John Houseman - Writer

Producer and Actor. Nationality: American. Born: Jacques Haussmann in Bucharest, Romania, 22 September 1902; emigrated to the United States, 1925; naturalized, 1943. Education: Attended Clifton College, Bristol, England, 1911–18. Family: Married 1) the actress

John Houseman
John Houseman
Zita Johan, 1929 (divorced 1932); 2) Joan Courtney, 1950; sons: John and Charles. Career: 1921—apprentice in wheat brokerage firm, London; 1925—representative of Continental Grain Corporation, New York; 1929–30—director, Oceanic Grain Corporation; stage director and producer since the 1930s ( Four Saints in Three Acts , 1934; Hamlet , 1936; King Lear , 1951; Clarence Darrow , 1974; and operas Othello , 1963; Tosca , 1965; and Macbeth , 1973); 1935—head of Negro Theatre Project (part of Works Progress Authority): produced Negro Macbeth and other plays; 1937–41—co-founder, and writer and producer for Mercury Theatre, with Orson Welles; 1937–38—associate professor, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York; 1941—vice-president, David O. Selznick Productions; 1941–43—overseas radio programmer, Office of War Information; 1943–46—film producer, Paramount; 1947—founded Hollywood Film Society; 1947–49—producer at RKO; 1949—founded Media Productions; 1950–56—producer at MGM; 1956–59—producer, CBS-TV, including Seven Lively Arts series, 1958–59; 1956–69—artistic director, American Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Connecticut; 1959–63—director, professional theatre group, University of California, Los Angeles; 1963—first film acting role, in Seven Days in May ; 1967—director, Drama Division, Juilliard School, New York; 1967–69—producing director, A.P.A. Repetory Company, Phoenix Theatre, 1969–70, and City Center Acting Company, 1972–75; 1971–72—Cockefair Professor, University of Missouri, Kansas City; 1976—acted in TV mini-series Captains and the Kings , and in Washington behind Closed Doors , 1977, Aspen , 1977, The French Atlantic Affair , 1979, Marco Polo , 1982, The Winds of War 1983, and A.D. , 1986. Awards: Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for The Paper Chase , 1973. Died: 31 October 1988.

Films as Producer:


First Tuesday in November (Berry—short); The Unseen (Allen) (assoc); The Blue Dahlia (Marshall)


Miss Susie Slagle's (Berry) (assoc)


Letter from an Unknown Woman (OphĂĽls); They Live by Night ( The Twisted Road; Your Red Wagon ) (Ray)


The Company She Keeps (Cromwell)


On Dangerous Ground (Ray)


Holiday for Sinners (Mayer); The Bad and the Beautiful (Minnelli)


Julius Caesar (Mankiewicz); Executive Suite (Wise); Her Twelve Men (Leonard)


Moonfleet (F. Lang); The Cobweb (Minnelli)


Lust for Life (Minnelli)


All Fall Down (Frankenheimer); Two Weeks in Another Town (Minnelli)


In the Cool of the Day (Stevens)


Voyage to America (Jackson—short) (+ sc)


This Property Is Condemned (Pollack)


Gideon's Trumpet (Collins) (exec, + ro)


Choices of the Heart (Sargent) (co-exec)

Films as Actor:


Seven Days in May (Frankenheimer)


The Paper Chase (Bridges)


Rollerball (Jewison); Three Days of the Condor (Pollack); Fear on Trial (Johnson)


St. Ives (Lee Thompson); Circle (Seidelman); Six Characters in Search of an Author (Keach); Truman at Potsdam (Schaefer); Hazard's People (Szwarc)


Old Boyfriends (Tewkesbury); The Cheap Detective (Moore); The Paper Chase (Hardy)


The Fog (Carpenter); The Last Convertible (Trikonis, Swerling,and Hayers)


Wholly Moses! (Weis); My Bodyguard (Bill); A Christmas without Snow (Korty); The Babysitter (Medak)


Ghost Story (Irvin)


Bells ( Murder By Phone ) (Anderson)


The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Span- ish Civil War


A.D. (Cooper—for TV)


Gore Vidal's Lincoln (Johnson—for TV); Another Woman (Allen); The Naked Gun (Zucker); Scrooged (Donner)


By HOUSEMAN: books—

With Jack Landau, The American Shakespeare Festival: The Birth of a Theatre , New York, 1959.

Run-through: A Memoir , New York, 1972.

Front and Center , New York, 1979.

Final Dress , New York, 1984.

Entertainers and the Entertained: Essays on Theatre, Film, and Television , New York, 1986.

