TCM Classic Film Festival: Peter Fonda remembers his father, Henry Fonda

Peter Fonda will be celebrating his father Henry Fonda's legacy Friday at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times )
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Who knew that Henry Fonda had a zany side?

Of course, the Oscar-winning actor could be marvelously funny on screen in such comedies as Preston Sturges’ sparkling 1941 masterpiece, “The Lady Eve.” But he was best known for his dramatic work in such films as John Ford’s 1940 “The Grapes of Wrath,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination as Tom Joad; Sidney Lumet’s 1957 directorial debut, “Twelve Angry Men”; and 1981’s “On Golden Pond,” for which he won the Academy Award for lead actor.

His Oscar-nominated son, Peter Fonda (“Easy Rider,” “Ulee’s Gold”), will be revealing his father’s more antic side Friday at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. TCM is paying homage to Henry Fonda with screenings of the 1946 Ford Western “My Darling Clementine,” in which Fonda is flawless as Wyatt Earp, and Ford’s 1939 bio-pic “Young Mr. Lincoln,” in which he plays the future president as a novice attorney.

Peter Fonda will talk about his father with author Scott Eyman at the festival.

“I love ‘My Darling Clementine,’ ” said Fonda, 75, by phone. “It is one of my favorite films.”


Long before he made “Young Mr. Lincoln,” noted Fonda, his father toured the Midwest with a Lincoln impersonator. “He played his assistant,” said Fonda. The impersonator taught the young Fonda a lot about the art of makeup, which he made good use of not only for his roles but also for a practical joke.

His father, related Fonda, had finished filming for the day on the 1937 British film “The Wings of the Morning,” which also starred French actress Annabella.

While in his dressing room, Fonda “got his wild idea,” said his son. “He created a huge scar on his face. He got a fright wig from someone from props and got a big old knife.”

Fonda returned to the sound stage and walked right up to Annabella and the director, who didn’t recognize him. “He was pretending to be one of the extras, a gypsy,” said Fonda.

He was ordered to walk to a certain place on the sound stage, but Fonda decided to stop and take out his knife. “He starts kind of looking menacing,” said his son, laughing. “They get the studio cops. He jumps up and runs and exits the sound stage.”

Fonda, said his son, never let anyone know on the set that he was the gypsy with the knife. “My dad was a practical joker that nobody knew about,” he said.


Fonda says he and his father, who died in 1982 a few months after winning the Academy Award, “grew closer” over the years.

“A lot of that started with ‘Wanda Nevada,’ ” said Fonda.

Fonda directed his dad in a one-day cameo as a grizzled prospector in the 1979 Western. His father had a blast on the set and shortly afterward sent him a letter telling him “You are a good director, son. I would like to be part of your company.”

And just before he died his father told him “’I want you to know, son, I love you very much,’ which is the greatest closure to have,” said Fonda quietly. “It was such an amazing, emotional moment.”

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