Jane Fonda Reveals Her Reaction to AFI Honor: 'I Burst Into Tears'

Courtesy Everett Collection

The American Film Institute crowns another Fonda as it celebrates the actress' never-say-die career Thursday night in Hollywood.

This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In 1978, Jane Fonda looked on from the dais as her father, Henry, became the sixth recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. Thirty six years later, Fonda, now 76, will follow in his footsteps, becoming, on June 5, the AFI's 42nd honoree in a long line of Hollywood luminaries.

"Jane Fonda is American film royalty," Howard Stringer, chair of the AFI board of trustees, declared in announcing her selection. But given the dramatic twists and turns that her life and her career have taken, it never was a foregone conclusion that Fonda would be honored this way. In fact, when she got the call, the two-time Oscar-winning actress tells THR, "I burst into tears. It's the biggest honor. Bette Davis asked me to present it to her, many years ago in the '70s. Barbara Stanwyck asked me to present it to her. And then, of course, my dad received it. I never thought it would happen to me. You know, I left the business for 15 years and crawled my way back in, starting at age 65. So I just feel very blessed this is happening."

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Fonda had no trouble breaking into the business, of course: Her first movie role earned her star billing as a marriage-minded coed opposite Anthony Perkins in the romantic comedy Tall Story. And by the mid-'70s, she had passed through her ingenue phase and graduated into challenging dramatic roles. But thanks to her passionate anti-war activities, she also had become one of the most polarizing figures in show business. Eager to defend his daughter, Henry Fonda, in his own AFI acceptance speech, introduced his family and spoke of his own father, saying: "He never met my children, but I know he'd be proud. I can hear Dad answering someone criticizing Jane: 'Shut up, she's perfect!' " To which Henry tossed in, "Right on, Dad!"

Undaunted and determined to forge a screen persona that matched her political ideals, Jane Fonda partnered with producer Bruce Gilbert in their own IPC Films production company to develop projects that tackled serious subjects like workplace sexism (in the comedy Nine to Five), nuclear power (The China Syndrome) and petrodollars (Rollover). At the same time, she also created a mini-empire out of her exercise videos -- only to walk away from the business following her marriage to her third husband, Ted Turner, in 1991.

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It was only after divorcing Turner in 2001 and completing her 2005 autobiography, My Life So Far, that Fonda realized, "I could find joy in acting again." The 2005 comedy Monster-in-Law marked her comeback, and she hasn't slowed down since. She's found a relationship with record producer Richard Perry, enthusiastically embraced social media with a website of her own, and earned an Emmy nomination for her role as a network CEO in The Newsroom. As soon as she completed her duties at this year's Cannes, where she reigned as L'Oreal's oldest brand ambassador, she headed off to Switzerland for a role in Paolo Sorrentino's The Early Years. She'll be seen onscreen this fall, playing mom to Tina Fey and Jason Bateman in This Is Where I Leave You. "Boy, did we have fun," she says. And then she and Lily Tomlin begin shooting a new comedy series, Grace and Frankie, for Netflix.

Despite her years, she hasn't really settled into the role of grand dame. "It's like T.S. Eliot says," she says. "You spend your life exploring, and at the end of all your explorations, you come back to where you started. I'm back to the feisty girl I was, but I now embody her in a whole different way. I'm still Jane."

Merle Ginsberg contributed to this report.