SANTA MONICA — Santa Monica -- When how-to video king Stuart Karl firs asked Jane Fonda to make an exercise tape, she was less than enthusiastic.
"I said, 'No way -- what is it going to do to my film career?' " Ms.
Fonda recalled. "I was dragged every step of the way."
But eventually she gave in and, 10 years after "Jane Fonda's Workout" made home-video history, it's the film career that is proving dispensable.
During a series of interviews to promote her 16th and latest exercise video, "Jane Fonda's Step Aerobic and Abdominal Workout," Ms. Fonda revealed that she's retiring from acting to devote herself to other pursuits, including her flourishing health and fitness empire. She has been bombarded with questions on the subject ever since, but her stock answer is short and to the point:
"I can't imagine giving up anything I'm doing to make a movie," she said. "Life is more interesting than a movie right now."
Seated on a sofa in a comfortable oceanfront suite at a Santa Monica hotel, Ms. Fonda at 54 doesn't look the least bit ready for retirement from anything. Slim and radiant in jeans and a denim shirt, she's still her own best advertisement for the benefits of healthy diet and exercise, not to mention mid-life romance.
When R. E. "Ted" Turner, the broadcast mogul and her husband of half a year, walked into the room, she positively lit up. It's obvious he's a major reason for her decision to give up acting in films.
"We met late in life and have a lot of catching up to do, and there's no time to do anything else," she said. "Movies take you away. Movies are hard on a marriage."
Ms. Fonda's retirement from acting, if it sticks, ends a career that began in 1960 with "Tall Story" and was, at first, heavily laden with fairly light entertainment such as "Cat Ballou" and the cult sci-fi hit, "Barbarella."
But as her own political awareness and activism increased, her films became more political. "Coming Home," in which she played a Vietnam-era Army wife who falls for a paraplegic anti-war veteran, earned her the second of her two Best Actress Oscars (the first was for "Klute," in which she played a call girl mixed up in a murder). In "The China Syndrome" she played a TV reporter who stumbles into a safety scandal at a nuclear power plant.
In between films, Ms. Fonda frequently made headlines for her off-screen life. To some critics, she will always be "Hanoi Jane," the woman who expressed her opposition to the Vietnam War by visiting the enemy. Her marriage to one-time student radical Tom Hayden and their joint activism on behalf of liberal causes only added to her visibility.
Her political profile these days is considerably lower as she remains politically active, supporting some national candidates and some in Atlanta where she now makes her home. (She no longer has a house in Los Angeles.)
Fortunately, the Santa Monica-based exercise business doesn't require her constant physical presence, as the day-to-day dealings are conducted mostly by Ms. Fonda's partner, Julie LaFond.
The business itself has changed quite a bit since Ms. Fonda started it to generate funds for the Campaign for Economic Democracy, the political organization she founded with ex-husband Hayden, a California legislator.
She began with an exercise studio, the Workout, and then a friend talked her into writing a book.
"I kept saying no, but I kept thinking, 'You know something? If I really made it personal, and I tried to tell some truths about my own journey, maybe it would be helpful.' And I never had thought of myself as a writer, so it was a real big commitment of time, but I did it anyway, and it made publishing history. It totally took me by surprise."
It was shortly after "Jane Fonda's Workout" hit the best-seller lists that Mr. Karl, at the recommendation of his wife, approached Ms. Fonda about doing a video. VCRs were few and far between at the time, and Ms. Fonda was skeptical not only because she thought it might hurt her acting career but because she thought it wouldn't make enough money to justify the effort.
"I did some research and found out the biggest-selling video had sold 25,000 copies, and I thought I could make that in one movie, and I didn't know the business anyway, so I said no," she said.
But she finally decided to give video a whirl when Mr. Karl agreed to hire as director a friend who had done political commercials.
"We did it in three days, we hardly had any rehearsal, we had no hairdressers -- when I look at how we do it now compared to then, it was funny," she said.
The tape, which was released in 1982, hit the market running and never quit, rising to the top of the best-seller lists and staying there for a long time. It eventually moved 700,000 copies, becoming the all-time best-selling home video for many years.
The exercise tape was credited with helping to create the VCR boom as women by the thousands bought the hardware to play it on.
"There was no product that you would want to use over and over and over and over and over until the 'Workout,' " Ms. Fonda said.
"It was all timing -- timing, and the Karl family realizing that this was the right thing to put on video. . . . It was quick and dirty, but it really worked."
Ms. Fonda's video line now includes workouts for just about everyone. There are low-impact aerobics videos and a workout with weight routines. There are tapes for children and pregnant women. For those seeking a less vigorous routine, there's the "Easy Going Workout"; for those in great shape, there's the "Workout Challenge."
"People always say, 'Well, why are you doing another one?' This is a repeat thing -- I mean, people use it two, three, four, five times a week, and after a year, they want new music, a few new steps. And so we do a lot of market research to determine what it is now that people want."
The new video is Ms. Fonda's second on step aerobics, which involves the use of a small platform or step.
The exercise business generated about $17 million for the Campaign for Economic Democracy before Ms. Fonda bought it back five years ago. It's now strictly devoted to tapes, books and records as opposed to the exercise studio that spawned it, which closed a year and a half ago.
In the earlier tapes, Ms. Fonda was a principal choreographer, but now most of the routines are created by staff members under Ms. LaFond's supervision and with input from Ms. Fonda and two doctors, a physiologist and a cardiologist.
Ms. Fonda, who occasionally conducted classes at the Workout studio, still does the floor exercises on the videos but no longer leads the aerobics sessions. That's not because she can't -- she still works out at least four times a week -- but because she doesn't have the time to memorize and rehearse the routines. (Each tape is about a year in the making.) Her 15 tapes have sold 9 million copies.