Journalists reveled in describing him: The mouth, “a thin grim line.” The eyes, “cold-poached.” The nose, “imperial.” And oh, yes, the voice. “When he spoke,” one critic noted, “he had roughly the authority of God, and probably the same eyebrows.”
John Houseman, who last week, at 86, succumbed to spinal cancer at his home in Malibu, enjoyed his reputation as a curmudgeon. He “earrrrnned” it. The slogan he first intoned on TV for Smith Barney in the late ’70s made him the supreme pitchman of probity. He had honed his magisterial style when he made his acting debut at 71 as blueblood law professor Charles Kingsfield in the 1973 film The Paper Chase, for which he won an Oscar. From 1978 to 1986 he repeated the role on the TV series. Houseman knew the public confused him with Kingsfield: “People don’t know who I am from a hole in the ground.”
He was, in fact, something much rarer than he seemed. Born in Rumania, the son of a Jewish-Alsatian grain speculator and a Welsh-Irish mother, he was educated at a private school in England but skipped college. In 1924 he moved to New York to work in the grain business. But after the 1929 market crash he switched to theatrical pursuits. With Orson Welles, he founded the Mercury Theatre and co-wrote the infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. In Hollywood, he collaborated on the 1941 Welles masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Then, after a row with Welles, he sought some unreflected glory. He produced 18 postwar films, among them Julius Caesar. In 1967 he headed the drama division at Juilliard, which spawned the Acting Company, a touring troupe whose alumni include Kevin Kline and Robin Williams. “It’s the closest thing we have to a national repertory theater,” he said with pride.
In 1950 Houseman wed socialite Joan Courtney. (He was divorced from actress Zita Johann in 1933.) He and Courtney had two sons—John, 37, an anthropologist, and Charles, 34, an artist. The stabilizing marriage was a comfort for a man whose four autobiographies detail his “fear of life,” his “preoccupation with money” and his “lust for power.” So Professor Kingsfield, that Anglo-Saxon monument, wasn’t the half of it. Houseman saw himself simply as “a Jewish boy who was lucky to make good.” In that, and much more, he succeeded.