Rolling a pair of cold poached eyes, the crusty old gentleman brandishes his famous handlebar sneer at the skeleton of a 66-foot 8-inch brontosaurus in New York’s American Museum of Natural History. “In a changing environment,” he mutters disdainfully as he saunters toward the TV camera, “it’s a matter of brains—not brawn. Smith Barney. They make money the old-fashioned way.” And then, pushing his sour old puss up close to the lens, he releases the last three words of his message like an irritated burp: “They EARRRRRNNN it!”
Only someone who has spent the last five years growing breadfruit in the jungles of central Borneo could possibly fail to recognize the subject of the preceding paragraph. His name is John Houseman, and his commercials for Smith Barney, Puritan Oil and Plymouth cars have made him the most effective and (at his current rate of six 30-second spots for $250,000) one of the most lavishly remunerated pitchmen on the tube. But John Houseman is a pitchman only in the sense that Margaret Thatcher is a housewife—it’s something else that matters.
What matters is that Houseman is a national treasure. For a full half century he has pursued one of the most daring, versatile and creative careers in the history of the lively arts.
In the theater, Houseman has directed a dozen superb productions (Lute Song, Pantagleize, King Lear, Coriolanus), established nine theater companies (among them the brilliant Mercury Theatre and the currently thriving Acting Company) and created and directed one of the most prestigious of all U.S. drama schools at Juilliard.
In Hollywood he collaborated with Herman Mankiewicz on the screenplay of Citizen Kane, perhaps the greatest American movie, and produced eight significant films that won a total of seven Oscars out of 20 nominations.
In radio, during the brief “golden age” of the medium in the late ’30s, he co-produced The Mercury Theatre on the Air, wrote most of the programs himself, and collaborated with Orson Welles and Howard Koch on the most horrifyingly effective radio program of all time: The War of the Worlds, a version of the H.G. Wells story about a Martian invasion of the earth that caused a nationwide panic. Later, during World War II, he set up the Voice of America and directed it for 18 months.
And then at 71, just when he thought all his careers were over, Houseman suddenly became a media personality. As Professor Kingsfield in both the film version of The Paper Chase and the CBS-TV series it inspired, he advocated the old-fashioned virtues of hard work and ruthless honesty with a force and conviction that stamped him on the public mind (according to the casting director of a major advertising agency) as “the next most credible spokesman after Walter Cronkite.” Says Houseman: “Professor Kingsfield came along at exactly the right time. After Watergate, people wanted a strong authority figure to look up to, somebody who reasserted the basic virtues. I was in luck.”
Houseman has exploited his luck with an energy almost incredible in a man who turned 80 less than four months ago. In the last three years he has grossed between $1.5 million and $2 million for about a month of work on 30-odd TV commercials and has banked another bundle for appearing in half a dozen movies (Three Days of the Condor, Rollerball), a TV special (NBC’s Truman at Potsdam) and two miniseries (NBC’s Marco Polo and ABC’s upcoming The Winds of War). He has also made a tidy living on the side by delivering an average of four lectures, speeches or readings a month (at about $5,000 a shot) in cities and colleges all over the country.
In his spare time, working without pay, he has made all major production decisions for an elite off-Broadway theater group called the Acting Company. And Houseman for years has found time almost every day to scribble off three or four pages of his autobiography—volume three (Final Dress) will be out in the spring. Last week, on top of all this, Houseman was putting in a 50-hour week on a Hollywood sound stage, where he was playing Professor Kingsfield in seven new episodes of The Paper Chase—also scheduled for 1983 release, this time on Showtime, a national pay cable service.
What keeps the old boy going? “Fear of boredom,” says Houseman. “Lust for life!” says a friend. “He loves it all—the new faces and places, the sexy women who cluster around him, the exciting flow of ideas, the hurry and scurry of success, the heads that turn and stare after him on the street, the adrenaline rush of power. He gobbles it all up like a great meal.”
But there are darker sources of Houseman’s astonishing drive.
“I would say that one of the fundamental emotions in my life has been—terror. Sheer terror,” Houseman says.
