Fonda remembrance is a family affair


January 13, 1992|By Steve McKerrow

Depending on your taste for family voyeurism, you will find a new cable profile of actor Henry Fonda tonight either mostly satisfying or a disappointment. For the host of "Fonda on Fonda," at 8 o'clock on TNT, is daughter Jane Fonda, who lends an intriguing intimacy to a hugely flattering -- are you surprised? -- portrayal of a star who said he felt he was "pretty restricted to a good old American type."

Happily, the kin connection is kept mostly under control until quite late in the hourlong show. Those hoping for confessional family secrets will be left unfulfilled.

Early on we see Jane and baby brother Peter in some home movies, and both children make comment throughout, as does Fonda's fifth wife, Shirlee. But the focus is kept on the actor's career.

And true to any good profile, the show is full of clips from favorite films, still photos from scrapbooks and previously unseen home and candid on-the-set movies. (We see James Cagney, for instance, tap dancing on the deck of the ship used in "Mister Roberts," very much out of his character as the mean-spirited captain.)

Born in Nebraska, Fonda apparently was in real life very much like the character he often portrayed on screen: shy, plain-spoken, decent. He got into acting at the age of 20 in Omaha. Curiously, the Omaha Community Theatre where he debuted was run by Dorothy Brando, mother of Marlon Brando.

We hear Fonda say that the "best review I ever got" was when his father admonished people commenting on Fonda's acting debut, "Shut up, he was perfect."

During his early theater years in New York, he began a lifelong friendship with Jimmy Stewart. And in a surprising personal note, we learn the two spent many hours over the years building and flying model airplanes.

Breaking into movies, recalls son Peter, Fonda stood in contrast to the urbane leading men of the time, yet he never tried to emulate that refinement, a big part of his success.

The show includes significant explorations of such Fonda films as "Young Mr. Lincoln," "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Ox-Bow Incident" (which Fonda says hearkened back to a childhood incident in which he witnessed a lynching), "My Darling Clementine," "Fort Apache," "Mister Roberts," "The Cheyenne Social Club" (with old friend Stewart) and "Twelve Angry Men" (Fonda's only self-produced movie).

The family element creeps inevitably in late in the show, with reminiscences by Peter and Jane of two films in which they acted with their dad: 1979's "Wanda Nevada" with Peter and "On Golden Pond" with Jane in 1980.

But Jane notes of the latter film, about a daughter estranged from her aging father, "Don't read too much into this," saying the movie characters were not the real-life father and daughter.

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