I ask what might have been

by Devin

While writing The Man Who Saw a Ghost, I compiled this list of Henry Fonda projects that at one time or another were rumored, considered, perhaps fought for, even formally announced as done deals—but that never came together in any form, in a form quite different from the one we know, or in a form more or less similar but without Fonda’s involvement.  Quotes are culled from contemporary reports.

1934

The President Vanishes. Fonda has signed with independent producer Walter Wanger to play one of the leads in this adaptation from Rex Stout.  It is produced, without Fonda, and released the following year.

1935

The Young Lincoln. More than three years before Young Mr. Lincoln coalesces under Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox, Fonda “will be starred in The Young Lincoln, the story of the martyred president between the ages of 23 and 30.”

Heaven’s My Destination. Fonda is eager to star in a stage production of Thornton Wilder’s novel:  “There’s only one thing that I would drop everything to do—if Heaven’s My Destination is ever made into a play,” he says.

1936

His Majesty Bunker Bean. Walter Wanger will loan Fonda to producer Sam Briskin to play the lead in the third film version of Lee Wilson Dodd’s 1916 play (which was adapted in turn from Harry Leon Wilson’s 1913 novel Bunker Bean).  Edward Killy and William Hamilton are listed as directors.

Way for a Lady. Upon release of The Moon’s Our Home, their co-starring vehicle, Fonda and ex-wife Margaret Sullavan will have their second teaming in this romantic comedy.

Desert Intrigue. John Ford, under hire of Wanger, will direct and Fonda will star in this version of Alfred Hatson’s novel African Intrigue.

1937

Carelessly We Love. Fonda is said to be currently at work on this Wanger production, due for completion before he heads east for summer stock, a Broadway play, and the birth of his first child.  (We’d theorize this as an early title for That Certain Woman, which Fonda was actually filming at the time—except that was not a Wanger film.)

1938

Lawyer of the West. Darryl Zanuck desires but has yet to sign Fonda for this “melodrama which deals with an exciting murder case tried by Lincoln when he was a young lawyer in Springfield.”

1940

The Eagle Flies Again. Fonda and Don Ameche will co-star in this story of young Americans flying for Canada’s Royal Air Force, with Henry King as director.  (King did direct A Yank in the RAF, released in 1941, starring Tyrone Power.)

1941

The Girl I Love. Fonda is said to have Zanuck interested in remaking this old Charles Gray picture.

Swamp Water. Fonda is forced to pass on this Dudley Nichols drama set in the South because he has already signed on for You Belong to Me and The Male Animal.

1945

The Perfect Marriage. Reported as an upcoming vehicle.

1946

The White Tower. Reported as an upcoming vehicle.

Ethan Frome. Fonda is supposed to co-star with Bette Davis in this adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel.

The Great Divide. William Vaughn Moody’s 1906 play—previously filmed in 1915, 1925, and 1930—is being readied for remaking by James Edward Grant, who seeks Fonda to star.

1947

Spoon Handle. An upcoming Dorothy McGuire vehicle, for which Fox desires Fonda.

Rain Before Seven. Fonda is interested in a rewritten version of a screenplay he’d previously declined; Lizbeth Scott to costar.

Appointment in Samarra. Fonda presents a script of the John O’Hara novel to his old friend, stage director Joshua Logan, who has just co-written the stage play Mister Roberts with Thomas Heggen.  Roberts goes to Broadway; the movie is never made.

1948

Mister Roberts. Soon after Roberts’s debut, talk begins of the film version, also to star Fonda, with William Wyler “highly probable” to direct.

1949

Agony Green. Purchased by Harold Schuster—once editor of The Farmer Takes a Wife, Fonda’s first film, and now a director—this is rumored to be Henry’s next stage vehicle.

Bicycle Thieves. According to Bert Cardullo, author of Vittorio de Sica: Director, Actor, Screenwriter (2002), producer David O Selznick promises to make a Hollywood version of de Sica’s neorealist Bicycle Thieves “on the condition that Gary Grant be cast in the lead”; but Fonda is de Sica’s first choice.  The Hollywood version is not made.

1952

The Affair. Henry, tired of waiting for Mister Roberts to go before the cameras, is considering this Melvin Panama-Norman Frank script, hawked as “a very sophisticated and adult love story.”

