Fun with Ken and Jane: When Cockrel Sr. met Fonda

Looking to catch up on my reading, I dipped into a growing pile of recent New Yorker magazines last night and pulled out the May 9 issue. Though not usually big on celebrity profiles, I got to Hilton Als’ in-depth piece about Jane Fonda and dove in. About midway through, I found an unexpected local connection.

No, it wasn’t info about Jane’s marriage to leftist radical Tom Hayden, a Detroit native who gained notoriety as a founder of SDS at University of Michigan and leader of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era. Having lived in California during the 1980s, I knew all about the Hayden-Fonda connection.

What did catch me by surprise, though, was Fonda’s mention of the late Ken Cockrel Sr., the firebrand leftist lawyer and onetime Detroit City Council member. As it turns out, Cockrel played a pivotal role in the direction Fonda’s life took at a crucial juncture.

It was 1971, and at the age of 32, Fonda, having waded ever deeper into progressive causes, was giving serious consideration to abandoning her acting career.

“The discrepancy between her life and the lives of the people she was championing made her more and more uncomfortable,” is the way Als describes her state of mind at the time.

For Fonda, it was a critical point.

“And I remember I was thinking, OK, I’m not going to do movies anymore.”

That might have been it. Except

“But I became friends with Ken Cockrel, who was a black revolutionary lawyer. And he said, ‘The revolution needs movie stars. That’s a responsibility.’ And that’s when I started thinking about my career differently: it’s about how I do the work, what I choose to do, and, hopefully, taking charge of what I do.”

A few years later, she went on to win an Oscar for her starring role in Coming Home, a powerful antiwar drama directed by Hal Ashby.

And that, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story.


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