The man who speaks these words is dressed in an expensive suit and housed in a spacious suite in one of Manhattan’s most discreetly elegant hotels. He looks anything but terrified—and hardly anything like Professor Kingsfield. Both in face and figure he looks younger, taller, pinker, livelier, softer, warmer, nicer. But he has Kingsfield’s arrogant imperial profile and seems no less massively intelligent, authoritative and mysterious.
Terror began early in Houseman’s childhood, which was spent on a breathtaking emotional and economic roller coaster. He was born out of wedlock in Rumania, the son of a Jewish-Alsatian grain speculator named Georges Haussmann and a Welsh-Irish girl named May Davies. They married when Jacques was 5 and brought him up speaking French, English, German and Rumanian.
Father Georges, Houseman has reported, went “from riches to ruin and back again” with jarring regularity. It was a rough ride that ended with a rude jolt: At 7, Jacques was shipped off to a British public school, where he learned about “loneliness in all its icy, corrosive horror”—a loneliness that deepened when his father died eight years later. French to the English, English to the French, half Jew among Christians, half Christian among Jews, Jacques came to see the world as a place in which he must play many roles. Theater became his passion and his refuge. At 18, he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge with a supercharged essay on opera.
But his mother, low on funds, insisted he follow in his father’s footsteps as a grain merchant. Another dip of the roller coaster, but Jacques kept his eye on the main chance. At 27, he set up his own trading company with a London partner and began to wheel and deal with skill and daring in the Chicago Wheat Pit. Soon he had a princely income of $25,000 a year and a Broadway actress named Zita Johann as his roommate and then, for about three years, as his wife. But in 1930, not long after the market crashed, Jacques’s company went down the tubes.
With nothing to lose, Haussmann changed his name to Houseman and eased himself into show business.
“Orson Welles was a chemical phenomenon, a monstrous child of incredible precocity.”
Houseman was addressing an audience of theater buffs in Phoenix, Ariz., and for more than two hours he held them spellbound with stories about his impassioned partnership with a teenage genius.
Houseman first laid eyes on Welles in 1934, when he played Tybalt in Katharine Cornell’s Romeo and Juliet. Suddenly there appeared on the stage “a figure obscene and terrible” with a “pale pudding face…violent black eyes [and] a voice that tore like a high wind” through the theater. Houseman arranged a meeting, and their historic collaboration began.
“For all my ambition and arrogance,” Houseman said recently, “I was perfectly happy to serve genius. I am a natural collaborator.” Much more than commonplace collaboration was involved. “Welles was the great love affair of John’s life,” says a friend who knew them both. “Passion, longing, anger, despair—they had everything together except sex.”
Welles was a volcano in constant eruption. Houseman alone could stand up to his violent, self-destructive explosions and channel the white-hot flow of his visions. They had gargantuan quarrels—during one of them, Welles drove Houseman from a restaurant with a barrage of flaming Sterno cans. But they both loved the adrenaline rushes and loved even more what all their frenzies generated.
So did the public. In less than six years, the twosome created seven smash hits, four of them (the “Voodoo” Macbeth, The Cradle Will Rock, Doctor Faust us, Julius Caesar) among the most imaginative productions in U.S. theatrical history, one of them (Citizen Kane) a movie masterpiece.
By 1940 the Welles was far gone in grandeur, and Houseman refused to play the subordinate. Soy separated—and Houseman’s career immediately foundered. In watering the mad beanstalk of his partner’s talent, he had neglected his own creative garden. A child of contradictions had become a man without a theme. Some of the early films Houseman produced in Hollywood have style, but the style is not his. And his personal life was a continual if luscious chaos.
A friend reports that one day during this period he had lunch with Houseman in an expensive restaurant. All at once Houseman said: “I’m afraid I must leave. I’ve slept with six women in this room.”—”But there are only eight women in the room!” the friend protested.—”I know!” Houseman replied.
Of all his affairs the most tattled about was the one he had with Joan Fontaine in the mid-’40s. “She was an adorable mistress,” he confides in his autobiography. “Childish, sweet-smelling, elegant, calculating, sophisticated, lecherous, innocent and faithless.” Furthermore, “to be known from coast to coast as the lover of [a star] gave me a satisfaction and a self-assurance for which I was sincerely grateful.”
