Interview with John Houseman
BROADCAST: Dec. 14, 1979 | DURATION: 00:53:03
Discussing the book "Front and center" with the author John Houseman.
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Studs Terkel John Houseman is a gifted man, that's putting it rather mildly, multi-gifted. Indeed, we think of him as an excellent director of this. By the way, he did a marvelous "Lear". He directed "Lute Song", when we think of two excellent pieces of theater, piece of theater, "Lear", a piece of theater, and of course the film "Julius Caesar", producer, an excellent producer, he was one of the founders of the Mercury Theatre. You may recall his first--what was that called, a curtain, what was that--"Run-Though", "Run-Through" was your--Part one of your memoir, part two is a sequel that I find deeply moving and at times very funny, but mostly you find something that leaves an indelible impression, at least to me. The new book is called "Front and Center", it is a sequel to "Run-Through", Simon and Schuster the publishers, and in a moment, John Houseman my guest. You know him best, of course, as the teacher, Professor Kingsfield in "The Paper Chase", but he's far, far--Excellent though he is in that, he's far far more than that. And, so, in a moment, John Houseman on his memoirs. So I was thinking, Mr. Houseman, John, you have an epigraph at the very beginning of Samuel Johnson.
John Houseman And I found that after I'd written the book I was reading "The Life of Samuel Johnson", you know that came out about a year ago, and I came across this and it seemed so appropriate that I snatched it.
Studs Terkel We pick up immediately. As you--the end of Mercury Theatre and your tempestuous relationship with that gifted, wild, passionate man. And of course in--wholly unreasonable Orson Welles. And then picks up as now it's--the war. And you have a--I didn't realize you were involved with the Office of War Information, you worked with Robert Sherwood.
John Houseman Well, the reason some people find that less entertaining than the show business stuff, but it had to be written because in a--strangely enough, none of that period has been covered by anyone. There is no record of it of any kind. Jerome Weidman wrote a novel of which his hero worked at the OWI, but there was nothing there. And already three-quarters of the people involved are dead, and there is no record of it.
Studs Terkel Suppose we set the scene. It's a remarkable--it's a remarkable moment in American history but also as far as American communications. This is the Office of War Information, Roosevelt president, the war is beginning and it's reaching out, reaching America as well as other countries, and some of the people. There was Robert Sherwood.
John Houseman Sherwood was really the daddy of us all. He had very strong views which he'd expressed in his farewell speech to the writers when he retired as president of the Dramatists' Guild, that writers owed it to the world to express their opinions and to use the media, writing for the other media as a means of communicating with the world. Then later, as you know he wrote a lot of Roosevelt's speeches, and later he felt that the Voice of America should be nothing but an extension of the voice of the President of the United States of America.
John Houseman To
Studs Terkel But at that time, here were gifted writers trying to express all the sentiments of a country, of a democracy, of an open society to the world, battling fascism, and you were under attack. That is, the OWI came under attack.
John Houseman Well, they came under attack on two, on two general counts. You know better than anyone that we were fighting, really, two wars. There was the War of the Republicans and the conservative against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and there was the war against Hitler and the Axis, and the first of these was no less bitter than the second. So that the, the OWI, the domestic OWI was totally destroyed within 18 months of the Pearl Harbor by, by Congress, which simply took all the money away from them. We were not affected because a), it was part of the war effort and they didn't have the nerve to cancel that, also that they knew perfectly well that if they took away the money, the President would use his special funds to continue it.
Studs Terkel Continuing.
John Houseman Well, it was a letter that Bess Lomax, who was a very young girl at the time, and she says, "How young we all were. I was only 20 myself supervising little girls who weren't over 15 and had lied nobly about their age. What I really recall about those crazy days was the sense of dedication I felt in the people I dealt with. The elevator operators, the errand runners, the truck drivers, and the literary clerks. I think many of them felt that for once in their lives they were doing something important." And then she reminded me that we had a Black telephone operator, a disciple of Father Divine, and this lady would always answer all phone calls at the Office of War Information, by saying, "Peace! This is the Office of War
Studs Terkel You know, I was thinking, as that footnote and your reflections. There was a certain moment, a certain feeling wasn't there, we miss it today of course, at times that--we're not being nostalgic now, there's something more than nostalgia involved here, isn't there?
