And it pretty much shows in what I see as an indifferent performance in the film. He seems distracted throughout which, arguably, might make dramatic sense, given that he's playing a career Navy man who feels trapped during World War II because he isn't actually participating in the war.
When the film went into production, the popular thought was that this was the movie that would win Fonda his Oscar. He had been nominated many years earlier for his role in John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940). Tellingly, Fonda wasn't even nominated for "Mister Roberts."
And at 50, he was perhaps a little old for the role. (He was 43 when the play opened on Broadway in 1948 and, of course, in the theater, there's some physical distance between the performer and the audience. Not so with the leering eye of the camera.) That may explain why Jack Warner actively wanted 30-year-old Marlon Brando for the role. Brando was Warner's first choice, followed by William Holden, then 37.
The film's director, on the other hand, had his eye on John Wayne. Which was curious as the director was ... John Ford who directed Fonda in the aforementioned "On Golden Pond" and several other titles.
Ford had worked often with Wayne, as well as Fonda - and was friends with both - but even though Fonda had played the role to acclaim on stage, rumor has it that Ford had his heart set on Wayne. This could not have been a good start for Fonda who of course was ultimately signed for the role. He deserved more enthusiasm from his director and the studio head.
Fonda was the only performer from the Broadway production retained for the film. Ironically, Brando's sister Jocelyn originated the role on stage of the Navy nurse played by Betsy Palmer in the film. (Jocelyn Brando had replaced Eva Marie Saint in the role during an out-of-town tryout.)
When I interviewed Henry Fonda back in the '70s, I asked him about the "Roberts" situation and, although he was typically discreet and private, he did share two reservation that he had about the film. For one thing, Fonda disliked how Ford had turned the seabees on Roberts' cargo ship into a bunch of grinning overgrown kids and I couldn't agree more. They're sailors by way of The Bowery Boys. This is especially true of the performances of Nick Adams, Tige Andrews and Harry Carey, Jr.
Fonda (center), seemingly happy with his co-stars (from left) James Cagney, William Powell, Ward Bond and Jack Lemmon
According the Hollywood legend, Ford became so fed up with Fonda that, one day, he slugged the actor. Did that really happen? Who knows?
One fact is certain: Ford suddenly took ill during production and was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy who completed the film. Both are credited with its direction and, according to Jack Lemmon, who plays Ensign Pulver in the film, Joshua Logan was recruited to shoot a couple of additional scenes after principal photography was completed. (Logan had directed Fonda in the play.) "So, we actually had three directors on the film. Which can be fascinating but can give one a small stomach ache," Jack quipped.
Note in Passing: Fonda finally won his Oscar in 1981 for Mark Rydell's "On Golden Pond," 41 years after his first nomination.