Rear Window. A year after the Hitchcock movie appears, Joshua Logan reveals he had first ownership of the Cornell Woolrich story. A 13-page treatment was written, with details differing vastly from the eventual Hitchcock version. Logan had planned to direct Fonda on New York locations during the run of Roberts, but was distracted by his concurrent stage projects.

Untitled Frank Grandstaff Project. Career criminal Frank Grandstaff, acclaimed three years earlier for composing a cantata in his prison cell—and subsequently pardoned as a result—is again in police custody for theft (though he has “denied any knowledge” of the crime with which he is charged). He asks Municipal Judge Herbert J. Steffes not to imprison him, because “a movie company planned to make a film on the story of his life [and] Hollywood actor Henry Fonda was to have the leading role.”  Grandstaff wants to stay out of jail so that he may give the filmmakers “technical advice.”  The judge declines to reduce Grandstaff’s sentence of one to three years.

Untitled John Steinbeck Musical. Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, planning a musical of John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, desire Fonda to star.

1953

Oh, Men! Oh, Women! Cannery Row. Two plays considered by Fonda—the first an Edward Chodorov comedy about a psychoanalyst, the second the aforementioned Steinbeck musical.

The Immoralist. Theatrical impresario Billy Rose sends Fonda the script for this stage version of Andre Gide’s 1926 novel, “figuring he would be an excellent choice to play the emotionally twisted husband opposite Geraldine Page.”  Fonda responds that the part is interesting, but he is already committed to another. Louis Jordan plays the husband, opposite Page and a neophyte James Dean.

A Star is Born. Fonda turns down the part of Norman Maine in George Cukor’s remake because of his commitment to The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.  Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart also pass.  The role goes to James Mason.

1954

Pipe Dream. Fonda decides not to appear in the Cannery Row musical (actually an adaptation of Sweet Thursday, the sequel to that novel), despite taking voice and singing lessons while acting in Point of No Return.  The show goes on in late 1955 under a new title, with William Johnson in the Fonda role, and ranks among Rodgers and Hammerstein’s minor successes, running for “only” 246 performances.

Clown. Reports say Fonda, having bought the film rights to Emmett Kelly’s autobiography, intends to produce it as a theatrical film.  The television version is only a dry run:  “I want to do the picture and that’s the only reason why I’m doing the TV show.”  As late as summer 1957, the film version is said to be imminent, but it is never realized.

1955

Point of No Return. Fonda will repeat his stage role in a Leland Hayward-produced film version.

Gertrude Lawrence as Mrs. A. Producers Melville Shavelson and Jack Ross pursue Fonda in Rome, where he is making War and Peace, to get him to play Richard Aldrich, husband of stage star Gertrude Lawrence, in the filming of Aldrich’s recent biography.  Katharine Hepburn is said to be under consideration for the Lawrence part if Fonda signs.

Untitled Joseph Bell Project. Fonda is interested in playing Dr. Joseph Bell, “the real-life inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes,” in a film produced and directed by William Dieterle.

1957

Say, Darling. Fonda may star as the Midwestern playwright in this “play about a musical” by Abe Burrows and Marian and Richard Bissell. The play is produced in 1958, starring David Wayne, and is a big hit.

1958

Three Against Time. Fonda and Ingrid Bergman have expressed interest in Pearl Buck’s new play.

Anatomy of a Murder. Fonda is named as most likely to star in the upcoming Otto Preminger film version of this New York Times bestseller. The part goes to Fonda’s close friend Jimmy Stewart.

Jefferson Selleck. Henry’s next project will be this adaptation of a 1952 Carl Smith novel, being brought to the stage by Joseph Mankiewicz.  Henry wants to do it “because it’s about actual people his family knew” in Omaha.

1959

La Dolce Vita. Anita Ekberg, recently Henry’s costar in War and Peace, says her next film will be The Sweet Life, again with Fonda.  This, of course, turns out to be La Dolce Vita, without Fonda.