John Houseman Oh, I think they were extraordinary times. I think I'm not wishing such times on the nation, but for the young, for people starting in the theater, in the entertainment business, the Depression was an extraordinary time.
John Houseman Well, the point there was, and if I--I noticed this because I work a lot in universities, I've been teaching at USC the last two years, and the young today, they're nice, they're serious, they're intelligent, but they're all terribly concerned with how they're going to make a living two years from now when they graduate. And of course in our time, during the Depression, nobody was making any money anyway, so that this was not a preoccupation. You were preoccupied with the work you were going to do, not with the money you
Studs Terkel You know, what makes your book fascinating to me particularly is there's--there are two dimensions to you. You are the participant in some cases by virtue of history itself and circumstance and you're the observer at the same time. You spoke of yourself in one spot as being sort of alienated, that you had loyalties but you had sort of felt the outsider.
John Houseman Well, I, you know, I was born in Romania, but that of course was simply a geographical accident, but I had all the French background. My French family, my French Jewish family. I had the English background, and then when I came to this country I was again an alien because I was in another new country.
Studs Terkel And so, but throughout now you come to perhaps the most alien of all parts of America, Hollywood. And you have a description there, your return to Hollywood, perhaps it's worth reading, that, that particular sequence, the writing of Mr. Houseman by the way we, haven't pointed out the fact that he's an excellent writer as well as a director, a producer, and an actor. By the way, becoming an actor in your, shall we say your mellow years.
John Houseman Yes.
John Houseman Oh,
Studs Terkel Yeah.
John Houseman Well, I think--I'm sure when it first happened I'm sure it drove him mad with rage. And I know that at the time that I got the Academy Award, because our relations were very bad at the time, and I'm sure this outraged him, of this upstart, this ridiculous figure. But we did have a big reconciliation, a public reconciliation about eight months ago on "The Merv Griffin Show".
John Houseman Well, we'd had this, these altercations of one sort or another. Also over the film "Julius Caesar", which Orson had wanted to make himself in Italy, and then he found Metro was making it. So anyway. "Welles and I had not met in several years, and now that we were both in Europe I would inevitably run into him sooner or later. And I went to a nightclub where a lot of theatrical people went, and I had a kind of hunch that sooner or later I would run into him. And I stayed until midnight and I had a hard day ahead of me but an overwhelming compulsion kept me glued to my chair at The Caprice," the name of the club was called The Caprice. "Making small talk with my wife while I waited for this meeting that I so feared and desired, and a few minutes before 1:00 o'clock, a faint but insistent blip on my private radar screen warned me that the Wonderboy was approaching. With that same sense of levitation I'd experienced in [Sinclair?] Stadium," that's an irrelevant story, it's [nothing] to do with this. "I now found myself rising from my seat"--
John Houseman "Propelled by a potent mixture of nostalgia, curiosity and terror, I began to move toward the doorway in which I never for one instant doubted that Orson was about to appear. He did. He came suddenly into view, a huge figure in a dark suit emerging from a small crowd of familiars and waiters. As I continued to move toward him I had not the faintest idea what would happen. Almost always in our long and intimate, tumultuous relationship, the emotional initiatives had been his. Either he would hurl himself upon me with a roar of rage, swinging and flailing as he so often had during our five years' partnership, or he would fling his arms around me in a choking, gigantic, passionate embrace. Either way it would be dangerous and dramatic. So I advanced towards the doorway and then came the moment when I knew that Orson had become aware of me. With no change of expression on that big round face, he separated himself from his party and started in my direction, so that we were now moving slowly and silently toward each other across the deserted floor like a pair of classic Western gunfighters approaching each other for the final shootout. I could feel the muscles of my arms tensing, ready to fly up to parry the haymakers that would be aimed at my head, or to return the bear hug in which I would be enveloped. When we were less than three feet apart when the silence was shattered by a bellow of "Jacko!" followed by loud moans, then a second and third "Jacko!" as patrons of the Caprice were treated to the surprising spectacle of two very large men locked in a frantic clumsy embrace, slowly whirling like a giant top around the dance floor." And that was our reconcil--well, to make a long story short, within exactly 15 minutes, we had had a reconciliation, quarreled, and were howling at each other again in a rage.
Studs Terkel This is after many of your other adventures not involving Welles, and we come to your coming back to Hollywood, and your description of Hollywood, that strange land at which you, you never quite felt comfortable
John Houseman I do now, but for many many years I--and that really had more to do with me subjectively than I did with Hollywood. I'd, I'd had a rather bad time in Hollywood for several reasons, and I really hated it, and that affected my feelings about it.
John Houseman And a director, a rather well-known director in the German theater, and she came to Hollywood and he didn't. He actually, he even worked for us on the Voice of America for a brief time. But she, her house became the sort of Mecca of all emigres and you would meet Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, you'd meet Feuchtwanger, you'd meet Brecht, you'd meet all those people there day after day.
Studs Terkel And then I'm thinking about the contrast, those people there and some of the producers and a certain of the powerboys, you mentioned a man named Y. Frank Freeman, who in one of the films--
John Houseman But the funniest story about Y. Frank Freeman, he really was a dreadful bigot, and his main preoccupation--he was head of Paramount. But his main preoccupation was to make sure that no white and Black actors ever got onto the screen together. This was the ultimately heinous thing to happen and Buddy De Silva told me a lovely story. In the early days of color, the first rushes, what we call rushes the rough prints, were very, very rough indeed, and the color was crazy. So one day there was a singer, a white singer, I forget who. Betty Hutton, I think. She was singing, and on the stage with her was this orchestra, and the rushes, on the rushes, the orchestra all had faces that were really sort of dun-colored, dark brown faces, and Y. Frank Freeman leapt to his feet, stomped out of the studio, and said, "God damn it," he says, "Why couldn't you get a white band?" and Buddy De Silva ran after him and said, "Y.," he said, "They are, they are white. That is simply the effect of Technicolor," and he agreed to come back into the room. But he was that sort of man.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking about some of the other ones you encountered. We come to your--people you knew and worked with, and of course the very moving portrait of Raymond Chandler. You produced "The Blue Dahlia".
John Houseman Well--
John Houseman Exemplified by Bogart. Yes. And I said this was a pretty sad figure. He--it's here: "Your article in 'Vogue' was much"--I said in this piece that I made a disparaging reference to the new national anti-hero of whom a typical specimen was the private eye created by Hammett and Chandler. Quote "A drab, melancholy man of limited intelligence and mediocre aspiration. A zombie who's satisfied to work for ten bucks a day and who between drinks gets beaten up regularly and laid occasionally." And Ray read this, and this is what he wrote: "Your article in 'Vogue' was much admired here. I think it was beautifully written and had a lot of style. For me personally it had an effect, aftertaste is a better word, of depression, and it roused my antagonism. It is artistically patronizing, intellectually dishonest, and logically unsound. It is the last whimper of the little theater mind in you. However, I'm all for your demand that pictures, even tough pictures, and especially tough pictures, have a moral content. This is--'Time' this week calls Philip Marlowe, in 'The Big Sleep,' amoral. This is pure nonsense. Assuming that his intelligence is as high as mine, it could hardly be higher, assuming his chances in life to promote his own interest are as numerous as they must be, why does he work for such a pittance? For the answer to that is the whole story, the story that is always being written by indirection and yet never is written completely or even clearly. It is the struggle of all fundamentally honest men to make a decent living in a corrupt society. It is an impossible struggle. He can't win. He can be poor and bitter and take it out in wisecracks and casual amours, or he can be corrupt and amiable and rude like a Hollywood producer. Because the bitter fact is that outside of two or three technical professions which require long years of preparation, there's absolutely no way for a man of this age to acquire a decent affluence in life without to some degree corrupting himself without accepting the cold clear fact that success is always and everywhere a racket."
Studs Terkel His understanding of this kind of man, though, you see, in our society, to me he was quite--and of course, you and he worked very closely together. And well, speak of some of your remarkable works from--oh, back and forth you went from Hollywood now and then your time out and you directed, then you directed the "Lute Song".
Studs Terkel And there again you, John, there again you, if you want to sneeze, it's quite all right. There again, you're working with a man, a highly sensitive man, and these little small tragedy--a marvelous set designer and light man.
