The movie version of Ernest Thompson’s play On Golden Pond has been beloved by audiences since it hit theatres in 1981. Much of the film’s enormous success can be attributed to its two legendary stars: Henry Fonda, in his last screen role, as the curmudgeonly retired professor Norman Thayer, and an incandescent Katharine Hepburn as his smart and understanding wife, Ethel.
But the recent Broadway revival proved that On Golden Pond tells a potent story and is a superb vehicle for powerful actors. That was true when Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen created the roles at the Hudson Guild Theatre in 1978 and then on Broadway; it was true again when Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer teamed for a television version; and it was true earlier this year for James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams. Now theatre veterans Tom Bosley and Michael Learned star in the national tour of Leonard Foglia’s production, which can be seen in September in St. Paul, Forth Worth, San Antonio and Nashville.
“It’s amazing that I am so much like this character, especially at this age,” says Bosley. “He’s 80, and I will be 79 before the end of the year. When we started rehearsing, I discovered that the play has an entirely different meaning than the movie. I think that although audiences loved the movie, they were more in love with the cast than the story. You had these great stars, including a dying man playing a dying man. The problems between him and his daughter in the play existed in real life. And, of course, Jane Fonda played his daughter. So Katharine Hepburn was the buffer between the two of them. I think the story is more elaborated in our production, because the faces won’t be as familiar to the audiences, at least to those who remember the picture.”
Of course, the faces of Bosley and Learned are very familiar to television viewers, as they became household names on “Happy Days” and “The Waltons,” respectively. “To this day I still get mail from people,” says Bosley. Although Bosley has spent much of his career in television, he started out in theatre and won a 1960 Tony Award for his portrayal of the title character in Fiorello! “It was amazing because I thought I was being considered for the understudy,” he says. “The whole thing just went so fast. It took about six months to realize what was happening to me, and that I had a moment in my life that actors dream about. That show really became part of my personal life. I did it 15 years later with my wife, and I picked up the script and read the first line and threw the script away. I knew every line in the play—which I can’t say has happened on other occasions.”
More recently, Bosley originated the role of Belle’s father in the Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast, took over the part of Herr Schultz in Cabaret in New York, and toured as Cap’n Andy in Hal Prince’s production of Show Boat. “Theatre offers more opportunities for people like Michael and myself than Hollywood does,” he says. “People ask, ‘Why don’t you retire,’ and I always say, ‘Why should I retire? Actors spend half their careers in retirement.’ There isn’t as much work for me now as I would like. When you get up into a certain level of years in your life, you want to make use of them. I don’t believe in fully retiring. I’ve seen people wither away when they stop working.”