John Houseman's fame comes the old-fashioned way: he earns it
Not much fazes him. The day of this interview in Boston, John Houseman, the crisp and dapper octogenarian, had scheduled interviews with four newspapers and a radio and a television station; two book-signings; and a lecture. At 3 o'clock he wasn't even winded.Skip to next paragraph
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This pace is not rare. Mr. Houseman has spent much of his life in the performing arts, mostly as director and producer, lately as actor, and as he says in his three-part autobiography (''Run-through,'' ''Front and Center,'' and the recently released ''Final Dress,'' from Simon & Schuster), he is happiest when juggling several projects.
Today he is known for his portrayal of the dignified Dr. Kingsfield in the TV series ''The Paper Chase'' (he also played him in the film of the same name) and as the equally dignified spokesman on a commercial for Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co., the securities firm.
Houseman, to paraphrase his commercial, has made his late-appearing fame the old-fashioned way - he's earned it. It is a culmination of a 50-year career in theater, radio, film, and television - his entry in Who's Who covers more than half a page, much longer than normal. A 41/2-year partnership with the equally indefatigable Orson Welles yielded the Federal Theatre's Negro Theatre Project and Project No. 891, the Mercury Theatre, and the notorious ''War of the Worlds'' radio broadcast. During World War II, he worked for the Voice of America. He started six theaters and founded the drama division at the Juilliard School of Performing Arts. He produced a dozen major Hollywood films. And around age 50 he found time to marry and raise a family.
And yet the man who has accomplished all this, and whose imperious manner regularly causes law students in ''The Paper Chase'' to quake in their cordovans , says in his autobiography, ''For anyone as frightened of life as I was . . . .'' How could anyone who considered himself frightened of life do these things? Houseman leaned back into a soft chair in his yellow room at the Ritz-Carlton and replied.
''The people that do reckless things are the ones who are scared stiff - you get up the courage and the energy to do it. If you're feeling confident, you're going to play it safe and you don't have to take those chances,'' he says.
For all his stated fears, Houseman has certainly taken chances. Faced with the choice of accepting a scholarship to study languages at the prestigious Trinity College in Cambridge or leaping into unknown Argentina to learn about the international grain business, he chose the latter. That led him into a short-lived roller coaster of a career in the grain trade, from which he emerged bankrupt - and ready for his real love, the theater.
This was during the depression, and looking back from his vantage point of a half-century in the business, it was a heady time for theater. ''(The audiences) wanted their lives to be changed, so they gravitated toward anything which offered them a hope of a change, or gave them some vista into a change.''
This was particularly true in his and Orson Welles's Federal Theatre production in 1937 of Marc Blitzstein's play with music, ''The Cradle Will Rock.'' Because of the inflammatory nature of the play, the Work Projects Administration, which was responsible for Project 891, shut down the production. After a last-minute scramble for another theater, the production found one at 7: 40 the night of its first public preview. By 9:05, the play opened to a packed house, attracted largely by word of mouth. Without sets, costumes, properties, or union musicians (who struck), the few actors remaining (whose WPA salaries were jeopardized by their appearing in this banned show) sidestepped the injunction by performing from their seats in the audience.