John Houseman Well, it was--I think that Bobby was not altogether in the right about this, but it was a very upsetting occurrence. He belonged to an era when you didn't have lighting designers. The designer lit his own show and he lit it for dramatic effect and for harmony and so on. There was a--"Lute Song" was a curious marriage of a musical and a dramatic show and Mary Martin had a couple of songs. And one of them particularly was not--didn't seem to be going, and finally she and her husband came to me and said, "Look, the reason that song is not going is nobody can see her face. She should be in the spot. When you sing a song, you should be in a spot. So Bobby was not terribly well, he was very tired. He'd gone home to rest in the hotel. So we got an old spotlight which we found somewhere around and we put it on the rail and we used it, and it helped the song tremendously. But to Bobby Jones, this was the ultimate outrage. We had introduced a vulgar artificial spot into his harmonious lighting, and he never forgave me.
Studs Terkel And then back and forth, back to Hollywood. Now at this time there's a certain climate in the country. The Cold War has begun, and now begins, of course, the Hollywood witch hunt and blacklist.
John Houseman Right.
John Houseman I was an observer. I was harassed to some extent, but finally I was immune because at no time--actually for one reason because I'd had so many dealings with them, both up in the Negro Theater and then later with the Mercury, I had never joined the party.
John Houseman Well, no, but again now, in fairness to myself, it must, and in fairness to everybody, it must be said, that if you didn't, if you had not, if there was no evidence in the possession of the FBI and of the committee that you had at one time belonged to the party, you were fairly immune to their attacks, because the final question of the question that could send you to jail or make you betray your friends, was, "Were you or were you not a member
John Houseman Yes.
Studs Terkel Who was a marvelous great composer and a gentle man. And there was a gathering to help the Hollywood 18 at the time, and you decided to attend it, even though it would be dangerous, you decide to attend it and perhaps you describe that
John Houseman Well, I had decided to attend it because of the 18 and of the 10, everyone was a friend of mine or had an associate in some way or another. But no, the thing that happened, and I take, there's no great heroism involved in this. But I was sitting there waiting for them to arrive, and in the box next to me suddenly I realized that two people had arrived and it was Hanns Eisler and his wife. Now the only significances of this is that Hanns Eisler had become the most notorious Red on the coast. It had been discovered Hanns Eisler's sister had turned.
Studs Terkel Ruth
John Houseman Ruth Fischer had turned and had denounced many people, including her brother, her two brothers, as members of the party. Suddenly Hollywood realized that this man who was composing music for films was denounced as a member of the party and a great hue and cry took place. He was fired from his job, and everybody wanted to deport him. So he was a marked man at that particular time.
John Houseman He was in headlines. And there he was sitting next to me, and he'd worked with me, and we were friends, not very close friends. But I felt some very strange, and I've never quite understood it, some very strange compulsion, that I must go over and sit beside him in his box and talk to him. There was no need to do this, and he probably would have thought me idiotic for doing it. The place was humming with photographers, and I was, in a sense, risking my career by doing this. And I've never understood quite what impelled me to do it. But there it was, and in fact it didn't turn out that way. They didn't use the pictures. It didn't ruin
Studs Terkel I'm thinking, later years, later you were directing, and by the way magnificent critical acclaim of "Coriolanus" with Robert Ryan for you, and you had the temerity to cast, because he's the best actor, Will Geer, years later. This was on Broadway.
John Houseman Well, Will Geer had been one of the victims of the witch hunts. In fact, because Willie was a pretty outspoken, and energetic and courageous fellow, he was one of the villains to the Un-American Activities Committee. He had defied them more than most, and they were determined that he would never work in show business again. So finally he had to leave Hollywood, he went live in New York, and in New York we had a rather repulsive thing called the "graylist," and the graylist was, worked like this. A producer putting a show on on Broadway had enough risks anyway without running the additional risk of hiring an actor who might invite picketing, who might invite exposure in the press, and so on. So while there was no blacklist, in fact there was a "graylist," and the people who had been thrown out of Hollywood did not work on Broadway. It was a strange unspoken thing. And I hired Willie Geer, and the Phoenix Theater, T. Edward Hamilton's theater, showed considerable courage and we hired Willie Geer, he was wonderful in the part of one of the tribunes. But of course the moment the review came out the next morning and Los Angeles read "The New York Times", I knew I was in trouble, but there really wasn't a hell of a lot they could do. They, they were furious that I, who worked for them, who was one of the establishment, had gone out of my way to hire one of the men that they thought they put out of business forever, but they couldn't touch me. I had my name on three very big pictures, and--
John Houseman And they weren't going to cancel those pictures and they were not allowed by the guild to take my name, off, so, in effect, they screamed and yelled at me, but there was nothing they could do.
