Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda will receive the AFI Life Achievement Award. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times / June 2, 2014)

It's hard to think of someone in public life who has had more disparate phases and identities than Jane Fonda.

There's the brilliant actress (and daughter of a Hollywood legend), the polarizing political activist, the exercise maven, the rich celebrity wife, and now, once again, the working actress. Fonda admits that this last phase — what she calls her "third act" — has taken her by surprise.

"It's much more than I ever expected," she said. "There are a lot of firsts in my third act."

Whatever the role, Fonda invests it with fierce determination and ambition, so it's not surprising that the age-defying 76-year-old hit the ground running when she returned to acting, after a 15-year sabbatical, in the 2005 comedy hit "Monster-in-Law" and hasn't looked back.

After wowing the red carpet with her stunning looks at the recent Cannes Film Festival as an ambassador for L'Oreal, she went to Switzerland to play an 80-year-old diva in "Youth," for Paolo Sorrentino, who directed the Oscar-winning Italian film "The Great Beauty." Earlier this year, Fonda made "Fathers and Daughters" with Russell Crowe ("He just knocked my socks off") and will be seen this fall with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman in "This Is Where I Leave You."

In August, she and her "9 to 5" costar Lily Tomlin begin filming the new Netflix series "Grace and Frankie," and she's returning for at least one episode in her role as the powerful owner of a cable news network in HBO's "The Newsroom," for which she received an Emmy nomination.

On Thursday, Fonda is receiving one of her hometown's most prestigious honors — the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award — at the Dolby Theatre. She is only the eighth actress to receive the award. Her father, Henry Fonda, won it back in 1978.

AFI President and Chief Executive Bob Gazzale said the honor is for "work that has stood the test of time.... One of the gifts of honoring somebody like Jane is the ability to go back and revisit the work. 'They Shoot Horses, Don't They?' is the film that really hit me."

An edited version of the show will air June 14 on TNT and in August on TCM. Among those paying tribute will be brother Peter Fonda, Michael Douglas, Meryl Streep, Catherine Keener, Sally Field and Penny Marshall.

Even after a lifetime of honors, Fonda is thrilled with receiving the AFI salute. "If you had asked me three years ago if I thought this was in my future, I would say I can't even hope for such a thing," she said." In fact, she said she was so moved when she learned of the honor last fall, "I burst into tears."

The award, she said, "is not for one film. It's for a body of work. It's very competitive and very important, serious longtime heavyweights in the industry make the decision about who gets it. It's like a major stamp of approval and respect from your industry peers."

Looking at the scope of Fonda's far-flung career, Gazzale notes: "Hers is an epic adventure."

Strasberg's verdict

Fonda thinks of her career as an endless process of reinvention. She admits with a laugh that when she sees her earliest films, such as 1960's "Tall Story" and 1962's "The Chapman Report," "I think 'Who is that person?' I don't recognize her. I really didn't know what I was doing."

Ironically, Fonda never really wanted to follow in her father's footsteps. And if not for landmark acting teacher Lee Strasberg, she probably wouldn't have.

It was Strasberg who told her she was talented. "I needed someone who was not a parent or an employee of a parent to say, which he did, 'Wow, you have got something.' My life changed. That was a big deal. That was when I committed myself."

That commitment led to her becoming perhaps the leading American actress of her generation. She won lead actress Oscars for 1971's "Klute" and 1978's "Coming Home," as well as nominations for 1969's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," 1977's "Julia," 1979's "The China Syndrome," 1981's "On Golden Pond" and 1986's "The Morning After."

But she wasn't happy.

"I didn't know who I was or where I was going," said Fonda. "I'd really kind of gone off the track and I can't act when I feel that way. So I left."

She was divorced from second husband Tom Hayden in 1990 and moved to Atlanta in 1991 when she married media mogul Ted Turner.