He is offered the part of Steiner, a writer who kills himself after shooting his two children.  The character is based on the Italian novelist Cesare Pavese, dead by his own hand in 1950, and is ultimately played by Alain Cuny.  Many years later, Fonda explains:  “Fellini asked me to play the part of a man with a family who commits suicide in La Dolce Vita, and I just couldn’t accept the part.  I couldn’t understand the character.  I thought the act was unpremeditated, unprovoked, unreasonable.  I couldn’t believe the suicide.”  Still, he says he has seen the film “more than any other,” and considers it his all-time favorite.

1961

The Chapman Report. Bunny Lake is Missing. Among the offers with which Fonda has lately been deluged.  The first is to star daughter Jane, but Henry has been too busy to read the script; the second is on Otto Preminger’s back burner.

Tender is the Night. David O Selznick, producing the film version of the Fitzgerald novel, writes in a memo that Fonda would be a good choice to play Dick Diver.  The role goes to Jason Robards.

The Cardinals [sic]. “It’s almost a certainty,” says Hedda Hopper, that Henry will do this screenplay with Otto Preminger in the spring of 1962.  The Cardinal is released in 1963, with John Huston instead.

1962

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee has Fonda in mind for the character of George, and sends the play to his agents—who reject the “no-balls character” without even showing it to their client.

Lie Down in Darkness. United Artists announces an adaptation of the William Styron novel about a volatile Southern girl’s life and death, to be directed by John Frankenheimer from a script by novelist Richard Yates. Jane Fonda would play the girl, with Henry as her father.

I’ll devote a separate upcoming entry to this movie-that-never-was: There’s too much fascinating back-story, and fore-story, to get into here.

1963

Seven Days in May. Fonda declines the role of the President because he’s about to play the same part in Fail-Safe.

The Confessor. Fonda’s next film, to be directed by John Frankenheimer. Never made.

Catch-22. Fonda reads the Joseph Heller novel, a chapter of which focuses on Major Major’s sickening resemblance to himself, and is “a little shocked when I came across my name in the book.”  He talks with prospective adaptor Richard Brooks, and appears interested in playing the part.

1964

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Bette Davis is desperate to star in the movie (imitating her younger self: “What a dump”!), with Fonda as her co-star.  When Elizabeth Taylor is signed, she too would like to play opposite Henry. Richard Burton is attracted to the role, but it’s felt he may be “too strong” for the character.

1967

The Bootles of Butternut Hill. This play by Sidney Michaels, author of Dylan and others, is supposed to be Fonda’s next stage property.

Barbarella. Henry declines to do a cameo as the President of the Earth.  (“Would I have to take my clothes off?” he asks Jane.)

1968

Catch-22. Among the cast members lined up for the Mike Nichols production are Alan Arkin, Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, Tony Perkins, Alan Alda, Robert Redford, and Henry Fonda—as Major Major.  But when the film is released two years later,  Bob Newhart plays the role.

Ethan Frome. During the start-up of the Plumstead Playhouse, Henry reports that Joanne Woodward has agreed to co-star with him in a stage production of the Wharton novel.

Planet of the Apes. Fonda is the first choice of producer Arthur P. Jacobs to play the President of the United States, but his casting his opposed by co-producer Don Taylor, who prefers William Windom.

1971

The Homecoming. Henry is suggested for the father in the Christmas 1971 TV movie, which will lead to the series The Waltons.  But CBS executives decide the show must focus on the kids, not the parents, so go with non-stars.

1972

Seascape. Edward Albee reportedly would like Henry and Angela Lansbury to star in his upcoming play.

1973

The Streets of Laredo. Peter Bogdanovich wants to direct a western starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart, based on an idea he has developed with novelist Larry McMurtry. Fonda and Stewart are onboard, but Wayne declines. The screenplay later evolves into McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove (1985)—whose sequel is entitled The Streets of Laredo. (Both are filmed as TV miniseries.)

O. W. Street. ABC has supposedly signed Fonda for the title role of this Movie of the Week intended as the pilot for a prospective series. The plot:  “Fonda will be seen as a sheriff from the Texas Panhandle who teaches criminology at a local university.  One of his students, now a district attorney in a large California city, seeks his help in solving the murder of that city’s captain of detectives and hires him as the man’s replacement.”

1974

Seascape. Fonda accepts the starring role in the Albee play, then withdraws in favor of Clarence Darrow.