Studs Terkel You know, I once wrote him a letter in Swe--when he was in Switzerland. Vevey. And I said at the time of the blacklist, and he was--I says, "You know, I got a great idea," and this is a letter to him. I think it interesting, this. I says, "You know, how about if, if you could let out"--at the time as long as movies were not released, he owned those movies. "We have a theater called The Chaplin Theater. There's a Loews' Theater. There's a Warners Theater. There's a Fox Theater, but none of the greatest artists' films ever produced. I got a letter back. And it's his writ--typing because there were mistakes in it. And he says, "You sound like a nice man," he says. "Stay away from me. I am an anathema there. Good luck. Perhaps one day we can meet." And that was it. Isn't that amazing?
Studs Terkel You know, you describe incidents here that are really not to be believed. The almost sadism they kept going long, long after to see that nobody ever was hit with the brush, tarnished with the brush would ever
John Houseman Well, what they were doing there was, it was sort of what we called in the military I suppose "a mopping up operation." They had disposed of the ones they could get after and ruin those they could. Then there were the sort of what we call the fellow travellers or the dupes of whom I was one, and they wanted to ruin their credibility because if ever again this thing started, they didn't want anybody left. And, of course, the thing that's not ever been very clearly stated, a lot of this had to do with money, not that this had to do with the fact that the studios were confronted in those days with new demands by the guilds for continuing rights and so on. And many of the so-called Red subversives were the ones who were the most active in the guilds, in the guild negotiations, and they felt that by cleaning them up and disposing of them they would facilitate their ability to maintain that monopoly of rights that they had.
John Houseman Absolutely.
Studs Terkel It comes back to that again. But we're going to talk more to John Houseman also about his "Lear" that he directed with Louis Calhern, as [opposed to the?]--as well as "Coriolanus" and the nature of that play itself, and of course his "Julius Caesar", the film that he produced with--that's when we saw Brando as Mark Antony and this, and more of his adventures, and indeed they're rich ones, in a moment. The book is a sequel, "Front and Center". His memoir, John Houseman, memoir. And Simon and Schuster the publishers, and we resume un momento. And we do resume with John Houseman, and now where? Shall--let's talk about--we--you mentioned Robert Ryan and "Coriolanus", Phoenix Theater.
John Houseman Right.
Studs Terkel Remind me, ask you about "Galileo," too, of course. With Laughton and Brecht. But "Coriolanus". Offhand you say this is about an authoritarian figure as against democracy, yet it's something much deeper than that.
John Houseman No, no, it's more than that. The thing that's interesting about that play, which incidentally is almost never a success because the character of Coriolanus is not that sympathetic a character. But of course you can do it several ways. You can do it with Coriolanus being noble and the tribunes being horrors and demagogues and crooks, or you can do it with the tribunes being the heroes, or you can do it as I tried to do it, with everybody having their say. You could understand why the aristocracy didn't care for the mob, you could understand why the tribunes didn't care for Coriolanus and the aristocracy, and so on. That's what we tried to do. And in that sense I think we were very successful.
John Houseman Yes, Hazlitt thought it was a magnificent play, he thought it was a great play. It's a play it needs tremendous amount of cutting and because of the way the curve runs, it will never be one of the really popular plays.
Studs Terkel But I think one of the best cases of a director and the job of a director is when you describe when you were directing "Lear" with Louis Calhern, you describe the nature of actors, how you have to--perhaps you should tell about the incident involving Calhern and the Fool.
John Houseman Yes. Well, the Fool and Lear in that production I have always felt that that was one of the most beautiful relationships that I've ever seen, and that play requires a strange relationship between Lear and the Fool. That requires an enormous degree of love between them, and there is a kind of theory, you know, which may or may not be valid. But there is supporting evidence that the same boy actor played Cordelia and the Fool. Now, this would explain why Cordelia and the Fool are never on stage together, and don't appear in the same parts of the play.
