Jane Fonda recounted that the scene between Chelsea and Norman (Henry Fonda) where she tells him she wants to be his friend mirrored the real-life relationship between father and daughter. During one take when the younger Fonda unexpectedly grabbed her father's hand, Henry Fonda started to cry and ducked his head away from the camera, embarrassed by his tears. The take appears in the final film.
The brown Fedora worn by Henry Fonda belonged to Spencer Tracy and was given to Fonda by Katharine Hepburn on the first day on the set. Fonda, overwhelmed with the gesture, painted a still life watercolor of the three hats he wore in the film and gave the original to Hepburn as a gift. He had 200 lithographs made of the painting and sent one to every person who worked on the film. Each copy was numbered and personally signed by Fonda thanking each person by name. In her autobiography, Hepburn wrote that she gave the painting to screenwriter Ernest Thompson. After Fonda's death, she found the painting to be a sad reminder of him and Tracy.
The movie's line "Listen to me, mister. You're my knight in shining armor. Don't you forget it. You're going to get back on that horse, and I'm going to be right behind you, holding on tight, and away we're gonna go, go, go!" was voted as the #88 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100).
"The Purgatory Cove" scene was shot in late September. To keep warm in the cold water both Doug McKeon and Henry Fonda had to wear wetsuits under their clothes. However, the water level was so low that they could have easily stood up and been only knee-deep in the lake. Katharine Hepburn was supposed to have a stunt double perform her "dive-in" scene for her, but instead she insisted on doing it herself. She dove into the frigid water without a wetsuit. Apparently, Hepburn was familiar to swimming in cold waters on the eastern coast of the USA and always regularly showered in cold water.
In the scene near the beginning of the film where Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) calls the operator to see if the phone is working, he looks at a framed family photograph on the desk and asks "Who the hell is that?" The picture shows Henry Fonda and four-year-old Jane Fonda with Fonda's real-life second wife (and Jane's real mother), Frances Seymour Brokaw.
Katharine Hepburn hurt her arm in a tennis match a few weeks before filming. She almost pulled out, but Henry Fonda convinced her to show up to start shooting on day one. One scene was omitted from the film in which you see her pick up a canoe by herself with her sore arm. She never forgave Mark Rydell for editing that scene out.
The name of the big fish that was described as humongous was "Walter the Trout". He was brought over from a local trout pond at the Castle in the Clouds in Moultonboro, New Hampshire. Billy and Norman really threw him back into the lake. People still hope to catch him, but after all these years the fish would be a distant relative.
"Gertrude", the canoe featured in the film, was included in an lot in the sale of the Estate of Katharine Hepburn during the two-day auction hosted by Sothebys in 2004. The canoe was sold for $19,200 to entertainer Wayne Newton.
Henry Fonda (Norman Thayer, Jr.) and Jane Fonda (Chelsea Thayer Wayne) were the first parent and child to receive Academy Award acting nominations for the same film. This was for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress respectively. The only other time that this has happened was when Diane Ladd and Laura Dern were both later Oscar nominated for Rambling Rose (1991).
The movie was originally intended as a vehicle for all three acting members of the Fonda family - Peter Fonda, Jane Fonda, and Henry Fonda - but no part could be found for Peter who being Jane's brother couldn't really portray her romantic partner role of Bill Ray due to the incestuous connotation - this part being cast with actor Dabney Coleman.
Henry Fonda currently holds the record for the longest gap between acting Academy Award nominations. Fonda's first Oscar nomination was for The Grapes of Wrath (1940) in 1940 whilst his second was for On Golden Pond (1981) in 1981, 41 years later. He received one other Oscar nomination in the period between his two acting nominations, that was for Best Picture producer of 12 Angry Men (1957) in 1957. Fonda won his Best Actor Oscar in 1982 for his final theatrical film performance in On Golden Pond (1981). Fonda the previous year in 1981 had won an Honorary Oscar for: "The consummate actor, in recognition of his brilliant accomplishments and enduring contribution to the art of motion pictures".
Charges were set at the front of the Thayer's boat so that it blew up prior to hitting the big rock in Purgatory Cove. The vintage wooden U22-Sportsman Chris-Craft boat proved so durable that it bounced off the rocks without any damage during the early takes of the scene.
Troy Garity, son of Jane Fonda, and grandson of Henry Fonda has a small uncredited role in this film, as a young boy on a jetty. It was the only time that young Garity worked with his grandfather Hank Fonda. Jane Fonda's appearance here with her son Troy Garity and dad Henry Fonda has marked the only ever time three generations of Fondas have appeared in the same movie.
The dead loon appears to be coated with crude oil when the boy first lifts it out of the water; this movie was made just five years after the infamous disaster with the Argo Merchant oil-tanker, raising public awareness of this growing and extremely serious environmental hazard.
The original Broadway production of the film's source "On Golden Pond" stage play opened at the New Apollo Theater in New York on 28th February 21 1979 (after five previews starting on the 21st of that month) and ran for 126 performances until it closed on 16th June 1979. The roles of Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) and Ethel Thayer (Katharine Hepburn) were played on Broadway by Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen respectively. The latter was nominated for the 1979 Tony Award (New York City) for Best Actress in a Play, the only member of this Broadway stage production's cast and crew to get Tony nominated.
Henry Fonda's second best actor Academy Award nomination and only ever win in this category except for an Honorary Oscar awarded to Fonda the previous year for "the consummate actor, in recognition of his brilliant accomplishments and enduring contribution to the art of motion pictures".
The film's source published play written by Ernest Thompson states as its setting in the introduction as: "The Thayers' summer home on Golden Pond in Maine" / "The living room of a summer home on Golden Pond, in Maine. The Present". The film though is set in New England in the USA but was actually filmed in New Hampshire, USA.
The picture was Universal's big American Christmas release in the USA for 1981 though the film was also distributed in some territories by 20th Century Fox. Conan the Barbarian (1982) was supposed to have the yuletide time-slot instead, but when Universal deemed the film too violent for a Christmas release, it was pushed back for a later release in 1982.
Final theatrical feature film of actor and star Henry Fonda. This picture was also the penultimate film and television production of Fonda whose final film was the made for television Summer Solstice (1981). On Golden Pond (1981) is not about a summer solstice but is about a summer vacation at the title's location.
The names of the significant boats seen in the film on golden pond included the small canoe "Gertrude", the "U.S. Mail" delivery boat, a vintage 1951 mahogany "Chris Craft" motor boat, and the classic motor launch vessel the "Thayer IV".