The biggest problem, surprisingly, was Fonda. Ford had gone to bat for him against the studio executives at Warner Bros. who wanted a younger, sexier and more potent box-office attraction like Marlon Brando or William Holden for the title role of Doug Roberts, the young Navy officer.
Nonetheless, from the moment they got to the location, Ford and Fonda clashed. Fonda didn’t like the script Ford had commissioned, felt it was neither as funny nor as nuanced as the original play, and he didn’t care for the excessive physical comedy and coarse broad strokes of Ford’s direction.
After the first day of shooting, producer Leland Hayward arranged for a clear-the-air meeting in Ford’s room in the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters. Ford was sprawled on a chaise lounge with a tall drink in his hand. Before Fonda could finish explaining his concerns, Ford sprang up and punched him in the face. The actor fled the room in stunned silence.
Fifteen minutes later, Ford knocked on Fonda’s door and stumbled through a tearful, abject apology, but things were never the same. Ford, a life-long alcoholic, started grimly working his way through a case of chilled beer each day on the set.
A few weeks later, Ford was rushed to the hospital for gall bladder surgery, and Mervyn LeRoy took over and finished the picture. “Mister Roberts” was a box-office hit, and won three Academy Awards, including Jack Lemmon’s first, for best supporting actor. But Ford and Fonda were both bitterly disappointed. They never worked together again.