves with what Fonda disdainfully calls “grandpa parts.” More than professional skill went into his newest triumph; modern medicine had a part. Last April, one month after Darrow opened on Broadway, Fonda’s heart began to falter and he was taken to Lenox Hill Hospital for implantation of a pacemaker. Health restored, he has played Darrow to great acclaim in Los Angeles, Boston and New York—and twice on national television. Now Fonda and his pacemaker have embarked on a crosscountry tour that will touch down in Chicago, Memphis, Denver and Omaha—Fonda’s hometown—on its way to London.
“I’m lucky,” he muses. “Guys my age, like Freddie March and Jim Stewart, don’t work much anymore. Coming when it did, in what should have been the waning portion of a 50-year career, Darrow is the most rewarding thing that ever happened to me.”
Yet just five years ago, as the Fondas were touted as the new Barrymores, the patriarch of Hollywood’s most talented family was all but eclipsed by his high-flying offspring. Whatever success Jane and Peter achieved, however, those familiar with their difficult early years with Dad would say they deserved it. Their childhood was not exactly a slice from Sesame Street. In 1950, while Fonda was on Broadway scoring his biggest hit, Mr. Roberts, his second wife and Jane and Peter’s mother (he had been briefly married to actress Margaret Sullavan) committed suicide by slashing her throat in a Beacon, N.Y. sanitarium.
One year later, as Henry honeymooned in the Virgin Islands with his third wife, Susan Blanchard, Peter, then 10, shot himself in the stomach—an accident that he would later depict as a suicide attempt aimed at frightening his father. Following a turbulent adolescence which included being hauled into court on a drug charge, young Peter turned to acting. After stinkeroos like Tammy and the Doctor and Lilith, he varoomed to box office glory in The Wild Angels and 1969’s landmark Easy Rider.
Jane, meanwhile, angered her father by falling under the spell of French film Svengali (and eventual first husband) Roger Vadim and taking a brief fling as a screen sexpot. In time, she too demonstrated the Fonda touch in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Klute, for which she won an Oscar in 1971. Henry’s seldom-mentioned daughter Amy, whom he and Susan Blanchard adopted in 1954, is married and a sophomore at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
“There were all those love-hate ambiguities between parent and child,” Peter, now 35, admits. Henry concurs: “People are always asking me when we had our reconciliation. What reconciliation? They told me years ago they were sorry for the hurtful things they said.” Before Jane wed Vadim, for example, Dad’s criticism of the couple’s live-in status drew a blast from Peter: “The only difference was that he’d send his chick home every night. His duplicity blew our minds.” His children were not his only detractors: for years Fonda was respected for his talent but widely disliked for his abrasive egotism and vanity. Good friend Joshua Logan, who directed Fonda in Mr. Roberts, comes perhaps closest to the truth. “Hank can be rough,” says Logan. “We’ve had some knock-down dragouts. Growing up in the shadow of such a demanding man must have been terribly hard, but it has made Jane and Peter do extraordinary things they would not have done otherwise.”
Now there is even considerable harmony on the subject of 37-year-old Jane’s La Pasionaria politics. Says Dad, a registered New York Democrat, “I only wish I had her guts.”
If Jane is consumed by causes, Peter thinks of little else but filmmaking. His 22 percent share of Easy Rider still yields $200,000 a year, but his brief reign as the richest Fonda has long since passed. In addition to buying an 81-foot yacht from the former president of Boeing Aircraft, Peter produced two flops, The Hired Hand and Idaho Transfer. His production company lost a half-million dollars on Transfer. “The way he throws his money around is crazy,” marvels his father.
Last year Peter got back on wheels again in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, which made more ($25 million in receipts on a budget of $1.2 million) than any other Fox film in 1974. “The movie is ridiculous,” concedes Peter, “but on the basis of it I can produce seven more for Fox.” Nor has Peter’s psychedelic image hurt. “Some people think I’m a drug-crazed Captain High,” he says, “but I’m laughing all the way to the bank.” Having wrapped up 90 Degrees in the Shade, he dropped by New York last week before leaving for South Africa for the filming of Diamond Mercenaries with Telly Savalas. The distinctly un-hip purpose behind Peter’s Manhattan stopover: to introduce his new fiancée, Portia Crockett, a 24-year-old Kalamazoo, Mich. schoolteacher, to her future father-in-law. Peter’s 12-year marriage to Susan Brewer, which produced two children, ended in divorce last year.
Clearly, the Fondas’ spiritual roots are planted deep in midwestern soil—as were Darrow’s. While in the play Darrow recounts his father’s revulsion at witnessing a public hanging, Fonda recalls an even more shocking incident from his own childhood: “When I was about 10 there was a race riot in Omaha. My father, whose business was on the third floor of a building overlooking the courthouse square, took me there and lifted me up to the window. I saw a mob string up a young black man to a lamppost, then drag him along and riddle his body with bullets. The mayor rode up on his horse to calm them down, but the mob almost lynched him too. All the while, my father never spoke. He didn’t have to.”
Married 10 years to fifth wife, Shirlee, a comely 36-year-old ex-airline stewardess who is now modeling (No. 4 was Italian countess Afdera Franchetti), Fonda now seriously works at relaxing. Offstage he pursues his 27-year hobby as a painter (a Fonda watercolor recently fetched $23,000) and farms organically on two acres in Bel Air. And, while he recharges his pacemaker for 90 minutes every week, Fonda manages to get in a little needlepoint.
Still, performing is what fuels the Fondas, and after 73 films and 19 plays Henry still is in no danger of an energy crisis. Darrow is a grueling vocal marathon that has, complains Shirlee, made nonsmoking Fonda something of a “hypochondriac about his voice.” But already the actor is looking beyond it, mulling over the role of Adm. Chester Nimitz in an upcoming World War II flick. The Fondas are also at work on a Bicentennial movie project about a family during the Revolution that could bring father, daughter and son together professionally for the first time. And if these don’t pan out? “Who knows,” Fonda shrugs, “I may just keep on doing Clarence Darrow.” Shirlee rolls her eyes skyward and sighs.