Though without wealth and celebrity, the woman who brought Houseman’s life into focus had extraordinary character and style. Her name was Joan Courtney, and when they met she was the estranged wife of a French nobleman, the Comte de Foucauld. Cultivated, beautiful, practical and wise, Joan has given John two sons (John Michael, 31, an anthropologist, and Charles Sebastian, 28, a painter), a succession of 20 gracious homes, and a calm emotional center around which his public life has gyrated like a hurricane for 34 years.
Almost immediately after his marriage to Joan, Houseman signed on at MGM, and his career began a steep climb that in five years carried him through The Bad and the Beautiful, Julius Caesar, Executive Suite and Lust for Life to a level of reputation and income ($125,000 a year) that all but guaranteed permanent prosperity.
Suddenly, Houseman was bored. Why? Because, he once explained, he is “more interested … in the conquest of my own terror than in the fruits of victory…. Whenever I was not facing overwhelming obstacles…despairing emptiness came over me.”
So at 53, to the horror of friends and family, Houseman quit MGM and went to work for a pittance as artistic director of the new American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Conn.
Since then Houseman has plunged on from dazzling success (at Stratford and as a producer of superb TV drama for CBS’ Playhouse 90) to fumbling failure (a clutch of uninspired Hollywood movies) and back to success again.
In 1968, at the age of 66, Houseman launched the enterprise he considers his “most significant and lasting achievement”: the Juilliard drama division. Among the “variegated, brilliant and troublesome” collection of students who attended the school: William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, Elizabeth McGovern, Mandy Patinkin, Christopher Reeve, David Ogden Stiers, Robin Williams.
Four years later Houseman founded the Acting Company, a repertory group staffed mostly by Juilliard graduates that in 10 years has performed 45 plays in 42 states and now tours 34 weeks a year. Says Houseman proudly: “It’s the closest thing we have to a national repertory theater.”
Houseman and his wife live in a glass house in Malibu. It sits at the edge of a cliff that falls about 400 feet to the sea, and as the waves roll in, the whole house seems to be sailing out over the Pacific like a big bubble. The living room is so vast a visitor scarcely notices the 36-foot swimming pool tucked in one corner.
Up at 6 in the morning, Houseman makes breakfast for two: a pot of fragrant tea and a plate of croissants. By 7, when not roaring off to 20th Century-Fox in his Plymouth compact (“The man drives like a teenage maniac,” says a frequent and frightened passenger), Houseman is on the phone to New York. Then he writes, reads scripts, gives interviews, badgers his brokers (yes, Smith Barney is one of them), and answers letters until 11 o’clock, when Joan brings him a glass of black velvet (champagne and stout).
Lunch is the big meal of the day. Joan cooks it. Houseman washes the dishes. In the evening he eats a light supper (cottage cheese and fruit) in bed and is usually asleep by 9:30.
The man is in roaring good health. Age has not withered his erotic proclivities—a year or two ago, as he entered the Rubens room of a museum he was heard to exclaim: “Oh boy! Here come the tits and asses!” As for his mind, it hasn’t lost a step. His knowledge is encyclopedic, and what he knows he manipulates imperiously. “Don’t try to beat him in an argument,” says a producer. “He has more moves than a basket of snakes.”
Having finished his autobiography, Houseman now talks of writing a “caustic and quarrelsome book” about what’s happening to modern society. “We are in an unbelievable slump of mediocrity, timidity and greed,” he brays indignantly. “In business, in politics, in television, in film, in publishing—it’s the same everywhere. The preoccupation with profits is base, an appalling threat to our culture. Show business and the auto business are going down the same rat hole. The numbers game is the only game in town, and when that happens incredible imbecilities ensue. People buy bestsellers simply because they are bestsellers. Or buy grotesquely expensive tickets to a hit show simply because it’s a hit show. God, how I loathe and detest the commercial theater! We are creating a populace that swarms mindlessly, like bees. Where are our values, our dreams, our ideals? What’s happening to the human spirit?”
It is alive and well and living in John Houseman. When asked how he feels about old age, he smiles and shrugs. “I deny its existence.” And death? “John has a lot of power in that area,” says a friend. “When he reaches 95 or 96, he’ll decide when to die. And he’ll go down with all cannons firing.”