‘On Golden Pond’ playwright chuckles at BDN tale

Earlier this month we shared a tale sent in by a reader in response to our request for camp-related traditions and memories.

The humorous kid-makes-good story revolved around “Ernie,” who caught a salmon while fishing on a Maine lake, then returned to that lake as an adult. The elder “Ernie,” our reader told us, turned out to be Ernest Thompson, who wrote the iconic play “On Golden Pond.”

Great story … if it was true.

It didn’t take long for Thompson’s representatives to reach out and inform me that Thompson doesn’t remember any such interaction. That, in the journalism world, is a true “oops” moment. I cringed. I began crafting a correction. And then I read the rest of the email.

It turned out that Thompson, who wrote “On Golden Pond” when he was 28 years old, is now 62, and is keeping busy. He’s still acting, directing and writing. And (this is the really cool part) Thompson would be available for an interview if I was interested.

That, in the journalism world, is an “Every cloud has a silver lining” moment. Of course I was interested.

Ernest Thompson as Charlie the Mailman in Thompson’s own production of “On Golden Pond, now playing at Pitman’s Freight Room in Laconia, NH through August 12. Photo by Maureen Bieniarz-Pond

“I got a kick out of [reading the story],” Thompson said, chuckling, when we connected by phone on Tuesday afternoon. “I thought it was great. My first name is actually Richard, so anybody who would have known me in those days would have called me that. And nobody in their right mind would have called me ‘Ernie.’ I’m happy that [your reader] has memories, even if they’re not very accurate.”

Thompson said that he is often approached by people who say they’ve got links to him, or to the filming of the 1981 movie that starred Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. Henry Fonda, Hepburn and Thompson each received Oscars for their efforts on the film.

“It’s like Woodstock. In reality, I think 400,000 people went to Woodstock, but 40 million say they were there,” Thompson said. “There are so many people that now claim that they worked on ‘On Golden Pond’ that it’s a rite of honor. And that’s fine. I’m happy that’s the case. But it cracks me up sometimes.”

Among Thompson’s favorite tales: Last year a woman approached him and said her son had driven the boat that nearly runs over Henry Fonda and Hepburn at the beginning of the movie.

The actual driver of the boat: Ernest Thompson.

“At least they’re all proud of their association, real or imagined, with something that I created,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he never imagined when he wrote the play that “On Golden Pond” would turn out to be such a hit, nor that it would still resonate with fans more than three decades later.

“In my wildest dreams I hoped that maybe I could get six actor friends to sit in my living room and read it, and then tell me to go back to playing tennis,” Thompson said.

This summer, Thompson is directing a production of “On Golden Pond” at Pitman’s Freight Room in Laconia, N.H. that runs through Aug. 12.

For the first time ever, he’s acting in the play as well.

“The guy who that played [Charlie] the mailman [in last year’s production] had to take another job and I couldn’t find somebody to replace him, so I cast myself,” Thompson said. “Director’s prerogative.”

And while the role of Charlie is a fun one to play, Thompson admits that there’s another role he’s got his eye on.

“It’s all training for playing Norman some day,” he said, referring to the crusty character that Henry Fonda made famous in the movie version of “On Golden Pond.” “I’ll play that guy one day.

Ernest Thompson and Carly Simon during recording of “The Father Daughter Dance” for Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” soundtrack Photo courtesy of Ernest Thompson

“There have probably been, I don’t know, 10,000 productions of ‘On Golden Pond’ and I’ve seen more than I needed to, including Henry Fonda, James Earl Jones, the original guy on Broadway, Tom Eldredge,” Thompson said. “I’ve never seen anybody play that character exactly as I envisioned it. That doesn’t mean there weren’t some wonderful performances along the way, because there have been.”

Thompson’s take on the Norman that he created: “The guy was a college professor. I see him as having a certain larger-than-life [persona], loving being in front of a classroom, [possessing] sophistication. You can’t beat Henry Fonda, but Henry Fonda was a guy from Nebraska, I think. So he always had a kind of cowboy aspect to him. When I look at that guy as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, that’s different than my exact image.”

Thompson continues to tinker with “On Golden Pond,” and relishes the stage as a medium that allows that kind of change.

“A play, as far as I’m concerned, is fluid, and I keep changing ‘On Golden Pond’ 34 years later,” he said. “It’s my prerogative. So I’ll add stuff that sort of, I think, sharpens it.”

And while he is able to laugh at having been linked to a BDN reader during an interaction he’s certain never took place, he does have a not-so-great memory of a night spent in the Queen City about 50 years ago.

“I spent exactly one night in Bangor, and it was one of the scariest nights of my life,” said Thompson, explaining that he was living in Keene, N.H., at the time and traveled north to participate in a YMCA swim meet. The swimmers were farmed out to host families who fed them and gave them a place to sleep.

“The family seemed very nice. They put me up in the attic,” Thompson said. “Everything was great, except in the night — and I hope nobody in the family remembers this — they got into a knock-down, drag-out fight. Screaming at each other at the top of their lungs.”

And the subject of that high-volume serenade: Ernest Thompson.

“[They were saying] ‘Well, it was your stupid idea to volunteer to take this kid! I’ll never do that again!'” Thompson said. “So that was my highlight of Bangor.”


John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.