Katharine Hepburn won the last of her record four Academy Awards for ”On Golden Pond,” the 1981 tear-jerker in which she played a saucy matriarch refereeing the war between her husband and their daughter (played by real-life father-daughter duo Henry and Jane Fonda). But beyond that remarkable performance, ”Pond” director Mark Rydell remembers Hepburn the woman: her eagerness to learn, her tenacity, and the surprisingly soothing nature that eased tensions between the Fondas on set. Rydell (”The Rose,” ”Intersection”) chatted with Entertainment Weekly about his experiences working with Hepburn on the film — and what you might not know about Katharine the Great.
It must have been difficult getting the money to make ”On Golden Pond” — its two stars were well into their 70s at the time.
It was hard to get the picture made, despite having Jane, who was a very big star. I had to beg for the money to make the picture — literally beg — because the financiers said, ”Henry Fonda hasn’t had a hit in year, and Kate Hepburn is just a legend and she doesn’t mean anything anymore. Jane would mean something but she’s not in the lead. Who wants to see a picture about death?”
Once you got the financing, what were those first few days working with Katharine like?
She was so startlingly remarkable, so heroic in many ways. For example, aside from being an extraordinary personality and a brilliant actress, she was also an athlete. About five weeks before the picture was to begin, she dislocated her shoulder while playing tennis and was taken to the hospital and operated on. Pins were put in her shoulder. I thought, Oh sh–, here goes the picture. I flew to New York and went to the hospital, and there she was in this hospital bed with her arm in a stand-up cast — her shoulder was at a right angle and her arm was extended in front of it, and there was a rod down to her waist that kept it at that height. She said, ”Don’t you worry about a thing.” I said, ”We’re supposed to start in five weeks.” She said, ”I’ll be there.” Sure enough, this woman showed up. All the doctors told her that she was insane and there was no way. Of course, it was her tenacity and determination to play this part, which meant a great deal to her.
Was it daunting working with such a legend?
I was somewhat intimidated. How do you direct Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, two of the icons of American theater? She had a career that was unparalleled. I put them together and I thought, Gee, this is liable to be touchy. Forget it. They fell into each other’s arms. They were remarkably supportive of one another.