Nearly twenty years after the release of John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), John Steinbeck, author of the novel on which the film was based, sat down and played a 16 mm print of the film on his home projector. Reluctant to watch the film again for fear it would be dated, Steinbeck was immediately hooked at the sight of Henry Fonda: "Then a lean stringy dark-faced piece of electricity walked out on the screen, and he had me. I believed my own story again". Producer Darryl Zanuck had initially wanted to cast Tyrone Power but Fonda was Steinbeck's first choice from the start, his portrayal of Tom Joad being everything the author had hoped for.
(Incidentally, Steinbeck and Fonda were good friends. At the author's funeral in 1968, Fonda read Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem Ulysses.)
November 20, 1958Dear Hank,It is strange but perhaps explainable that I find myself very often with a picture of you in front of my mind, when I am working on a book. I think I know the reason for this. Recently I ran a 16 mm print of The Grapes of Wrath that Kazan had stolen from Twentieth Century Fox. It's a wonderful picture, just as good as it ever was. It doesn't look dated, and very few people have ever made a better one — and I think that's where you put your mark on me. You will remember also that when I was writing Sweet Thursday* I had you always in mind as the prototype of Doc. And I think that one of my sharp bitternesses is that due to circumstances personality-wise and otherwise beyond our control you did not play it when it finally came up. I think it might have been a different story if you had.
Now I am working on another story, and again I find that you are the prototype. I think it might interest you. It will be a short novel and then possibly a motion picture, possibly a play — I don't know. But it's just the character and the story that remind me so much of you that I keep your face and figure in mind as I write it. I don't know whether you're in town or not — but if you are I wish you'd come over some evening, and maybe we can talk. I'd like that very much. And you might be very much interested in the story I am writing. It seems made for you. In fact it's being made for you — let's put it that way.
Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday was a short novel which was made into the musical Pipe Dream, written by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein. The musical premiered on Broadway in November 1955. Steinbeck discussed the part of Doc with Fonda who was interested to play it. As Fonda couldn't sing, he took singing lessons but after six months he said he "still couldn't sing for shit". Richard Rogers thought so too and the role eventually went to William Johnson, a regular Broadway actor/singer. Pipe Dream became a flop as well as a financial debacle for Rogers and Hammerstein.
Source of Steinbeck's letter: Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (1975), edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten