Late in his life, Henry Fonda was magnificent as the curmudgeonly patriarch in “On Golden Pond.” Mickey Rooney was less than stellar when asked to basically play himself — an old coot in “Night at the Museum.”
In last week’s student-faculty game at Hampstead Middle School, I was mostly Mickey Rooney, with a dash of Henry Fonda on the side.
I suspect Henry Fonda honed his craft throughout his long career. How else can you explain the range of an actor who played opposite Lucille Ball in the family comedy “Yours, Mine and Ours,” and in the same year, 1968, personified evil as a hired gun in “Once Upon A Time in the West?”
My basketball career was mostly hit or miss, whether playing H.O.R.S.E. on the playground or during three-on-three games on a gravel court with a bent rim. But set to perform on a big stage before a crowd, I knew I had to work the kinks out beforehand, or risk getting slammed by my biggest critics — my sixth-grade students.
But like the Mickster in the twilight of his career, my ball-playing colleagues at HMS just showed up before tip-off at 6:30. I was in an empty gym at 4, shooting jump shots and foul shots, and finding the sweet spot on the backboard so I’d be able to bank a few in. Remember, it took several takes in the icy waters of Squam Lake before Henry Fonda nailed that boat-crash scene in “On Golden Pond.”
In my first appearance in the game, I got the ball in the left corner, 18 feet from the rim. I squared my shoulders and fired. Swish. A moment later, I snagged a rebound and kissed it off the backboard for an easy two-pointer. I was Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath” — humble yet heroic.