SIDECAR Humour: In Praise of Scary Old Men

My (Unrequited) love for John Houseman

I have it on good authority that my father—who was one of those Barker-lounger-and-beer Dads, a real practical engineer type—kept in a drawer of his desk at work a carved bust of wood that he would pull out if someone bothered him too much. Only it wasn’t a bust, it was a hand making the offensive gesture. HR policies being what they are today, I can’t keep something like that around, but I do have on my cubicle wall a photo of John Houseman. When someone makes a really dumb joke in my proximity, I point to Houseman glaring in silent, imperial contempt.

Hey, saves time.

There’s a whole generation out there who doesn’t know who John Houseman was, which is a shame, because he could do Scary Old Man like nobody else. And Hollywood has a sad lack of scary old men today. Try to think of a few. The emperor from Star Wars? Are you kidding? Sure, put anybody in black Illuminati robes, they’ll be scary, but that’s phantom-of-the-opera, over-the-top scary. Clint Eastwood? Okay, maybe. But remember when he’s growling, “Get off my lawn!” in Gran Torino, he’s still holding a shotgun. A firearm is the only thing that separates him from the old guy in the Pixar movie, Up.

No, the scary we’re talking about is the professor with the thousand-mile death stare. The kind that intimidates you on an intellectual level. That laser look that hits you so hard, you do early Woody Allen impersonations. Which brings us to who John Houseman was, and why he was actually so much fun.

One critic put it well in suggesting that when Houseman spoke, “he had roughly the authority of God, and probably the same eyebrows.”

Because he played the quintessential Scary Old Man in a movie about law school called The Paper Chase, which was an okay film (he won an Oscar for his role) but was made into a better TV series in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Houseman played Professor Kingsfield, the scourge of terrified students needing desperately to pass his contracts law course. He was so effectively intimidating, with his glowering features like a fallen soufflé and his aristocratic New England accent, that the show used part of his classic speech from the movie every week in the opening credits:

And surprise, he was a hit. Where do you go career-wise from Scary Old Man in film and TV? Why, to Scary Old Man on commercials, of course. Which he did. Houseman became the austere, lecturing personage of Smith Barney in a series of spots. “Smith Barney,” he’d intone with immense gravitas. “They make money the old fashioned way—they EARN it.” This is one of the best of them:

I love this classic commercial for so many details. One, Houseman growls at you like you’re Bob Cratchet offering a homemade Kwanzaa gift.  Two, who the hell orders a single hardboiled egg in a fancy restaurant? Three, he always found a new way to pronounce the key word in the catchphrase: “They earn it.” As if we’re supposed to glean a different investment secret from each spot. Ohhhhh, they earn it. Last time, they only earned it, but this time they earned it.

One critic put it well in suggesting that when Houseman spoke, “he had roughly the authority of God, and probably the same eyebrows.” It’s why I love him so much, a love that’s naturally unrequited. That’s based on two decisive factors: one, because his persona probably wouldn’t like it, and two, because, well, um, he’s dead.

YouTube is the great vault for everything, so you can find plenty of clips of Houseman. But the Internet flattens fame, spreads it out like a massive pancake. The irony is that John Houseman was a lot more interesting than his typecast role as a curmudgeon. Check out his biography—

He’s a guy who was born in Bucharest and got the chance to ride the Orient Express four times. He worked as a real live gaucho in South America, and when he lost work as a grain trader in the Depression, he went into theatre and wound up working with Orson Welles. All those famous Welles productions—Citizen Kane, The Cradle Will Rock, War of the Worlds—he worked on ‘em. He produced some major film classics, too, like The Bad and the Beautiful, starring Kirk Douglas and Julius Caesar, starring Marlon Brando.

In the Second World War, he was a top official in the Office of War Information—secretly petrified for a while that he’d lose everything, because in all those years that he’d been in the States, he wasn’t actually a citizen. Thanks to ducking conscription in France after the Great War, he had fallen through the cracks of bureaucracy, but the whole citizenship limbo thing got finally sorted out in 1943, and he became an American. In the ‘60s, he was the head of drama at Juilliard when major talents in the making like Kevin Klein and Robin Williams were haunting the campus. And after all that, imagine becoming a film star when you’re 71.

My mild Houseman obsession started as a playful joke with his poster on my wall—that is, until I visited a West End Toronto bookshop and found one of the volumes of his autobiography. With an intelligent, authoritative and yet personal style, it’s quite obvious he wrote them himself instead of relying on a ghostwriter. There’s the added comic touch that in all the photos in his books—and I mean all of them—he looks almost exactly the same. I mean Jeez, even as a little kid, he resembles a grouchy old professor.

There’s something privately delightful about “adopting” an obscure and faded celebrity, rather than following the herd that chases the bigger, newer names— although yes, if Anne Hathaway comes by, I still pledge to do the Looney Tunes disappearing trick with a puff of smoke above my chair.

It would be slightly ridiculous if I gushed over Taylor Swift with girlish squeals (although I do) or cared about Kanye (I don’t). But John Houseman is a figure from the past who’s a wonderful role model for me. After all, I’m in my fifties—curmudgeon habits and grumbles are only a decade or so away! Some friends have even advised me darkly that in this, I’m “ahead of my time.” Irritability? Check… and who the hell’s asking? Baldness, bushy eyebrows? Ear canal forestation? Hey, I’m all over that.

Such an interesting life he had. And he does leave a legacy of sorts. We should all live so long to enjoy such unmerited fear—but only by those with a skull-full of mush.

Copyright © 2018 Transcontinental Media G.P.
Transcontinental Media G.P.