In 1973, at the age of 71, an entertainment-industry veteran named John Houseman played a haughty Harvard Law School professor in a movie called The Paper Chase. Houseman, then the dean of the Julliard drama school, had never acted before, save for an uncredited cameo in Seven Days in May a decade earlier. His performance won him an Oscar and made him a star, and he spent the rest of his long life playing similar parts in movies, on TV, and in commercials for such unlikely things as cooking oil, fast-food cheeseburgers, station wagons, and the services of Smith Barney, a retail brokerage whose oft-parodied slogan was “They make money the old-fashioned way—they earn it.”
Houseman, who died at 86 in 1988, was amused and gratified by the well-compensated celebrity that he attained in old age, but he knew perfectly well that his career as a supporting actor was a fluke and that it was for his other, astonishingly varied achievements that he ought to be known. A Romanian-American grain merchant with a nose-in-the-air public-school accent who turned to theater when the Great Depression destroyed his business, Houseman staged the premiere of the Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts, collaborated with Herman Mankiewicz on the screenplay for Citizen Kane, and produced films by such noted directors as Joseph Mankiewicz, Vincente Minnelli, Max Ophüls, Nicholas Ray, and Robert Wise. The long roster of other artists with whom he worked in various capacities includes Bertolt Brecht, Raymond Chandler, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, Martha Graham, Katharine Hepburn, Alfred Hitchcock, and Charles Laughton. In 1972 he founded the Acting Company, a touring ensemble of young classical actors that numbers among its alumni Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone, and in the same year he published Run-Through, a handsomely written, arrestingly frank autobiography that ranks with Moss Hart’s Act One as the finest of all American theatrical memoirs.
About the Author
Terry Teachout, COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, wrote about George Jones in the last issue. He is writing a biography of Duke Ellington.