While living with her father in Malibu in the summer of 1958, Jane befriends next door neighbor Susan Strasberg, daughter of Lee Strasberg, the influential founder of the Actors Studio. Jane has long worried about whether she’s pretty and talented enough to succeed as an actress, and superstar father hasn’t been very encouraging. “Do you really want to play things like Jimmy Stewart’s daughter in The FBI Story?” he asks. Desperate for direction, Jane gets Susan to arrange a meeting with her famous dad.
Lee Strasberg accepts Jane as a student after a long talk at the beach house. “The only thing that made me take her in was her eyes,” he says later. “There was such panic in her eyes.”
Jane relocates to New York to enroll in classes at the Actors Studio. She begins like everyone else: paying $35 for two private, beginner-level sessions a week, taught by Strasberg in the converted church on West 44th Street that serves as the Studio’s HQ.
During class, Jane and the other students are required to act out an intimate physical action and to express an emotional “private moment” in mime. Her work drinking an imaginary glass of orange juice wows Strasberg, and she later says, “Before…I was one person. And then after the exercise I was somebody else.” Her father expresses nothing but disdain for Strasberg’s so-called Method.
Nearing her 22nd birthday, Jane rents a duplex apartment on East 67th Street with Susan Stein, an alum of Vassar, which Fonda attended for two years in the mid-1950s. They furnish the place with antiques borrowed from the offices of Stein’s father Jules, the head of MCA. “We lead separate lives and communicate in the bathroom every two weeks,” Fonda says later. “Ideal roommate arrangement.”
Among Fonda’s house pets are two Siamese cats and a Yorkshire terrier, whom she can’t housebreak.
Ferociously committed to acting, Jane subsists on cigarettes, coffee, Dexedrine and yogurt. Worried that her cheeks make her look “like a chipmunk,” she relies on diuretics to slim down even more.
To supplement her income, Jane signs with Eileen Ford’s modeling agency, soon earning $50 an hour. At one point, she lands on four magazine covers at once, including a shot for Vogue in which she is dressed in a gold sheath.
After sessions at the Actors Studio, she waits around newsstands to watch people’s reactions as they pick up the magazine and see her face.
While getting ready for a photo shoot at Conde Nast, Jane causes quite a flutter when she pulls off her sweater—establishing herself as a pioneer of the "bra-less” look.
Signing a contract with Warner Bros., Jane makes her film debut in 1960 in Tall Story, directed by Joshua Logan, a family friend who thought of Jane as his goddaughter. It’s a disastrous experience. Jack Warner declares she’s too flat-chested and orders falsies. Logan suggests she have her back teeth pulled and her jaw broken and reset, to accentuate her cheekbones.
Jane flees back to New York, proclaiming, “I think you dream better dreams, you feel more, in a cold climate.”
Still doubtful if she’ll ever master her father’s craft, she immerses herself in acting classes, and stars in a production of the popular 50s comedy The Moon Is Blue in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
She finds a kindred spirit in Tim Everett, a classmate who’d already starred on Broadway in William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. They work together on scenes and boost each other’s self-esteem. During one session, Everett remembers, “I got so consumed by this wave of tenderness and desire, and so did she. We ran upstairs to the bedroom, tore our clothes off, and stayed in bed for three days.”
After appearing in No Concern of Mine for one week at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, Jane auditions for the part of Emily in a 1959 production of Our Town at Circle in the Square production. “I had her come back twice,” says director Jose Quintero, who is deeply impressed but concludes he can’t cast Fonda. “She was too individual; Emily had to be everybody.” Kathleen Widdoes gets the part.
Jane lands her debut Broadway role in a play called There Was a Little Girl, directed by Josh Logan. This story of an upper-class girl who is raped brings out the fighter in Fonda. “Every young actress would give her eyeteeth for the part,” she says. “I’ll murder anyone who gets in my way.”
Although Henry Fonda begs his daughter not to take the part, he stands with Logan during one rehearsal as Jane runs through a romantic scene onstage. “Oh, youth, youth, youth,” Henry tells Logan. “That’s the exciting time. Oh, to have it all to do over again!” Logan suffers a nervous breakdown during out-of-town tryouts in Boston and disappears for 10 days.
