Henry Fonda's First-Ever Love Scene Got Once Upon A Time In The West Off To An Awkward Start

In Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West," Henry Fonda played against type as the black-hatted gunslinger, Frank, a villain who subverted Fonda's all-American screen image in classic films like "The Grapes of Wrath" and "12 Angry Men." Yet the film also marked another sort of departure for Fonda in that it saw him taking part in a love scene. As it turns out, that scene was awkward for more than one reason.

"Once Upon a Time in the West" costars Claudia Cardinale as Jill McBain, who is forced to share a bed at one point with Frank, the man who killed her husband and wants to take control of his Sweetwater ranch in the town of Flagstone. Jill has a background as a brothel worker in New Orleans, but she married Brett McBain before arriving in town, which makes her the heir to Sweetwater.

It's not as in-your-face as the controversial rape scenes in Leone's later film "Once Upon a Time in America," but there's a threat of coercion hanging over Claudia's twisted "love" scene with Frank, as he caresses her and says, "I'm beginning to think I might feel a little sorry killing you. You like being alive?" In a 2000 interview, however, Cardinale recalled that what made the scene more awkward for her as an actress was that she was starstruck by Fonda, they were surrounded by people on the set, and it was their first scene together, not to mention their first time meeting and his first love scene.

'We were surrounded by hundreds of journalists'

"In Sergio Leone's Westerns," Cardinale told The Telegraph, "the woman was usually like an object — she had a limited space — but in 'Once Upon a Time in the West' the woman was the center. Everything revolved around her." While her character was the narrative center, though, Cardinale also found herself the center of attention on the set of "Once Upon a Time in the West:"

"The first scene to be filmed was the love scene with Henry Fonda. We were surrounded by hundreds of journalists from everywhere in the world, and the wife of Henry Fonda was sitting just next to the camera. 'The first time he'd done a love scene,' they said. I was nervous and he was very tense. I mean, to start with a love scene with an actor you don't know, with all these people around you. Sergio had just introduced us — we'd shaken hands and said our polite 'how do you dos' — and here we were on the bed together and making passionate love in front of a camera! In my mind he was still 'Mr Fonda.' I almost giggled out loud at the idea, but managed to control my laughter."

Nowadays, this kind of scene would probably be carefully choreographed beforehand, with an intimacy coordinator on the set to help facilitate communication with the actors and ensure their comfortability. "Once Upon a Time in the West" was filmed over 50 years ago, however, and it was a different time in the film industry. For her part, Cardinale laughed off the experience of filming her love scene with Fonda, saying, "It took two days to complete the scene. By that time I had begun to know Henry Fonda!"