Unfinished Business , New York, 1986.

By HOUSEMAN: articles—

"Hollywood Faces the Fifties," in Harper's (New York), April and May 1950.

"How—and What—Does a Movie Communicate," in Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television (Berkeley, California), Spring 1956.

Interview with Penelope Houston, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1962.

Film Comment (New York), March-April 1975.

Millimeter (New York), June 1975.

Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1986.

On HOUSEMAN: articles—

The Christian Science Monitor , 16 December 1952.

"Ten Stars at Work on Executive Suite ," in The Christian Science Monitor , 10 November 1953.

"John Houseman on the Video Front: A Producer's Day at Playhouse '90 ," in The Christian Science Monitor , 23 December 1958.

National Film Theatre booklet (London), April-May 1973.

Cinématographe (Paris), May 1984.

Obituary, in Variety (New York), 2 November 1988.

Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 414, December 1988.

* * *

In terms of versatility, scope, and intensity of achievement, John Houseman's was one of the most extraordinary careers in the history of American drama. Theatrical director and producer in New York (and later in Los Angeles and Stratford, Connecticut), motion picture and television producer in Hollywood, he gained popular fame near the end of his life as an actor in films, TV, and commercials and as the author of a best-selling three-volume autobiography comparable in its irony and cultural awareness to The Education of Henry Adams . Infused into these various intersecting activities were qualities of resolute zest and magisterial charm.

His French father died when he was 15. After leaving school, he found his mother's finances in such poor shape that he turned down a prestigious scholarship at Trinity College, Oxford. He was then shipped off to Argentina, where a family friend trained him in grain marketing. He pursued this in England and the U.S. for eight years with increasing success, then was wiped out by the 1929 stock market crash. Responding to his own yearning for creative outlets, Houseman wrote and translated plays, but had indifferent luck until Virgil Thomson offered him in 1934 the chance to direct an experimental Gertrude Stein opera for which he had written the music, Four Saints in Three Acts . Houseman used black actors in the production, and when a Federal Theater for blacks was proposed as a WPA relief project, he was named head of it. By 1937, he and Orson Welles were running something called the Mercury Theatre, whose controversial and popular productions ranged from a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar to the shocking newsreel-style radio version of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds , which caused thousands of listeners to believe Martians had landed.

This scandal carried both of them to Hollywood. After various false starts at RKO, Welles persuaded Houseman to work with Herman Mankiewicz in developing a script which became Citizen Kane —a writing-editing feat that was long one of the best-kept secrets in Hollywood history. After Pearl Harbor, Houseman resigned from David O. Selznick Productions to work for the U.S. government as head of radio for the Office of War Information in New York City. Toward the end of the war he produced his first film, also for the OWI, a documentary on the voting booth called First Tuesday in November .

Soon after, he was back on the west coast, switching to the opposite side of the spectrum with a Raymond Chandler film noir , The Blue Dahlia . In 1952 he was able to carry off a movie about movie making; The Bad and the Beautiful won several Oscars and established him at MGM and in Hollywood as someone who knew the ropes. In this film, as in his other collaborations with Vincente Minnelli ( The Cobweb , Lust for Life , Two Weeks in Another Town ), Houseman's taste and toughness were dominant. The black-and-white Julius Caesar drew on his Shakespearean expertise in a way Joseph Mankiewicz could not match. Executive Suite , one of the rare films actually dealing with American business practices, prompted an assessment by a Christian Science Monitor interviewer, which Houseman accepted, that he was deeply interested in the uses of power—in business, in Roman history, and in Hollywood.

He was unable to apply any of the levers of power at Metro, however, after the departure of former writer Dore Schary as head of production. Instead, Houseman turned his talents to television, producing (at CBS) a series called The Seven Lively Arts based on the Gilbert Seldes book and several 90-minute shows on that last great effort of TV drama, Playhouse 90 .

Then, as before, he went back to the stage, as director or producer, on Broadway and in regional centers. In bewildering succession—and sometimes simultaneously—he ran the Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut and a professional theater at UCLA, and directed the first actors' training program at the Juilliard School (1967–76), inventing the Acting Company for its graduates, which continues to tour the country.

Houseman also entered upon his final career as an actor, notably as the crusty law professor in The Paper Chase , a movie and a TV series. The role was not unlike the man, some associates felt, but perhaps this was his prerogative as a master of several languages, a wide-ranging reader and traveler, and one of the most cultivated men ever to bear the title of producer in Hollywood.

—Richard Dyer MacCann

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