Fonda & Stewart: Part 2

fonda Stewart

I didn’t envision writing a “Part 2,” but after reading Hank & Jim: The Fifty Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart by Scott Eyman, I felt there was unfinished business.

The friendship of Fonda and Stewart is big enough for two blogs. The first blog focused on their later years as actors, including two films they made together.

Fonda and Stewart met as young actors, who became roommates (several times), and stayed friends throughout their lives. Theirs was a friendship that survived marriages, war, politics, movie stardom, making films together, career success and growing old.

The men had many similarities, but also many differences, yet they shared a love of acting, making model airplanes, their Midwest upbringing, difficulties with success, and a deep work ethic. According to Eyman, Fonda and Stewart could spend hours together and barely say a word. They were introverts but weren’t deeply self reflective, they found refuge from the world around them in a relationship where as Stewart said, “No explanation was required for almost anything.” Eyman said they spent more time reflecting on their characters lives than on their own.  Eyman drew on interviews with their children, friends, Fonda’s widow Shirlee, and from their own words.

What they also experienced together was loss: particularly the suicide of Fonda’s wife Frances and the Vietnam War death of Stewart’s stepson. According to the book they probably didn’t talk about either of those things together. They didn’t have to. They understood the need for privacy and retreat in order to cope. Further, acting allowed them to “express emotions neither of them could have otherwise express, use experiences that they would normally have blocked.”

Stewart’s stepson Michael McLean said, “Hank and Jim were held together by shared history and a mutual sense of privacy, which in most cases left them along with each other, which was more or less the way they liked it.”

Peter Fonda said this of them. “My father and Uncle Jimmy had this code.  It was not spoken, it was embodied.  It had to do with showing, not telling. It was something they shared.”

Fonda and Stewart both served in World War II.  Both had seen a lot of death, Fonda in the Pacific, Stewart over Europe.  Neither of them talked about their war years or experiences, not even with family.  While it remained inside each of them, these experiences influenced their acting and characters for the rest of their lives.  Stewart used it to chisel his 1950s films; his most successful decade and body of work.  His Westerns in particular pulsated with characters that were vengeful, violent, fractured and unforgiving.  For Fonda, it was the foundation of Mr. Roberts, a part he lived for many years onstage and on the big screen.

When Stewart’s stepson was killed in Vietnam, he was about to step before the cameras in The Cheyenne Social Club.  Eyman describes the filming, where Stewart struggled to make it through the production.  Thankfully, Fonda was his co-star and helped his friend, probably by just being there everyday.

Eyman also describes that Stewart’s longtime movie horse, Pie, was also struggling, with age and with the altitude of this production location.  Stewart had used Pie since the early 1950s but not on this production.  Stewart visited Pie after lunch each day with a treat.  Fonda, always in tune with his friend, spent time sketching Pie, and after production wrapped, made a watercolor which he later gave to Stewart, a gift that had a favored location in his house.

Fonda and Stewart grew old together and faced the changing movie industry and the reality of the youth market.  Both continued to return to the theater in search of challenging roles but often found comfort in Harvey and Clarence Darrow.  Both tried television series and settled into guns for hire, films that provided work.

At the end of their careers, awards and recognition poured in, as their bodies of work was celebrated.  While appreciative, neither felt comfortable with the accolades, humble men to the core.

Peter Fonda said, “They both saw life as a series of jobs and they were determined to do them to the best of their abilities.  There’s a sense they were both Boy Scouts – literally and metaphorically.”

Or maybe Mr. Roberts and George Bailey.


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