by Bart Bull
published in Vogue (excerpt)
On the wall nearby is a precisely rendered watercolor of a red-brown horse, a little swaybacked with age, standing alone outside a weathered stable. He gets up, stands to gaze at Henry Fonda’s painting of Pie, the horse Stewart rode in movie after movie. “This is when he was — he had to be, had to be twenty-eight years old. Half quarter-horse, half Arabian. I rode him for twenty years. Hank Fonda did this on his days off, and I didn’t know anything about it. That was Pie.” They were making Cheyenne Social Club, and the air was too thin for the old horse, the altitude too high. “He couldn’t make it. He couldn’t make it.”
Staring at a friend’s portrait of another friend, he can’t help but admire it once more. Fonda and Stewart were practically the last of their generation, and now there’s just one of them left. But there’s more to it than that. “This friendship with Fonda over the years was tremendous. I valued it so much. Tremendous friendship, tremendous admiration for him. He was good at his job if anybody was ever good at his job. It was a terrible thing to lose him. Which happens so much, you know. I think about it every once in a while — I try not to think about it. I’ve lost so many — I’ve lost so many people. You think of somebody and then you think, ‘When did she die?’”
The rims of his eyes go moist, nearly wet, not quite. Not quite. He won’t cry, not here, to be observed and written about in a magazine. Instead, he speaks, quickly now, to distract himself. “But Fonda was a wonderful, close friend.” The eyes contain.
Now he’s the last one left, the last star of his era. He doesn’t know why it’s worked out that way, and clearly it bothers him, confuses him just a little. When he was headed off to England during the war, his father slipped the Ninety-first Psalm into his hand — “For He shall give His angels charge over thee. . .” and maybe that helps explain it some, but it’s hard not to wonder. His last movie was made half a decade ago, but even as the unseen voice on the current Campbell’s soup ads, he moves miles past the typical too-sweet lemonade commercial grandfather, lulling us with that querulous voice and then always adding more edge than we could expect. If he were sent the right script, something he could sink his teeth into, would he be ready to do another picture?
“Sure,” he answers. Not a moment’s hesitation, none of his legendary pauses. “Sure.” No stammer, no stutter. “Sure. Sure.”
He considers a moment. “Can’t play cowboys anymore.”
Thursday, February 6, 2014
by Bart Bull