John Houseman That's right. Exactly. Exactly. But anyway, Norman Lloyd, who is a very dear friend of mine and who was a great personal friend of Lou Calhern, and Calhern together in their scenes created a feeling of love and at the same time of master and slave, which was quite wonderful.
John Houseman Wonderful. That's what he brought to "Lear", that's actually his delivery of verse. It was not as good as it might have been. But what he brought to Lear was a sort of personal power, personal grandeur. You knew that this man had been a great man, he'd been a great drunkard, a great brawler, a great lover. He was really a Superman, which is what Lear has
John Houseman Well, I don't think "Lear" had ever run under I don't know how Lou did it, because I talked to John Gielgud at the time, who'd just done it in England, and he said three performances a week was maximum that he would ever do. And poor old Lou, a reformed drunkard at the age of 55 was playing this play eight times a week. How he did it and he did it for seven weeks, and how he did it I will never know.
John Houseman Well, Nick was very important in my life. I knew Nick when he was very young, when he and Kazan were part of the theater of action in New York City. I knew Lear as a--I mean, I knew Nick as
John Houseman Yes.
John Houseman Yes.
John Houseman The Golden Gate Quartet. And all of them. And, so, as a result of that I invited him to come over and work for us on the Voice of America. Because after the first few months when we were devoted entirely to news, we began to do feature platters. We began to do shows that told about America because we wanted the world to know things about us besides the fact that we made a lot of airplanes and were fighting a war. And so I put Nick in charge of that department. Then when I left the OWI, he came out to California as assistant to Gadge Kazan on Gadge's first picture, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", and the next thing we knew, I asked him to come and work for me. He did. He--we found this property that we fell in love with and he really--
John Houseman Well, yes, he made a remake of it many years later. And Nick and I worked very closely on that, and when the script was written. It was a beautiful script and I decided that he should direct it. So the first picture that Nick ever directed was "Thieves Like Us", which later became called "They Live By Night", and I thought he was an enormous talent. There were great personal weaknesses. He was a very neurotic man at the same time as this powerful man. He drank too much. He was a gambler, a really dreadfully compulsive gambler.
John Houseman Yes, well, I--helicopters had been used for longshots, views and in the Army, but I don't think a helicopter had ever been used as a sort of an appendage to the camera as a boom, and it was this beautiful shot which Nick shot taking great risk because it was a dangerous shot to make in terms of waste of time and everything, and yet it came
John Houseman Well, I hadn't seen this film. This film was very close to me. I had made several films including "Blue Dahlia", but in a strange way because of my relationship with Nick and because we sort of did this from, started from zero, I had a very intimate feeling about this film and I hadn't seen it for many years. And then at this film festival they ran it, and I ran it alone on a 16-millimeter projector and it was extraordinary the emotional effect that one got from seeing that film, especially from the soundtrack. And it's, I believe, it's a psychological fact that the--hearing is a more emotional faculty than seeing.
Studs Terkel Come back to that time again, that time we talked about. By the way, when you went to Hollywood the second time you travelled by car, your companion, your friend was Virgil Thomson. We come to another now, don't we?
John Houseman Yes.
John Houseman Well, I was, I was crazy. I used to cross the country by car all the time. And I've had many, I had one extraordinary trip with Nick Ray and Herman Mankiwicz, and then I did have this one with Virgil Thomson.
John Houseman Oh.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel For the first--[part?] you speak of "Four Saints in Three Acts" and Virgil Thomson of course, my memory is fading a bit. But coming back, John, to--there's Thomson, Mankiewicz, Nick Ray, Joe Barnes, Welles. These are the figures you say who of almost--
John Houseman That was an experience, it was a great experience. It's, it was tough because Brecht was a very tough man in the theater. He was notorious for it. And during "Galileo" he exhibited all the symptoms that I'd heard of before, but as I also point out, he was all, nearly always right. So he had a perfect right in defense of his own work to be intransigent.
