John Houseman is a name probably most people draw blanks over these days. And those who do, mostly likely remember him in the 1970s from a TV series based on the Academy Award winning Film The Paper Chase (which he also starred in). And later, in a series of Smith-Barney TV ads (“they make money the old-fashioned way; the EARN it”). To TV addicts, his was the instantly recognizable dead-pan face matched with an unflappable non-plussed personality.
But that represented the twilight years of a formidable talent who was on the ground floor of one of the most revolutionary periods of American Theatre, and a guiding light for one of the legendary figures of that movement, who went on the create Citizen Kane; one of the classic films of all time, Orson Welles.
So, to think of John Houseman as only a character actor is to deny the huge and enduring changes which took place during a pivotal time in our culture which he was very much an integral part of.
This interview, conducted by Caspar Citron, also features Sam Leve, who was responsible for the set designs of many Mercury Theatre productions and who went on to a celebrated Theatre career on his own. The interview takes place at the famous Algonquin Hotel in New York, on the occasion of the release of Houseman’s biography Run Through.
The two discuss the formative years working with the 19 year-old Orson Welles, and the atmosphere surrounding Theatre during the WPA period of the 1930s and the changes which took place during that time.
Anyone who has studied American Theatre of the 20th Century knows just how revolutionary those changes were. The entire school of Acting went through a reassessment – subject matter of plays went from light-hearted entertainment to social introspection, often gritty and over-the-top, but profound and profoundly exciting. Everything from stage design to stage lighting went through a dramatic re-evaluation and came out the other end as a historic and significant change, which lasted for many decades after.
Perhaps it might be a good idea to take a look back at that period and grab a few pointers. Time seems about right.
Enjoy the interview and read more about it.