On face value (literally), Henry Fonda’s always been perceived as an upstanding kinda guy. A decent everyman. It’s what prompted director John Ford to cast him as a young Abraham Lincoln and as Tom Joad. Thanks to his trustworthy puss, director Sidney Lumet cast him in Fail Safe as the President of the United States—a good one.
But one director shrewdly took the opposite approach: In 1968, Italian director Sergio Leone asked Fonda to play the heavy in Once Upon a Time in the West.
Casting against type is nothing new, but it’s normally something more facile, such as casting a brute in a soft-spoken role (think Ernest Borgnine in Marty). What Leone does with Fonda, however, is take a face the audience has trusted for thirty years and subvert it. It’s more than a face, actually, it’s a projection of American values such as trust and honor.
Here’s two clips. One is the Fonda’s opening scene in Once Upon a Time in the West (truncated), where he kills a whole family (how’s that for subverting the audience’s expectations?). The other clip is his 1975 appearance on Michael Parkinson’s UK talk show where he explains why he got the role. He also (humorously) re-enacts the scene from the Leone film.
(Within the context of Once Upon a Time in the West, this scene is about 15 minutes in. We’re introduced to a small family having a pleasant enough dinner outside. That’s where the clip begins.)