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From the Green Room: The Ghost of Henry Fonda

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Rehearsals for On Golden Pond begin tonight at The Theatre Factory in Trafford, Pennsylvania, and I am going to play Norman Thayer, Jr., Professor Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania, Department of English. On Golden Pond, which first opened in New York in 1978, has been revived many times over the years, by both professional and amateur groups. It is a play that is especially close to the heart of older actors because it offers two really juicy roles for the geriatric set. But while it offers those roles with one hand, it creates something of a problem for those actors who get cast with the other. For women the problem is Katherine Hepburn. For the man cast as Norman Thayer, Jr., Professor Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania, Department of English, the problem is Henry Fonda.

What Marlon Brando has done for Stanley Kowalski, Frederick March for Willy Loman, and Gregory Peck for Atticus Finch, Henry Fonda has done for Norman Thayer. He and they have created the definitive performance. They are not simply legendary tours de force that live in the memories of audiences and actors alike, they are film performances universally available to all, as handy as the nearest DVD player. They are always there as standards of comparison. The actor can always envision the people in the audience groaning at some line reading or gesture or expression, saying to themselves: "That's not the way Marlon did it." Pity the poor actor, who gets the part of a lifetime only to find critics saying he's no Gregory Peck.

A part in a brand new play is a tabula rasa, to steal from John Locke. The actor has the freedom to create a character. He is not tied down by preconceptions, his own or those of his audience. He can look at the script with fresh eyes. He has the opportunity to create something new. He has the opportunity to be the Henry Fonda for this new name on this new page, to set the bar for actors and audiences to come.

The actor playing Norman Thayer, on the other hand, is not creating something new in quite the same sense. If he is not simply trying to do a cheap imitation, he is either reinterpreting or reimagining. He is trying to make the role his own. Indeed, what he is doing is trying to establish that he is not Henry Fonda. But no matter what he does, no matter what choices he makes, every action, every reaction will be judged under the scope of Henry Fonda.

So, with visions of Tom Joad and Mr. Roberts dancing in audiences' heads, this is in all probability a thankless task. We are talking, after all, about the man who turned those eleven angry men over on their heads – Henry Fonda, as beloved an icon as has ever come down from on high in Hollywood, despite what daughter Jane has to say in her autobiography. While any actor worth his salt may want to create something different, there is always the nagging question of what the audience might want. And it would requires no stretch of the imagination to expect that a goodly number of theatregoers would be perfectly thrilled with one more "cheap" imitation of the great one.

Though this, of course, is a problem that has haunted actors throughout the history of the stage, there is a difference. There have always been the great actors, the huge presences that dominated the stages of their day: the Richard Burbages, the David Garricks, the Henry Irvings. One can even imagine some Greek actor measuring himself against Thespis. But if these actors reigned over the stage, their performances were available to only a very few, when you come right down to it. For most of the public, there was only the reputation of these actors against which to make comparison, no film at eleven. Now while it may be more difficult to compete with the spectral ideal by reputation than it is with the reality of an actual performance, it certainly doesn't have the same kind of effect on the competitor. The original is not always in the background casting a shadow.

It is interesting that in the most recent New York revival of On Golden Pond, James Earl Jones was cast as Norman: no danger of him imitating Henry Fonda, no less of his reminding the audience of him. Moreover in a note to the revised version of the text, the playwright, Ernest Thompson, talks about casting Jones as in part an attempt to avoid what he saw as a problem with many productions of the play, "the tendency sometimes to make the play softer and sweeter than intended." He wanted the play to be "unsentimental and unflinching." One has to wonder just how much of the softness and sweetness Thompson finds in some productions can be attributed to Henry Fonda and the film version. One has to wonder just how definitive Fonda's performance is.

Tonight is the first rehearsal. It is a read-through. The cast will sit at a table and we'll all read. For some of us it will be our first reading; for others, it will be like meeting an old friend again. For me it will be time to decide whether or not I want to be Henry Fonda.

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About Jack Goodstein