Houseman produced numerous Broadway productions, including Heartbreak House, Three Sisters, The Beggar’s Opera and several Shakespearean plays, including a famous “Blackshirt” Julius Caesar directed by Orson Welles in 1937. He also directed Lute Song, The Country Girl and Don Juan in Hell, among others. Houseman himself worked as a speculator in the international grain markets, only turning to the theater following the 1929 stock market crash. He received his first opportunity of any note in 1933 when composer Virgil Thomson recruited him to direct Four Saints in Three Acts, Thomson’s collaboration with Gertrude Stein. In 1934, Houseman was looking to cast a play he was producing based on a drama by Archibald MacLeish, Panic, concerning a Wall Street financier whose world crumbles about him when consumed by the crash of 1929. Although the central figure is a man in his late fifties, Houseman became obsessed by the notion that a young man named Orson Welles he had seen in Katharine Cornell’s production of Romeo and Juliet was the only person qualified to play the leading role. Welles consented and, after preliminary conversations, agreed to leave the play he was in after a single night to take the lead in Houseman’s production. Panic opened at the Imperial Theatre on March 15, 1935. Among the cast was Houseman’s ex-wife, Zita Johann, who had co-starred with Boris Karloff three years earlier in Universal’s The Mummy. However, the play opened to indifferent notices and ran for a mere three performances. It was the genesis, though, for the forging of a theatrical team, a fruitful but stormy partnership in which Houseman said Welles “…was the teacher, I, the apprentice.”
In June 1937, Project No. 891 would produce their most controversial work with The Cradle Will Rock. Written by Marc Blitzstein the musical was about Larry Foreman, a worker in Steeltown (played in the original production by Howard Da Silva), which is run by the boss, Mister Mister (played in the original production by Will Geer). The show was thought to have had left-wing and unionist sympathies (Foreman ends the show with a song about “unions” taking over the town and the country), and became legendary as an example of a “censored” show. Shortly before the show was to open, FTP officials in Washington announced that no productions would open until after July 1, 1937, the beginning of the new fiscal year. In his memoir, Run-Through, Houseman wrote about the circumstances surrounding the opening night at the Maxine Elliott Theatre. All the performers had been enjoined not to perform on stage for the production when it opened on July 14, 1937. The cast and crew left their government-owned theatre and walked 20 blocks to another theatre, with the audience following. No one knew what to expect; when they got there Blitzstein himself was at the piano and started playing the introduction music. One of the non-professional performers, Olive Stanton, who played the part of Moll, the prostitute, stood up in the audience, and began singing her part. All the other performers, in turn, stood up for their parts. Thus the “oratorio” version of the show was born. Apparently, Welles had designed some intricate scenery, which ended up never being used. The event was so successful that it was repeated several times on subsequent nights, with everyone trying to remember and reproduce what had happened spontaneously the first night. The incident, however, led to Houseman being fired and Welles’s resignation from Project No. 891.
The Mercury Theatre on the Air subsequently became famous for its notorious 1938 radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which had put much of the country in a panic. By all accounts, Welles was shocked by the panic that ensued. According to Houseman, “he hadn’t the faintest idea what the effect would be”. CBS was inundated with calls; newspaper switchboards were jammed. While Houseman was teaching at Vassar College, he produced Welles’ never-completed second short film, Too Much Johnson (1938). The film was never publicly screened and no print of the film was thought to have survived. Footage was rediscovered in 2013.
After he and Welles went their separate ways, Houseman went on to direct The Devil and Daniel Webster (1939) and Liberty Jones and produced the Mercury Theatre’s stage production of Native Son (1941) on Broadway, directed by Welles. In Hollywood he became a vice-president of David O. Selznick Productions. In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Houseman quit his job and became the head of the overseas radio division of the Office of War Information (OWI), working for the Voice of America whilst also managing its operations in New York City. Between 1945 and 1962, he produced 18 films for Paramount, Universal and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, including the film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946) and the film adaptation of Julius Caesar (1953) (for which he received an Academy Award nomination for “Best Picture”). However, he first became widely known to the public for his Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning role as Professor Charles Kingsfield in the film The Paper Chase (1973). He reprised his role in the television series of the same name from 1978 to 1986, receiving two Golden Globe nominations for “Best Actor in a TV Series — Drama”. Houseman was the executive producer of CBS’ landmark Seven Lively Arts series. Houseman played Energy Corporation Executive Bartholomew in the film Rollerball (1975) and parodied Sydney Greenstreet in the Neil Simon film The Cheap Detective (1978).
Houseman was reunited with The Paper Chase co-star Lindsay Wagner in “Kill Oscar”, a three-part joint episode of the popular science-fiction series The Bionic Woman and The Six Million Dollar Man as the scientific genius Dr. Franklin. In the 1980s Houseman became more widely known for his role as grandfather Edward Stratton II in Silver Spoons, which starred Rick Schroder, and for his commercials for brokerage firm Smith Barney, which featured the catchphrase, “They make money the old fashioned way… they earn it.” Another was Puritan brand cooking oil, with “less saturated fat than the leading oil”, featuring the famous ‘tomato test’. He also made a guest appearance in John Carpenter’s horror movie The Fog (1980) as Mr. Machen. He played Jewish author Aaron Jastrow (loosely based on the real life figure of Bernard Berenson) in the highly acclaimed 1983 miniseries The Winds of War (receiving a fourth Golden Globe nomination). He declined to reprise the role when the sequel War and Remembrance was made into a miniseries. (The role then went to Sir John Gielgud.)
Houseman was born in Bucharest, Romania on September 22, 1902, the son of May (née Davies) and Georges Haussmann, who ran a grain business. His mother was British, from a Christian family of Welsh and Irish descent. His father was an Alsatian-born Jew. He was educated in England at Clifton College, became a British subject and worked in the grain trade in London before emigrating to the United States in 1925, where he took the stage name of John Houseman. He became a United States citizen in 1943. Houseman died at age 86 of spinal cancer on October 31, 1988 at his home in Malibu, California.
- September, 22, 1902
- Bucharest, Romania
- October, 31, 1988
- Malibu, California
Cause of Death
- spinal cancer