Even though Henry Fonda was one great role away from stardom, and even though Abraham Lincoln could be that role, he rejected it. As Tony Thomas’ “Complete Films of Henry Fonda” states, Fonda considered Lincoln “sacrosanct,” and was on the fence about playing a man he considered a personal hero. How did John Ford make film history by getting Fonda to take the role?

He was angry, to start with. The director who would one day make “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” miserable for everyone involved couldn’t understand Fonda’s trepidation, or at least made a show of not understanding it. It would have been a rare actor who balked at the chance to play one of history’s great figures, but here was Fonda, denying it.

In a scene out of “The Fabelmans,” Fonda nervously entered Ford’s office, “the way a recruit would go in to meet the admiral,” according to Joseph McBride’s “Searching For John Ford.” Ford began to shame him, asking in four-letter words why Fonda didn’t want the part. If Fonda’s problem was that he couldn’t play a man he worshiped, Ford ridiculed him. “You think you’d be playing the Great Emancipator? He’s a jake-legged lawyer in Springfield!”

Ford’s berating of Fonda worked. The actor signed on to play the role, and, true to Ford’s conception, his take on Lincoln is less a Great Man than a funny, mild-mannered 19th century lawyer. When he prevents a lynch mob from taking the life of an accused murderer, he does it not with esteemed dignity but a sweaty bit of charm.

Fonda ended up being a perfect fit, not just for Lincoln but for many of Ford’s classic films. If he hadn’t agreed to play Lincoln, film history would be wildly different.