Fonda's simple dignity

Talking pictures were still young when Henry Fonda made his movie debut in 1935. With his lean good looks and friendly eyes, he could probably have been a star in silent films. But his voice - that expressive tenor with its almost haunting sincerity - was one of his major assets, so it's fortunate he came along when he did. He was a complete screen personality, if ever there was one.

Fonda, who passed on last week, belonged to a generation of movie stars who are better described as performers than actors. Such matinee idols as Fonda, his friend James Stewart, and John Wayne depended more on vivid physical charisma than on strong technique or notions of theory. People didn't expect contrasts and surprises when they flocked to Henry Fonda films. What they wanted, and what they got, was a portrayal as predictable as it was exhilarating.

Naturally, this was limiting. Typed early as an upright and earnest sort, Fonda found himself in one righteous role after another, especially after his career hit stellar heights in such memorable movies as the 1939 ''Young Mr. Lincoln'' and ''Drums Along the Mohawk.'' After years of youthful decency and dignity - ''The Grapes of Wrath'' in 1940, ''My Darling Clementine'' in 1946, et al. - he shifted to mature versions of the same persona in films like ''Twelve Angry Men'' and ''The Longest Day.''

There were countless variations on this theme, to be sure, but they tended to prove the rule. It's no accident that Alfred Hitchcock chose Fonda for the title role of ''The Wrong Man,'' in which suspense is generated from our certainty that the falsely accused hero must be innocent no matter what appearances may be. And this essential goodness, backed up in film after film by his modest manner and ingratiating appearance, made Fonda one of the most beloved stars in Hollywood history. Limiting or not, the consistency of his persona became his stock in trade, and lifted his screen image to almost legendary proportions.

Then too, Fonda was a consummate professional. During some four decades, he worked with many of the screen's greatest directors - Hitchcock and John Ford among them, as well as Fritz Lang and Preston Sturges. Along the way, he tackled challenges quite removed from his usual dramatic and adventure vehicles, such as the crime drama ''You Only Live Once'' and the hilarious ''The Lady Eve,'' one of Hollywood's classic romantic comedies. Unlike many Hollywood actors, he kept a close and steady relationship with the stage, crowning his Broadway experience with a splendid performance in ''First Monday in October'' opposite Jane Alexander. He also peppered his career with television appearances, although his ill-fated series ''The Smith Family'' demonstrated that his talent needed the support of first-rate material or, at the very least, the roomy space of a movie screen in which to amble around and stretch itself out.

As if his own talent wasn't enough, Fonda also raised two noted performers in his own family - his son, Peter, an actor and director, and daughter Jane, whose acting career has grown from early notoriety to the depth and commitment of ''Coming Home'' and ''The China Syndrome.'' At times, Fonda was reportedly upset with their off-screen activities, given Peter's erstwhile image as a freewheeling ''hippie'' type and Jane's aggressive political activism. But family relations were said to be close in Fonda's later years, and he too had liberal political convictions that sometimes shone through his roles, though he was generally low-key in his public pronouncements.

In all, it was fitting that his last movie role should have been ''On Golden Pond,'' in which his own daughter (who coproduced the picture) played a young woman struggling to come to terms with her aging father. Sentimental it was, but Fonda's performance towered over everything in sight, even the work of costar Katharine Hepburn. It was the portrayal that won him his first real Academy Award - an honorary Oscar had been granted him in 1981 - and summed up everything this self-taught actor had learned in some 47 years of on-the-job training.

No one who has met Fonda, however briefly, will forget the simple dignity and friendliness that were his essence. Few who have seen his films or plays or TV shows will forget how powerfully he projected these qualities through his art.

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