IN NEARLY a thousand pages of previously published autobiography, John Houseman has revealed himself as a titan in the international grain market at the age of 26; the chief executive of the celebrated Mercury Theatre of the late 1930s; the target of four flaming food-warmers hurled by Orson Welles in Chasen's Restaurant; the director of the Voice of America broadcasts during World War II, although technically an enemy alien and a French army deserter; the sufficiently detached lover of a movie star (Joan Fontaine) to brood about the "millions of others . . . seeing her, magnified and illuminated in a dazzling vision that reveals every pore of her skin and every tremor of her muscles"; and the producer of 15 Hollywood pictures in 12 years, half a dozen of them of notably superior quality.
We learn in the first half of his new volume, Final Dress, that between the ages of 56 and 61, when most men have long since settled into a permanent occupational niche, he managed to lose six eminent jobs in the entertainment world. Then he tells us how, in an abrupt switch of fortune and with almost no initiative on his part, he found three entirely new and rewarding careers for himself, and winds up his story (for now at least) with an evening in his 72nd year that featured an adulterous encounter with "a lovely lady whom I had desired for years but with whom it had never seemed possible or appropriate to consummate my lust," followed by the receipt of his Oscar for best performance by an actor in a supporting role.
Run-Through carried Mr. Houseman and his readers through his association with Orson Welles in the theater, radio and the movie Citizen Kane to the final break between them and his acceptance of the job with the Office of War Information. Front and Center covered his supervision of short-wave radio propaganda during the first year and a half of World War II and his service as a movie producer for RKO and MGM studios with side excursions into radio and stage production and the new medium of television. It ended with his decision at the age of 53 to abandon his considerable success in Hollywood and try to rescue the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, from the effects of a calamitous first season.
He did succeed, we learn in Final Dress, in saving the festival, pleasing critics and audiences alike with boldly conceived and refreshingly original productions of lesser known works like King John, Measure for Measure, The Winter's Tale, The Merry Wives of Windsor and All's Well That Ends Well, along with the more familiar Taming of the Shrew (with Katharine Hepburn and Alfred Drake) and The Merchant of Venice (with Hepburn and Morris Carnovsky). When his contract expired in 1959, however, the board of trustees rejected Houseman's terms for a renewal, especially his insistence on total control and an expansion program they felt was financially unfeasible.
Of the other, often overlapping, jobs he lost, three were producing television series that drew some critical acclaim and audience ratings insufficient to sustain life. Another was a new contract to make two movies a year for MGM. Having left his previous employment there with an admirable reputation for both commercial and artistic achievement, his second term under a less compatible administration ran downhill from the start and culminated in a picture called The Cool of the Day, which he assumes to have been the worst of his film-making career. This judgment is based on secondary sources; he has never seen the movie himself.
Typically, he had another, concurrent job all through this period as artistic director of the UCLA Professional Theatre Group, making Los Angeles stage history with his productions of The Three Sisters, The Iceman Cometh, Measure for Measure, The Child Buyer and a spectacular King Lear with Morris Carnovsky. Once more, however, he found himself in irreconcilable conflict with the supervising board over his plan to give the organization permanent status in a home of its own, and resigned his post.
Without employment or prospects, he dubiously accepted a publisher's suggestion that he undertake his memoirs. Six months later he was suddenly offered the chance to enter a whole new profession as a teacher and administrator of the new Drama Division of the Juilliard Music School, and nearly half the book is devoted to the absorbing details of creating a curriculum and then the repertory Acting Company which grew out of it to be hailed by critics as a turning-point in the development of the craft in America. Quite abruptly we are reading an unqualified success story with Houseman moving like a superannuated Horatio Alger from triumph to triumph. After four years of no offers, he is in demand as a director; he launches a sub-career staging operas; Run-Through is published to superlative reviews; he agrees to play Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase more or less as a diversion, and where that led could easily fill a fourth volume.
A .500 average would be phenomenal in stage or film production as in baseball, but many celebrity memoirs go from hit to hit as if there had never been a strikeout or a double-play ball. One reason Houseman's are such a pleasure to read and the denouement so satisfying is that throughout he has been just as scrupulous in recalling his flops as his successes.
He himself raises a question that has been in many minds since The Paper Chase: "How much of the distinguished, cantankerous professor was the creation of the writer and how much was a reflection of the personality of the actor who played him?" A partial answer lies in his journal entry for his 66th birthday in 1968: "All that concerns me tonight is the exciting and terrifying realization that my school opens tomorrow! God help us!" It is hard to imagine Kingsfield beset with such self-doubt. But if he were, without ever a trace showing on the surface, how much more intriguing a person it would make him. CAPTION: Picture, John Houseman. Copyright (c) 1978, 20th Century-Fox Film