John Houseman's fame comes the old-fashioned way: he earns it
Boston — 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.
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.
The crowd went wild, he recalls in ''Run-through.'' ''It was past midnight before we could clear the theatre.'' The next day, this ''runaway opera,'' as it was called, made the front pages.
''There was a great deal of hope,'' Houseman recalls. ''There was an enormous humanitarian feeling that the world was going to be a better place.''
Because he was involved with shows like ''Cradle,'' one can understand if his nostrils have a tendency to flare just like Dr. Kingsfield's when he talks about the tepid climate of today's culture.
''Except for possibly certain aspects of architecture, (culturally) it's a very dead time. (Audiences) just want to be involved in whatever happens to be the biggest, the most numerous, and the most successful. It's an obsession . . .. even if they can't understand it, can't read it, don't like it. It doesn't matter. Nobody wants their lives to be changed. They're as happy as a clam.''
What is needed to wake people up? ''Oh, I don't know. Some catastrophe,'' he jokes.
Houseman makes light of catastrophe, perhaps because he's seen so many of them turn into successes. One of them was his first production, ''Four Saints in Three Acts,'' the Gertrude Stein-Virgil Thomson opera.
''Exactly fifty hours before the opening,'' he writes, ''the fire marshal entered the theatre, walked up to our highly publicized cellophane cyclorama, took out a penknife, cut off a strip, set a match to it, and dropped it just in time to save his hand from being burned. One minute later, while the flames from the bit of glue and cellophane were still licking the stage floor, he left the building, having condemned every single physical element of our production - our sky, our sunburst, our arch, our grass mats and our tarlatan trees.''
What to do? Someone suggested a chemical substance called ''water-glass,'' which was hurriedly brushed on the hundreds of square feet of cellophane and mesh. The fire marshal applied a blowtorch, approved, and the show went up.
While certain aspects of performing arts dismay Houseman, he is pleased with others. For a man who started a classical repertory company in New York City in the '30s, today's interest in Shakespeare and the classics is a good sign.
''There's a great deal of Shakespearean production going on all over the country,'' he notes. ''Also, it's no longer a curiosity. Anybody who is interested in theater is automatically concerned with the performances of Shakespeare. By the late '20s, '30s, and '40s there were very few professional productions of Shakespeare going on in this country. On Broadway you were lucky if you had one a season. That's quite different now because of the regional theaters and Off Broadway theaters where everybody is involved. And Shakespeare is regarded as inspiration, as an illustration, as part of living theater.''
Today, while Houseman may not be as directly involved in living theater as he has been in the past, neither is he taking a breather.
''Tomorrow I'm doing a Smith Barney commercial,'' he says. ''The day after I'm doing another Smith Barney commercial. Then I'm going to Phoenix to sign some books; then to Los Angeles because the Acting Company (the last of the six he's started) opens on Saturday night, and plays another performance on Sunday night at UCLA. Then I fly back here . . . .''