Fonda and Stewart appeared in a handful of movies together during their contemporary careers, including “On Our Merry Way,” “How The West Was Won,” and “The Cheyenne Social Club.” It’s interesting to compare their careers, however, even when they weren’t working together.
Across Fonda’s collaborations with John Ford and Stewart’s with Frank Capra, they came to fit into a similar archetype: the decent, down-to-earth All-American man it was impossible not to like. Stewart’s career-defining roles as Sen. Jefferson Smith and George Bailey come to mind. Meanwhile, about two decades before Fonda would play the avatar of good citizenship in “12 Angry Men,” he played the historical ideal of good citizenship, Abraham Lincoln, in “Young Mr. Lincoln.”
Audiences so strongly associated both of the two as good guys that some of their later roles are built on subverting that. In Stewart’s collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, “Vertigo” in particular, he plays less saintly characters. In “Once Upon A Time In The West,” Fonda plays the murderous outlaw Frank; an arc is even built around revealing his face like it’s a twist. Fonda explained, “Sergio Leone had cast me because at this moment he could imagine audiences saying, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s Henry Fonda!'”
While Fonda’s reveal in “Once Upon A Time In The West” is like a slap in the face, in “Vertigo,” Stewart’s is slower and more insidious. Seeing Scottie become abusive to Judy (Kim Novak) is shocking because you don’t expect that kind of behavior from a Jimmy Stewart character.
Despite their differences, the similarities Stewart and Fonda shared are why they were able to play characters with such overlap and why, in the end, their friendship endured 50 years.