Clarence Darrow. Henry says he plans to film a pilot for a possible series based on the one-man show.

Untitled Revolutionary War Project. Henry will begin filming a movie with Jane and Peter the following September.  “It’s a story about the Revolution that you won’t read in any textbook,” he promises.

1975

Untitled Revolutionary War Project. Fonda says, “We’re all going to make a movie together—the three of us.  It was Jane’s idea and it’s going to be about a father and his son and daughter during the American Revolution.  I spearheaded the whole thing and a couple of weeks ago got the okay from Columbia Pictures.  It all takes place in Boston in 1774.  Actually, in a way, it was Peter’s idea.  He had an option on a Howard Fast book about Valley Forge.  [This would be the 1939 Conceived in Liberty: A Novel of Valley Forge.]  We all talked it over and came up with the idea of one family’s involvement in the revolution.  We’ll probably start in the fall.  I’m not sure we’ll be able to get it out in time for the bicentennial but that would sure be nice.”

Later in the year, Henry elaborates:  “Columbia Pictures wants to produce it.  The money’s there and now it’s a matter of a finished script. . . .  The studio put up the money for a script which is being written now.  The 125-page treatment was history, not drama.  But, of course, that will be straightened out.”

1976

A House Divided. The Revolutionary War film finally has a title.  Jane says, “We’ve been wanting to work in the same picture for a long time. …  Peter had this property but couldn’t get it going, so I took it over.  I think it’s a good story, about a common family during the years preceding and after the Revolution.  There are no battles.  Rather, it shows the underbelly of our country at the time it was getting started.”

Network. It’s rumored that Sidney Lumet seeks Fonda to star, presumably in what would become either the Peter Finch or William Holden role.

1977

Com-TAC 303. Henry will be among the stars of this Pinnacle Productions presentation, about a unit of black fighter pilots during World War II.  He will play an Air Corps officer; costars are Billy Dee Williams, Greg Morris, and Chad Everett.  Filming begins around Hollywood and in the Mojave Desert, but Columbia Pictures cuts off funds, and despite the producers’ efforts the picture dies.

1978

The Journey of Simon McKeever. Fonda will soon shoot a film about an arthritis-stricken man who hitchhikes California highways seeking a cure.  It’s based on a 1949 Albert Maltz novel that was bought by Hollywood on publication, set to star Walter Huston, and then shelved when Maltz was blacklisted.  Nearly twenty years later, Spencer Tracy was going to star, but he died.  (In Radical Innocence:  A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten, Bernard F. Dick says it was Walter Brennan, not Walter Huston, who was originally to star when Fox bought the novel on publication, with Jules Dassin directing.)

Maltz could not be employed as a screenwriter under the Waldorf Statement, by which the major studios agreed not to retain “questionable” individuals.  Yet Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, a signer of the statement, must have approved the purchase of the property for $35,000, and assumed there would be no problem with filming a blacklistee’s novel.  Still, Zanuck withdrew the movie due to “heavy clamor from the public,” mainly the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.  Maltz filed a complaint, but the Screen Writers Guild did not back him up.

1979

The Journey of Simon McKeever. Scheduled to begin shooting in the summer, on the novel’s locations—the roads between Sacramento and Glendale.

1980

The 31st of June. Among Fonda’s upcoming projects is this TV movie.  It’s possibly an early title for Summer Solstice, the drama (co-starring Myrna Loy) that was Fonda’s last film.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Jim Thebaut of Evergreen Foundation Films claims that Henry, Jane, and Peter will finally appear together, in a movie of the Dee Brown book.  Peter has recently been out raising funds for the project.

First Monday in October. Playing Fonda’s stage role in the film, Walter Matthau says, “Hank would have done the movie except that he was committed to another project [On Golden Pond] …  I went to Hank’s house to talk to him about it, and he said, ‘I asked them who was doing it and when they said it was you, I said okay.’”

1982

Untitled Harry Hopkins Project. Untitled Walt Whitman Project. These are claimed to be the last projects Fonda considered—the first, a play about FDR’s top political advisor, the second, a one-man presentation based on the poet’s writings.  Due to Fonda’s poor health, neither makes it past the talking stage.