Mister Roberts, a comic drama set aboard a US Navy cargo ship during the Second World War, was a long-running hit on Broadway. Written by Joshua Logan and Thomas Heggen (from Heggen’s novel), it had earned Henry Fonda a Tony award in 1948, and when it was turned into a film in 1955, the posters simply said, “The six-year stage smash on the screen!”
However, its transition was anything but smooth. Firstly, unbeknown to Fonda, Warner Bros considered two other actors before him to play Lt Doug Roberts – William Holden and Marlon Brando – for box-office reasons (Fonda had been off the screen since 1948). But director John Ford threatened to quit if Fonda wasn’t cast.
This was ironic, as Fonda did not approve of Ford’s approach to the material, understandably regarding himself as something of a house expert on the play. “He didn’t know the timing,” said Fonda. “He didn’t know where the laughs were.”
The pair came to blows. Literally. Though filming in Hawaii had got off to a festive start, with actor Ward Bond getting married, differences soon emerged between Fonda and Ford. During one encounter, Ford punched Fonda across the room.
The larger-than-life Ford became introspective and depressed, drinking heavily and refusing to eat, and then a gall-bladder attack forced him to retire from the project.
Mervyn LeRoy replaced him and shot all the studio scenes. Fonda liked his approach: simply to film the play. Some material was even shot, uncredited, by Joshua Logan, who’d adapted the script with Frank S Nugent.
The film won an Oscar, but it went not to Fonda but to Jack Lemmon for his role as Frank Pulver, a character so popular he got his own film in 1964, the disappointing Ensign Pulver, with Robert Walker Jr in the title role.