One of Hollywood’s most beloved actors, Henry Jaynes Fonda was born May 16, 1905, in Grand Island, Nebraska. After graduating from Omaha Central High School, Fonda enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he intended to study journalism but eventually flunked out.
Back home in Nebraska, Fonda took a stab at acting, filling his time at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where he frequently shared the stage with Marlon Brando’s mother. By the late 1920s, Fonda had made acting his full-time vocation. He traveled to New England, where he hooked up with the University Players Guild, which cast him alongside other young actors, including James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.
Fonda’s first big break came in the 1934 Broadway production New Faces. A year later, Fonda was out west in Hollywood, beginning what would become a nearly 50-year career in the movies.
The same year he relocated to California, Fonda made his screen debut in The Farmer Takes a Wife, which he had also starred in on Broadway. Over the next several years, Fonda’s star status brightened with roles in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), The Moon’s Our Own (1936), Wings of the Morning (1937), You Only Live Once (1937) and Jezebel (1938).
Critical praise came Fonda’s way for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in the John Ford–directed biopic Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). A year later, Fonda teamed up with Ford again in the 1940 film adaption of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The film, which cast Fonda as itinerant farm worker Tom Joad, earned the actor his first Oscar nomination.
Unflappable and adaptable, Fonda became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, flexing his talent in a range of roles in movies such as The Lady Eve (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), Twelve Angry Men (1957) and Fail Safe (1964). In all, Fonda appeared in more than 80 films during his celebrated career.
His final on-screen performance came in 1981, when he was cast opposite his daughter Jane Fonda, and Katharine Hepburn, in the family tale On Golden Pond. The film was a critical and commercial success and finally gave the ailing actor his first Best Actor Oscar. He was 76 at the time the award was bestowed upon him, making him the oldest actor ever to receive the award.
In all, Fonda was married five times. He had three children: actors Jane and Peter Fonda, and a second daughter, Amy Fonda. He is also the grandfather of actress Bridget Fonda.
Fonda died at his Los Angeles home on August 12, 1982.