Henry Fonda and the Playhouse
Theatergoers arrive to see a show at the Omaha Community Playhouse’s theater at 69th and Cass streets.
Three Omahans appeared high on the list when the American Film Institute released its ranking of the greatest American screen legends of the Golden Age of Hollywood: Marlon Brando was No. 4, Fred Astaire was No. 5 and Henry Fonda was No. 6.
Brando and Astaire were kindergarteners when their families left Omaha, and both went on to cultivate images as cosmopolitan men of the world rather than men of Nebraska. Fonda, on the other hand, was a Nebraskan to his core. Born in Grand Island and raised in Omaha, his stubborn midwestern decency became his calling card, shining through in roles like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and the future president in Young Mr. Lincoln.
Over the years, many people have been confused about whether Fonda and Brando ever acted together in Omaha. The answer is no – and yes. Fonda never shared a stage with the movie star Marlon Brando, but he starred in his first plays with a different Brando – Marlon’s mother. Her name was Dorothy Pennebaker Brando, but she went by Dodie. To close friends, such as the Fondas, she was simply Do, pronounced “Doe.”
In September 1925, Henry Fonda was a 20-year-old college dropout who thought he might like to be a journalist someday. He was living at his parents’ Omaha home when he got the phone call that changed his life.
“It came about this way,” Fonda recalled more than 50 years later in his autobiography, Fonda: My Life. “I was lying around the house when my mother came in and asked, ‘Do me a favor, Henry. Do Brando’s on the line. Just listen to her.’ ”
Do Brando was a 28-year-old mother of three whose youngest, Marlon Jr., was still a baby. Active in the arts, Do was heavily involved in the fledgling Omaha Community Playhouse and had starred in its first two productions, in which Henry’s two younger sisters also had small roles.
The company was now mounting its third production, a play called You and I, and they had a role for a young man they needed to fill, Do said. She thought Fonda would be perfect for the part. He agreed to audition, thinking it might be a fun distraction.
The shy, lanky Fonda had boyish good looks, but he had never acted in his life. When he came in for his audition, he didn’t even know how to read a script. The director instructed him to read the lines for the character Ricky. Fonda gave it a shot.
“Ricky. But why not? Other people have. Life shouldn’t be all gravy, anyway. After 10 years of … .”
“No!” the director interrupted. “You don’t say ‘Ricky.’ ”
“But you told me … .”
“ ‘Ricky’ is the name of the character,” the director explained. “You just read the dialogue after the word ‘Ricky.’ ”
Despite the rough start, he won the part. The play went on to get good reviews, though the future film star’s notice in the Omaha World-Herald was brief: “Henry Fonda does well in the juvenile role.”
“I was hooked,” Fonda said of his first acting experience at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Fonda started hanging around the theater doing whatever odd jobs he could, working as an usher or building sets. His sister Harriet had a leading role in a play, and Fonda found bit parts in others, including playing part of a 10-man pirate crew that included Marlon Brando Sr., the famous actor’s namesake father. Do Brando was the unrivaled star of the company in its first few seasons. She emerged as the go-to leading lady, winning excellent reviews for roles as diverse as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion and the female lead, Julie, in the tragic Liliom, where her performance in a climactic death scene earned praise in The World-Herald.
“Many so-called stars would have spoiled that phase of the play by overdoing it. Mrs. Brando, with her reserve, gives you the effect of numbing sorrow,” The World-Herald wrote, as recounted in The Omaha Community Playhouse Story by Warren Francke.
As much as the Playhouse captivated Fonda as he participated in its first full season, he decided to take a workaday job with the Retail Credit Co. to appease his father, William Brace Fonda. But within a few months, Fonda received a personal phone call at his office from the Playhouse’s director. He wanted Fonda to act in the company’s first play of the second season, a comedy called Merton of the Movies. Fonda was to play Merton, the lead role.
Fonda jumped at the chance but worried about how his father would react – and with good reason. The elder Fonda was incensed. “You’re not going to sacrifice your job for some make-believe world,” he said.
They argued bitterly. Fonda claimed he could do his job and the play. His father insisted he couldn’t do justice to both at the same time. The heated exchange ended with Fonda vowing to move out of the family home and live at the YMCA, to which his father readily agreed. Fonda’s mother, Herberta Fonda, finally interceded to arrange a kind of truce: Fonda would remain at home, but father and son didn’t say a single word to each other for the six weeks the play rehearsed.
The play and his starring performance were a big hit. It was a feeling unlike any he’d ever known.
“The short hair on the back of my neck felt like live wires, and my skin tingled,” he wrote in his autobiography. “That was the first time I realized what acting meant. It also dawned on me that for a self-doubting man, this was the answer. Writers give you words, and you can become another person.”
The entire Fonda family – including his father – were in the audience. Afterward, sister Harriet began to offer a mild critique. Their father cut her off.
“Shut up,” he said. “He was perfect!”
For the rest of the story see the January/February 2018 issue of Nebraska Life.