Peter Fonda looks back on father’s iconic performance in Sidney Lumet’s ‘12 Angry Men’
Peter Fonda racked up nearly seven decades of movie making until his death from lung cancer at age 79 on August 16, 2019, coincidentally the 42nd anniversary of Elvis Presley’s demise. Besides the counterculture depicted tragically in the career-making Easy Rider, he emblazoned the action-packed, horrific thrill of Race with the Devil alongside real life comrade Warren Oates, then-journeyman director Jonathan Demme’s coal-mining revenge tale Fighting Mad, and 3:10 to Yuma, the 21st century pistol-packin’ remake starring Russell Crowe. In a patriarchal role mirroring the leading gentleman who also happened to be his father, Henry Fonda’s only son received his sole Best Actor Oscar nomination for 1997’s Ulee’s Gold.
Peter was an avid Twitter inhabitant who regularly interacted with fans @IAmFonda. After some cajoling, The Hired Hand filmmaker exclusively reflected upon the death of esteemed director Sidney Lumet. Amazingly, Lumet’s debut was the iconic 1957 courtroom thriller 12 Angry Men, analyzed in high school social studies classrooms to this day, with the elder Fonda supplying the sole voice of dissent. Lumet would helm another fine black and white nail biter with Henry — Fail-Safe — and was guilty as charged for future classics like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. Lumet was still directing top quality movies at age 83 when Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead premiered, and it is a credit to his long career that Lumet never lost his passion for creating art or celebrating his beloved New York City.
The Peter Fonda Interview
Where does Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men fit in your dad’s illustrious film career?
Sidney was an old friend who directed my dad in 12 Angry Men in 1957. It was my dad’s Easy Rider — he believed in it with the same unstoppable fierceness as I would 12 years later. Dad took it from a 1954 one-hour episode of the dramatic anthology series, Studio One, and he made it into a major movie and critical success.
I am proud of him, as my dad also served as co-producer — his sole foray behind the camera for a film — along with writer Reginald Rose. Dad was thrilled to be directed by Sidney and to work with the top character actors in the business — e.g. Jack Klugman, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, E.G. Marshall, Ed Begley, Sr., Martin Balsam, and John Fiedler.
Dad always thought of himself as a character actor, not a leading man, being uncomfortable with the “handle” of a leading man or romantic lead. Sidney gave him all the best things he wanted in his career.
12 Angry Men was shot in only three weeks for a budget of about $350,000 — it was Sidney’s first movie — and won four top prizes. Sidney received Oscar, Golden Globe, and Directors Guild of America nominations for Best Director.
It is considered one of my dad’s and Sidney’s best, and it is studied by all film schools. The movie was one of my dad’s favorite roles, along with “Tom Joad” in The Grapes of Wrath and “Gil Carter” in The Ox-Bow Incident.
Bless you, Sidney. You made a great film and made my dad the happiest man.
According to Bruce Eder in a review for Allmovie.com, 12 Angry Men was “mishandled by United Artists when released in April 1957. The company opened the film in a huge first-run theater in New York. Not only was the movie totally unsuited to the kind of downtown movie palace that UA booked it into but, as a non-widescreen production, it was literally lost in that setting, even for the audiences that did attend.”
12 Angry Men found a wider audience when distributed to television in the 1960s. In a measure of its cultural impact, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor credits the movie with kindling her decision to enter the law field. The Library of Congress preserved the film in 2007.
Immediately after 12 Angry Men wrapped, Fonda and Lumet renewed their collaboration in the virtally forgotten Stage Struck. Susan Strasberg breathes life into an ingenue who comes to New York City with dreams of being a top Broadway star.
In 1964, the third and final pairing of Lumet and Fonda occurred with the release of Fail-Safe, a taut thriller co-starring Walter Matthau that examined what could happen if a computer relayed a false signal to a bomber fighter aircraft flying over Moscow. Filmed during the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, Fonda added gravitas as the President of the United States faced with a horrifying decision.
Fail-Safe earned excellent reviews yet died at the box office. Like 12 Angry Men, its stature has surged over time. Dropped only nine months after the much ballyhooed and similar storylined Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Fail-Safe confused audiences expecting a comedy along the lines of Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove but is well worth tracking down for Fonda and/or Lumet aficionados.
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