Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart were lifelong friends. They found time to make three films together over the course of their long career. From their early days as struggling actors, to their years as Hollywood royalty, their friendship ran deep, despite their political and personality differences.
Their later acting years were very similar; each tried television series, made television films, and cashed in appearing in some uncharacteristic films. Stewart seemed to stop because roles dried up, not because he wanted to fully retire. Fonda worked until the very end, and was too ill to accept his Best Actor Oscar, his only win in a long career of nominations.
Several books have been written about the Fonda/Stewart friendship but I will concentrate on their later acting roles.
In the 1960s, both worked steadily but they adapted to audience tastes and available roles. Stewart in particular, played the harried father a few times, and found work in the comfortable genre of Westerns. Stewart gamely shared the screen with many actors including John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Dean Martin. In Bandolero!, he crossed the line to play a bank robber and older brother of Dean Martin. At least onscreen, Stewart seemed to embrace his advancing of age.
In middle age, both found challenge in finding suitable roles. There were acting jobs but leading man roles were of a different kind. They each made the best of it, and when film roles declined, they discovered television.
Fonda didn’t mind playing supporting roles in films, turning into a fine character actor. More so than Stewart, Fonda found juicy roles as villains and enjoyed the squeeze. Fonda and Stewart paired up twice in Westerns, Firecreek and The Cheyenne Social Club. Fonda, with his steely blue eyes and slow, measured voice, could find a deadly timbre of evil. In Firecreek, Fonda terrorized the town and Stewart. In Once Upon a Time in the West, he killed with pleasure, plundered the widow of his victim, and pushed aside his disabled benefactor. His cool and menacing delivery made you think he played these characters his entire career. That should have been a Best Acting Oscar.
Their last film together, The Cheyenne Social Club, was more Stewart than Fonda. Texas cowhands, Stewart inherits a whorehouse, and gamely tries to play the role of gentleman of the house. Fonda tags along on the trip and seems to enjoy the benefits of the Club. Stewart and Fonda settle into these roles like worn leather gloves. Although the film was more a curiosity than a success, you still wish they had made more films together, like Lemmon and Matthau.
At the end of the 1960s, both Stewart and Fonda tried television. Both had minor success, with Stewart going on to tackle another series later on. Fonda continued to be part of big films, plying his trade and his name value as military leaders and even the President. He also appeared in mini series and made for television films, as did Stewart.
Stewart’s final acting role of note was to co-star with Bette Davis as a married couple in Right of Way, a television film about a joint suicide. The film was warmly received but probably not the way you want to remember Jimmy Stewart.
Fonda saved the best for last. On Golden Pond was his crowning achievement. After a career of many acting awards, he was finally awarded an Oscar. Much as been written about the film and the plot that closely resembled his cold and somewhat strained relationship with daughter Jane. Like Stewart, a fine performance but not how you want to remember Fonda.
In their later years, both men wanted to continue acting and playing purposeful characters in meaningful projects. Both found they could trade on their marquee value in projects that were somewhat beneath them, but they wanted to work and gave it their best effort. Both settled into secondary roles if needed, Fonda more easily than Stewart.
Fonda didn’t have the big paydays that Stewart did in the 1950s, the Westerns and Hitchcock films where he gave up a big salary in exchange for a big piece of the profits. Fonda was also more willing to veer from his heroic roles to play evil and flawed men. In later years, Fonda may have had the most fun because he traded in his Lincoln/Tom Joad ideology for the jagged underbelly of life. Even in Stewart’s most villainous role, he wasn’t really bad, just misguided. In the 1950s he played some violent and tortured cowboys, a broken and suffering cop, and men of flawed character, but steered clear of evil. James Stewart, like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, had a brand to protect.