There Was a Little Girl is panned in Boston where the actor playing Jane’s father drops dead of a heart attack before making his entrance and Philadelphia. On opening night at the Cort Theatre, Henry Fonda does his best to prevent Jane from attending the after-party at Sardi’s, knowing it’s not the best place to be when your show’s about to get butchered. But she insists, and when the first reviews arrive, all eyes are on the two Fondas. “The play was slaughtered,” Henry remembers. “Jane’s eyes crossed a little when she read [the reviews]. Then she smiled at me. I knew then she was a real professional.”
They may hate the play, but critics fall in love with Jane. In The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson writes, “As the wretched heroine of this unsavory melodrama, she gives an alert, many-sided performance that is professionally mature and suggests that she has found a career that suits her.” There Was a Little Girl closes after 16 performances, but Jane receives a 1960 Best Featured Actress Tony nomination.
Jane begins seeing a therapist, believing the experience may make her a better actress.
Jane gets her hand on a copy of Invitation to a March by Arthur Laurents and is determined to snag the lead role, Norma Brown. “Here was a script just labeled ‘Jane,’” she said. Laurents, who is directing his own play, gives her the part after a single reading.
Her castmates include Shelley Winters, Eileen Heckart, Madeleine Sherwood and James MacArthur, son of Charles MacArthur and Helen Hayes. Backstage, she overhears an actor say, “She got the part because she’s Fonda’s daughter,” and wonders why no one says the same thing about James.
Within five minutes of the first rehearsal, a possibly jealous older actress— draw your own conclusions as to whom—hits Jane hard across the cheek. The young actress remains the consummate professional, saying and doing nothing.
“I felt like apologizing to the audience,” Jane remembers of the first previews. “I’d walk down to the footlights and all I’d hear were whispers. ‘She looks just like her father.’” She picks up an old habit of her dad’s: going up to the balcony just before curtain to check out the audience, hoping not to find any “mean” faces.
During tryouts in Boston, Jane receives news that an old friend, Bridget Hayward, has committed suicide. Laurents comes to her dressing room. Suffering from a migraine, she is under sedation and sobbing uncontrollably. “You're afraid you may kill yourself, too, aren’t you?” He maintains her answer that day was “yes.” But Jane, whose mother took her own life when Jane was 12, later denies the story. “I would never do it. I think I’m too important.”
Invitation to a March runs for three months after opening at the Music Box Theatre on October 29, 1960, with Newsweek calling Jane “the loveliest and most gifted of all our young actresses.” Henry Fonda tells Laurents, “Thank you for making my daughter an actress.” Jane walks away from the experience unhappy, complaining she’s been forced to act as “some slick Ginger Rogers ingénue.”
Confident that she’s now ready to become a full-fledged member of the Actors Studio, Jane auditions before the board with a scene from Butterfield 8 as a high-class prostitute the role that won Elizabeth Taylor her first Oscar. When her father asks why, Jane says, “I identify with her. Not the call-girl kind of life, but the guilts, the desperations, the emotions.” Her performance is a success.
Jane shares in class a recurring nightmare of seeing dogs get run over and being inside an ice-cold house that has no exit. She also dreams of forgetting her lines, and once wakes up to find she’s moved furniture. One night, having wandered into the street naked, she comes to and sees shocked pedestrians.
Jane buys her first co-op apartment on West 55th Street, purchased with her earnings from the film work she completes between plays.
Her next play Broadway play, The Fun Couple, is an unmitigated flop. Walter Kerr calls it one of the five worst plays of all time. The entire Actors Studio crowd comes to see it and leaves the Lyceum Theatre sniggering. It closes after three performances, leaving Jane even more disenchanted with Broadway.
Jane is cast in the Actors Studio’s Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude seemingly a crowning achievement. But starring alongside Geraldine Page, considered to finest American stage at the time, makes it clear to Jane how far she has to go. Like Marilyn Monroe, another black sheep in the Studio, she wonders if she has the talent or even the desire to attain such status. “Think of all the wonderful parts you can play when you’re older,” Jane tells Marilyn. “No, no!” Monroe replies, startled. “You play them!”
After the final performance of Strange Interlude in June 1963, Jane labels her Broadway experience “disastrous.” She concludes, “I have star quality, I have personality, I have a presence. It’s like a commodity, and it’s in demand.” So she heads back West to conquer Hollywood.
Forty-six years later, in the weeks before the opening of 33 Variations, Jane tells The New York Times how much her late father, who acted onstage for his entire career, has been on her mind. “I was never comfortable enough in my own skin 45 years ago,” she says. “I just wanted to escape. And now it’s like, ‘Oh Dad, I wish you were here and alive, so I could say to you: I get it! I’m finally able to experience what you were talking about.’”