Question: Was The Paper Chase's John Houseman a real law professor before he took up acting? I thought I remembered reading that. Jonathan T., Stoneham, Mass.
Televisionary: Nope. But the late Houseman, who passed away in 1988, was many other things, certainly, before taking that role. Matter of fact, he didn't even start acting until he was 70, though by then he was already renowned as a theater and film innovator.
Born Jacques Haussmann, the Romanian native was in New York by the age of 25, cornering the soybean market as well as writing reviews and short stories. However, his business career was not to be: He was wiped out in the Depression and turned to the stage. He directed and produced and then hooked up with a young Orson Welles, working under the WPA to form the Negro Theater Project and Classical Theater and staging, among other things, a voodoo version of Macbeth. The two went on to form the Mercury Theater, scaring the hell out of the country with their 1938 radio version of War of the Worlds and eventually ending their friendship over a credit dispute related to Citizen Kane.
Houseman then went to work for David O. Selznick, helped found the Voice of America programs in World War II, directed and produced Shakespeare, opera and films, and taught English drama at Vassar. He also taught at UCLA, USC and Juilliard, and it was while teaching at Juilliard that he was asked to test for the 1973 feature film The Paper Chase. Although Fox executives had been aiming to land a James Stewart or Henry Fonda-type, Houseman blew them away so much so that they even wanted some of his Juilliard pupils to play law students in the film, until Houseman nixed the idea. ("I won't let them out of school that long," the stern taskmaster said.)
Houseman was nearly as exacting and intimidating in real life as The Paper Chase's Professor Kingsfield, who tormented law student James Hart (James Stephens) and pals on CBS from 1978-79 and Showtime from 1983-86. He was a stickler for detail on the series, working on story ideas, treatments and scripts, and everyone on it listened to him. The younger people on the set held him in "awe and reverence," executive producer Robert Thompson told TV Guide in 1978. "I'm scared to death of him," added Jim Bridges, who wrote the film and the pilot for the series and was responsible for getting Houseman cast in the movie. "I never make a decision without discussing it with him."
He wasn't alone. Although playing Kingsfield in the movie was Houseman's first major acting work and it netted him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, by the way everyone on the set called him Mr. Houseman. Nearly everyone off the TV set did, too. "My students at Juilliard, where I was director of the drama division, called me Mr. Houseman even after four years. I didn't order it," he recalled. Of course, he didn't tell them not to, either. "It's not because I'm grand or superior. I find it an atmosphere more useful to work in than false familiarity."
With all the grandeur, bestowed or requested, however, did Houseman view working on a TV series as a comedown after his stage and screen accomplishments? "Hell, no," he said. "I am in show business. I played two Bionic Womans and one Six Million Dollar Man. If you do that, you're not above anything. I am an actor. Obviously, I do what is offered." (In keeping with that, he went on to be a regular on Silver Spoons in 1982.)
Houseman even cast a spell over those who didn't work for or with him, as TV Guide writer Bill Davidson discovered on the set. Davidson's mistake was asking the actor an innocent question about working with Stephens, who'd only done two commercials and a bit part on the TV version of How the West Was Won when he landed the Hart role. "Has it not been ever thus, Mr. Davidson?" Houseman thundered, fixing him with what the reporter described as a "reptilian gaze." "Have not the novices tyros as you call them always sprung full-blown into stardom in this industry? In the matter of Jim Stephens, did not that very fine actor Richard Chamberlain have even less experience when he emerged from total obscurity to become the celebrated Dr. Kildare on television?"
(Poor Davidson. Heck, even Stephens was amazed at how quickly he went from nothing to something, career-wise. "It's hard to believe that my biggest previous film role was in a McDonald's hamburger commercial where I kept getting doused with soapsuds, and the only line I had to say was, 'Yeah'," the actor said in 1979.)
But Houseman had a sense of humor about it all, especially about how imperious he was in real life. "I'll tell you a story," he said. "After I made the film, I returned to Juilliard, and when a print arrived in New York, I invited the students of the drama division to a screening. Well, they laughed and clapped politely but they didn't say much, and I got mad. 'I run this damn picture for you,' I said. 'How about it? I'm here to teach you acting. I gave you an opportunity to see me acting. What do you think?'"
One student responded. "You didn't do anything, Mr. Houseman. You were just the way you always are."