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Henry Fonda and James Stewart were two of the greatest stars of Hollywood's golden years. A new biography describes their 50-year friendship and dedication to their craft. Each was an actor before he became a star, their biographer writes, and they both remained actors after they became legends. Here's NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: They met in 1932 in New York, two young theater actors sharing an apartment scratching out a living during the Depression, such different personalities. If Stewart was a curious puppy, biographer Scott Eyman writes, Fonda was a cat - contrary, somewhat disgruntled and perfectly content to walk by himself. An odd couple, and they both loved cats, Fonda most.
SCOTT EYMAN: A stray showed up at the back door. He would feed it, which of course became three strays, which of course became 12 strays. Because there were so many cats, he couldn't possibly keep them all straight and name each one individually, so he called them all George.
STAMBERG: After Fonda and Stewart went to Hollywood in 1935, California cats assembled. The actors roomed together there, too.
EYMAN: Stewart took to Hollywood immediately. He liked the environment. He liked the sunshine. He liked working at the studios. He had no qualms about being a contract actor at MGM. Fonda bridled. Fonda did not like being told what to do - not ever.
STAMBERG: Although he was an almost instant movie star, Henry Fonda always preferred theater.
EYMAN: I suspect because he was a control freak and because when the curtain goes up, essentially the actor is on his own.
STAMBERG: Fonda was a man apart, according to biographer Eyman, wary, a perfectionist, hard on others. Stewart was relaxed, easy going, beloved. Actress Kim Novak once wondered, how could he be so nice and survive Hollywood? Both men were shy, tall, skinny, laconic, gorgeous and both looked for virtue in the characters they played.
EYMAN: They both wanted their work to stand for something.
STAMBERG: Endurance and commitment in the case of Fonda's Tom Joad, hero of "The Grapes Of Wrath." Joad is a desperate Depression-era farmer, an Okie who leaves the Dust Bowl to find migrant field work in California.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GRAPES OF WRATH")
HENRY FONDA: (As Tom Joad) I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. I'll be there, too.
STAMBERG: Jimmy Stewart stood for democracy as an idealistic rookie senator in "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON")
JAMES STEWART: (As Jefferson Smith) Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books. Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say, I'm free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn't. I can.
STAMBERG: In addition to his always-convincing sincerity, Stewart was known for a certain oh gosh way of talking.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE")
STEWART: (As George Bailey) What'd you say just a minute ago, they had to wait and save their money before they even thought of a decent home? Wait? Wait for what?
STAMBERG: Did Jimmy Stewart really talk that way in real life?
EYMAN: Yes, that was absolutely the way he talked.
STAMBERG: Hesitant, a little stammer. Biographer Eyman says Stewart drove that way, too, his old Volvo. He could have bought Bentleys, but that wasn't his style. Jimmy Stewart grew up near Pittsburgh. Fonda grew up in Omaha. Stewart was a Republican; Fonda, a liberal Democrat like his daughter Jane. Despite their differences, they were literally BFF's - best friends forever.
These were lifelong friends and very close, and many people wonder, especially now in the 21st century, were they gay?
STAMBERG: Around 1939, when Orson Welles came out to LA for a screen test, he kept hearing about these two movie stars.
EYMAN: He thought it was the hottest affair in Hollywood or they were the two straightest men that ever lived. He said, and then I met them and I realized they were the two straightest man that ever lived. So no, they weren't gay, far from it.
STAMBERG: Fonda was married five times. Before he got married for life, Jimmy Stewart had lots of lady friends. Marlene Dietrich and Olivia de Havilland were on his dance card. The actors served in World War II, Fonda in the Navy, Stewart, the Air Force. Both were war heroes. War over, they came back to a very different country.
EYMAN: Well, the war changed everything. It changed Hollywood, partially because you had millions of people going off to Europe and across the world and the South Pacific and seeing that what really went on in the world didn't resemble what Hollywood had been producing before the war.
STAMBERG: As a result, movies got darker. Stories and characters were tougher, harder. Actors had to make huge transitions.
EYMAN: Stewart went back to MGM and looked at a bunch of his old movies, and he said later that they made me want to vomit.
STAMBERG: He thought his characters had been too soft, young, sweet, charming, too acquiescent. So he played a cynical, driven reporter in "Call Northside 777," and he worked with Hitchcock.
EYMAN: He plays harsh, and he plays obsessed, and he plays ornery.
STAMBERG: Henry Fonda made a few films after the war, went back on stage, then did more movies and TV. The friends grew older together. In the 1970s, Fonda's heart began giving him trouble. In 1982, his last year, Fonda was in and out of the hospital. Jimmy Stewart visited him every day. Once, Fonda fell into a deep sleep while his wife and Stewart were nearby talking.
EYMAN: And suddenly, there was this stirring, and Fonda says, is that you, Stewart? And Stewart said, well, yeah, yeah, yeah, Hank, it's me. And Fonda opened his eyes and said, well, where's my root beer float? And at that point they knew he was going to live because Fonda was very serious about root beer floats.
STAMBERG: In the hospital, the friends would sit and talk, never about movies or show business but about their years as young actors in New York, the fun they'd had, the hard times, too. It did them good, that kind of talk. In old age, Scott Eyman writes, when they were together, they were still young.
EYMAN: And sometimes they wouldn't speak at all. They would just sit there in companionable silence. And it was Stewart doing whatever he could do for his friend.
STAMBERG: All their lives, they were men of few words. At the end, their silence spoke volumes. Scott Eyman's book is called "Hank & Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship Of Henry Fonda And James Stewart." In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ECHELON EFFECT'S "SIGNALS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.