American Film


Henry Fonda (1905-1982) was an established Broadway actor when he made his screen debut in 1935. In a film career spanning 46 years he was celebrated for playing decent, humane, all American characters like Tom Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH, Charles in THE LADY EVE and Juror #8 in 12 ANGRY MEN. Fonda spoke at AFI Conservatory in the spring of 1977, a year before he was awarded the sixth AFI Life Achievement Award. He covered a wide range of projects, beginning with his first collaboration with director John Ford, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939). With the March 26th release of Spielberg's LINCOLN in Blu-ray and HD digital and the memory of Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of the 16th president still fresh, it seems a good time to listen in on Fonda's remarks about Lincoln to the Fellows.

"When the producer and the author sent me the script, I thought the idea of playing Lincoln was like playing Jesus. Lincoln has always been a hero to me. I remember our family had a portrait of him over our fireplace. I grew up admiring him, and, long before YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, I had read almost everything that had been written about him. So I doubted I should play Lincoln. The producer, Kenneth Macgowan, and the writer, Lamar Trotti, finally talked me into a sound-stage test without commitments.

I'll never forget sitting in the projection room with the producer and writer, watching the rushes of my test; my first thought was, my God, it's Lincoln. And then he started to talk and it wasn't. It was my voice. I collapsed and said, "No way."

Months later, John Ford was assigned to the film. Although I'd never met Ford, I admired him and had watched him – standing in the shadows – directing STAGECOACH. When he was told that I wouldn't play Lincoln, he said, "Send the sonofabitch in to see me." (I assume that's what he said because I knew Ford and that's the way he talked.) When I did go in to see him, I was like a young apprentice seaman with a white hat in his hand standing in front of the admiral. He was behind his desk with his slouch hat and the patch over his eye, and either a pipe or a handkerchief in his mouth – he was always sucking up on something. I stood there, and he finally looked up and said, "What the hell is all this about you not wanting to play Lincoln?" (He used the worst kind of truck driver language.) I didn't know how to answer him. He said, "You think he's the blank-blank president, huh? He's a young jackleg lawyer from Springfield."

Well, he shamed me into it. I wound up agreeing to do it, and in a few weeks I was on location in Sacramento doing YOUNG MR. LINCOLN with John Ford. I didn't need to research the part; I'd done research on it all my life. The makeup department made me look as much like him as they could, and I made no attempt to change my voice. The rest of the experience was pure joy.

YOUNG MR. LINCOLN was the first of my eight films with John Ford, and it was the start of a love affair between us. We got along swimmingly. LINCOLN was a great experience for me as an actor. Ford had this beautiful script to work with, but between the lines he would suggest little interpolations – sometimes dialogue, sometimes just pieces of business – that made it all real and alive and wonderful and fun. That's why it's one of the pictures I'll always cherish. Ford remembered it fondly; he always said it was his favorite film."

YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939) begins with a written prologue, in the form of the poem "Nancy Hanks" by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet. The poem consists of a series of questions posed by Lincoln's mother about the life of her son. The working titles of this film were THE YOUNG LINCOLN, A YOUNGER LINCOLN, THE LIFE OF YOUNG ABRAHAM LINCOLN and LAWYER OF THE WEST.