John Houseman Well, as you know, "Galileo" was a strange play in that it was written over a period of some years. He started it when he first left Germany and went to live in Denmark. Then he came to America, and the atom bomb, the dropping of the atom bomb, had a very strong and very curious effect on Brecht's view of this, because the whole play is about a scientist. Is a scientist justified to preserve his life, to keep alive and maybe do some good work, is he justified in reneging in order to save his life and to save his work? And Brecht changed his view about that to some extent. Then he changed it back later, but with the dropping of the bomb he suddenly realized that a scientist was not entirely free to compromise, that the scientist had certain obligations towards society, to which in case of need he must give his life, which had to do with the scientists who disapproved of the creation
John Houseman Well, that was really less of a risk than almost anything I've done, because of my association with Orson earlier, the fact that we'd done it at the--he'd done it at the Mercury Theatre, we've done it on the air. I knew that play very, very well, and of all the Shakespearean plays it is probably the least risky to turn into a film. It's the least--it's the most easily adapted to the film medium. There are no soliloquies, though there is one very short one, there are no soliloquies in "Julius Caesar". It's an action play. And so, no, I was never very nervous. I wanted to be sure that we cast it right, and we'd--the tendency on the part of the studio and even Joe Mankiewicz because it was their first encounter with Shakespeare.
John Houseman Yes. It was to play it safe and to use all English actors, and I protested vehemently against that. To begin with, I had a reputation as a producer and director of Shakespeare in America. But secondly, I'd--it seemed to me absurd to make an American "Julius Caesar" with all English actors and it should be made in London and that was that. So we did have about 50-50 American/English actors.
John Houseman Of course it was. It was enormous. It wasn't quite as much of a risk as some people thought. I knew that he had perfectly good speech, but he was not experienced in handling blank verse, and Antony is an enormous tour de force.
John Houseman Well, Brando had been taught that you used a text as a basis for a performance, but you played around, you played above the text, below the text, through the text and so on. He came to me about the second week of rehearsal and was really astounded to discover that when you dealt with Shakespeare and with a text of that sort, you couldn't play between the lines. You--obviously he'd created an extraordinary character of young Antony, but he realized the necessity to play Shakespeare's lines and then to add whatever characterization or whatever attitude he wanted, but still the lines were the important thing.
John Houseman "I don't remember where I walked that night. There'd been some rain in the afternoon. The streets were shiny and slick. I wandered down Broadway and then back up past Bryant Park and I only know that shortly before midnight I became aware that I had wandered onto forbidden ground and my feet had carried me into what had been for more than a dozen years a closed street. The Mercury Theatre had stood on the south side of Forty-First Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. Where it had been there was now a parking lot in which the rubble had not been entirely cleared. The few abandoned cars glowed dully still wet with rain behind a sign that read, "Park: One Dollar." And suddenly the thought struck me that this was double the 50 cents that it cost to sit up high in our cramped second balcony and look down for two hours on our blood-red "Julius Caesar" stage, at the bottle-green uniforms of the leaders in the drab gray-black lynch mob whose feet drummed so ominously as they converged on the doomed protesting poet, their first victim." And I stood there for a long time thinking of this building in which we'd done so many exciting
Studs Terkel All the memories come back. I'm thinking doing this book--oh, I know what I wanted to ask you about, toward the--you speak of your mother. Your elderly mother. And a certain stubbornness she had, about you didn't have to sign
John Houseman Well, she amazed me because I'd never felt that she had that strong views until I got this letter. I was delighted. It made me laugh a lot. But it is--and she never really showed these views as violently as she did on this crucial occasion. My lawyer wrote to me and said, "I'm sorry to have to inform you that yesterday I attended the Immigration Service investigation--" My mother, at the age of 75 decided that since I was living here and she was living here, she wanted to become an American
John Houseman She'd been a French citizen. But she'd been in and out of the country, so she qualified. "I went to the Immigration Service visitation with your mother and was severely shocked at her stubbornness as she reflected--as reflected by her insistence upon refusing to understand why questions of a certain nature must be answered with caution. She stood on her constitutional rights for freedom of speech and said she had no complaints with conditions in Russia and could not bring herself to distinguish advantageously between democracy in the U.S. and communism in the U.S.S.R. In answer to whether she believed in the violent overthrow of the government by force, she replied that under certain circumstances she was highly in favor of such a drastic process."
Studs Terkel And, so, perhaps to end our, to me, very delightful hour of conversation with John Houseman, the book is "Front and Center", his memoir, and a rich one it is indeed. Simon and Schuster the publisher, it's available. And perhaps we could end with a piece of music again. I was looking for "Lute Song" and couldn't find it.
John Houseman Absolutely.