Today is the birthday of John Houseman (Jacques Haussman, 1902-1988). Born in Romania to an English/Irish/Welsh mother and an Alsacian-Jewish father (hence that French first name and German last one), Houseman was educated in England spent his young adulthood there, moving to the U.S. in 1925.
When Houseman started turning up on big and small screens CONSTANTLY in the 1970s those of us who were young just assumed that he was one of that older generation of thespians who had always been around for decades. What we didn’t know was that he was a kind of Grandma Moses of acting. Though he had been an important name in show business since the 1930s, he had generally been behind the scenes the entire time.
Houseman was initially a businessman, following his father into the grain trade, where he toiled until the stock market crash in 1929. Business experience is not the worst background for being a theatrical producer; in the early 30s, Houseman broke into the business as both a producer and director. (A contributing factor has to be that he was married to actress Zita Johann, best known foe her role in The Mummy from 1929 to 1933). In 1935 he burst onto the scene with his famous collaborations with Orson Welles, first with the Federal Theatre Project, then with the Mercury Theatre, and beyond into the early 1940s. During WWII he produced radio propaganda for the Voice of America. From 1945 to 1962 he was a VP at David O Selznick productions, and produced dozens of films for cinema and television, including The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), the 1953 Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando and John Gielgud, and Lust for Life (1956).
In 1964, he stepped in front of the camera for the first time, playing an edgy Admiral in Seven Days in May. It would be nearly a decade before he would do it again. In the meantime, he founded the theatre department of the Julliard School and in 1972 created a new theatre company out of its first class of graduates, which included Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone. Called The Acting Company it’s still going strong today. It was in 1973 that he first stepped before the cameras again and finally became a household word. That year he played the stodgy Professor Kingsfield in the film The Paper Chase, later reprising the part on the tv version from 1978 to 1986. His dignity, age and vaguely European aura of “class” meant that he was often cast as authority figures, businessmen, military leaders and sometimes villains. He’s in Rollerball (1975), Three Days of the Condor (1975), several memorable episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman (1976), The Cheap Detective (1978), The Fog (1980), My Bodyguard (1980), Ghost Story (1981), Winds of War (1983), and Woody Allen’s Another Woman (1988).
And of course the Smith Barney commercials. “They make money the old fashioned way…They earn it.”
His delivery was priceless. He invariably some with the same rhythm and even the same intonation, making him a bonanza for teenage impressionists — guilty!
To find out more about show business past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc