John Huston (1906-1987)

John Huston
John Huston
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John Huston was a multi-talented member of the Hollywood filmmaking community. He was a screenwriter, film director and actor whose career extended over 5 decades and who became a legendary Hollywood figure partly because of the movie classics he created such as 'The Treasure of Sierra Madre', 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'The African Queen', and partly because of his hard-drinking, hard-living lifestyle. Despite his off screen hell-raiser image, Huston at work was a craftsman who knew what he wanted, was thoughtful and creative, and who was able to patiently and expertly draw the best work from his performers and crew.

He acted in a number of films, such as 'The Cardinal' in 1963 for which he was nominated for the Academy award for Best Supporting Actor and 'Chinatown' in 1974. Huston came from a movie background, and was the son of award-winning character actor Walter Huston and the father of actress Anjelica Huston and actor Danny Huston.

He received 15 Oscar nominations in the course of his career, winning in 1948 the Best Director award and the Best Adapted Screenplay award for 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre'. He also received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1983.


John Huston was born John Marcellus Huston on August 5, 1906 in Nevada, Missouri. His father was the Canadian-born actor, Walter Huston and his mother, Rhea Gore, a sports journalist.

Early Years

He grew up in showbiz and started performing onstage in vaudeville with his father when he was only three years old. His parents divorced when he was seven and he spent his childhood on tour with his father or around different race tracks with his sports reporter mother. When he was 10 years old he fell ill with a serious kidney infection which had him bedridden for long periods. He recovered completely and as a young man became a top-ranking amateur boxer, winning 22 out of 25 fights to become the Amateur Lightweight Boxing Champion of California.

As well as boxing he had many other non-sporting interests such as ballet, literature, opera and art. After moving to Los Angeles with his mother, he developed a passionate interest in the burgeoning movie industry and particularly admired Charlie Chaplin movies. During his visits to his father in New York he played some small roles in off-Broadway productions. It was a great learning experience for him and he became fascinated by the business of acting.

When he was 18, in 1924, Huston married Dorothy Harvey, his high school sweetheart, and also made his Broadway debut in 'Ruint' in April, 1925, followed by another Broadway show 'Adam Solitaire' later in the year.

Restless Youth

He was a restless young man and he soon abandoned his young wife and moved to Mexico where he became an officer in the cavalry. After returning to America and some newspaper work for his mother's newspaper, The New York Graphic, he was helped by his father to get scriptwriting work for early Hollywood talkies, and his first scripts were for films starring Walter Huston including 'Murders in the Rue Morgue' in 1932.

A traumatic incident occurred in 1933 when he was driving a car involved in a fatal accident in Los Angeles. Although he was cleared of blame at the subsequent inquest he was badly shaken and he grew restless again and spent a year drifting around London and Paris, studying painting.

Hollywood Scriptwriter

On his return to America he finally started to settle and he began collaborating on a few scripts for Warner Brothers. He also got a divorce and married his second wife, Lesley Black. Some of the early scripts he worked on for Warners included great successes like 'Jezebel' in 1938 , and 'High Sierra' and 'Sergeant York in 1941.

Hollywood Director

Warners were impressed with his obvious writing skills and in 1941 they signed him as both writer and director for their next project, the Dashiell Hammett mystery thriller 'The Maltese Falcon'. The movie was cheaply and quickly made - $300,000 in only eight weeks and gave Humphrey Bogart one of the most iconic roles of his career. It was an immediate critical and commercial success and is regarded - still regarded - as the greatest detective film ever made. Quite a debut. After this, in 1942, he directed 'In This Our Life' starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, and 'Across the Pacific', another thriller with Humphrey Bogart.

World War II

During the war Huston joined the Army Signal Corps as a captain and directed three powerful and well received wartime documentaries, 'Report from the Aleutians' in 1943, about soldiers making preparations for war; 'The Battle of San Pietro' in 1944, a hard-hitting story of an American intelligence failure, and 'Let There Be Light' the following year, about psychologically damaged combat veterans and so virulently anti-war that it did not get its first public showing until 1981. By the end of the war Huston had attained the rank of major and received the Legion of Merit.

As the war ended, so did Huston's second marriage and he married for a third time in 1946, to actress Evelyn Keyes. This marriage too would be short-lived, hit by Huston's compulsive drinking, gambling and womanising.

Postwar Career

In 1948 Huston once again hit the jackpot with a major hit movie 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre', again starring Humphrey Bogart, and for which Huston won Academy Awards for both writing and directing, while his father, Walter, won the best supporting Oscar for his acting.

Huston now had a rich directing pedigree and over the next few years he directed many exceptionally good movies which have stood the test of time, such as 'Key Largo' in 1948 and 'The African Queen' in 1951, both with Bogart, 'The Asphalt Jungle' in 1950, 'The Red Badge of Courage' the following year and 'Moulin Rouge' in 1952. He was an uneven director and this golden period of creativity was followed by a period of about 12 years when he made string of movies which, whilst well regarded, were by no means of the quality of his first creative period. Movies of this period include 'Moby Dick' in 1956, 'The Unforgiven' in 1960, 'The Misfits' in 1961, 'The Night of the Iguana' in 1964 and 'The Bible: In the Beginning...' in 1966.

During the latter part of this period Huston's critical standing slumped. But his reputation later revived thanks to the seemingly effortless mastery shown in 'Fat City' in 1972, a compassionate look at the world of small time pro boxers; his epic 'The Man Who Would Be King' in 1975; and 'Wise Blood' in 1979, a dark, comic parable of sin and salvation. In 1984 came 'Under the Volcano', a compelling drama of a doomed alcoholic, (played brilliantly by Albert Finney). In 1985 he directed his daughter Angelica in 'Prizzi's Honour' for which Angelica won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The New York Film Critics Circle voted 'Prizzi's Honor' the best movie of the year.

His final film, 'The Dead' in 1987, shot with Huston linked up to an iron lung in the final stages of emphysema, was the most perfect of his many literary adaptations, treating James Joyce's short story with love, joy, and an aching sense of regret-a poignant valediction, glowing with the beauty and transience of life.

Later Life

Huston was an ardent humanitarian and he was disgusted by the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the post war period of McCarthyism and red-baiting. He saw that blacklisting was killing the careers of many talented writers and performers, and in 1952 he moved to St. Clerans in Ireland and became a citizen there along with his fourth wife, ballet dancer Enrica (Ricki) Soma.

He and Ricki had two children, including daughter, future actress Anjelica Huston but split up after a son (future director Danny Huston) was born to an actress girlfriend of Huston's in 1962. When Ricki died in a car accident John subsequently adopted her child from another union. Huston later married in 1972 for a fifth time to Celeste Shane and moved to Las Caletas, on the west coast of Mexico in 1975. His final marriage ended in divorce in 1977.

As he got older, Huston took more and more interest in his own acting. He started with some bit parts in his own movies notably the white-suited tourist in 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre' in 1948, but didn't act for anyone else until Otto Preminger cast him as a church dignitary in 'The Cardinal' in 1963, for which he was nominated for the Academy award for Best Supporting Actor. He then continued to portray a series of similar, often malevolent, sometimes genial authority figures: the medical moneyman in 'Candy' in 1968, 'M' in Casino Royale' in 1967, the marquis's degenerate churchman uncle in 'De Sade' in 1969, the monumentally corrupt Noah Cross in 'Chinatown' in 1974, the voice of TV's Gandalf in 'The Hobbit' in 1977, and the Joe Kennedy figure in 'Winter Kills' in 1979.

He was filming a cameo role in his son Danny's 'Mr. North' in 1988 when he died. Huston suffered increasingly from ill health during the last decade of his life. He died in his sleep on August 28, 1987 in Middletown, RI, of complications arising from emphysema. He was 81. He is buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California.

John Huston Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Director ... The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Best Writing, Screenplay ... The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Thirteen Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Writing, Original Screenplay ... The Story of Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940) (Shared with: Norman Burnstine, Heinz Herald)
Best Writing, Screenplay ... The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Best Writing, Original Screenplay ... Sergeant York (1941) (Shared with Harry Chandlee, Abem Finkel, Howard Koch)
Best Writing, Screenplay ... The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (Shared with Ben Maddow)
Best Director ... The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Best Director ... The African Queen (1951)
Best Writing, Screenplay ... The African Queen (1951) (Shared with James Agee)
Best Director ... Moulin Rouge (1952)
Best Picture ... Moulin Rouge (1952)
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium ... Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) (Shared with John Lee Mahin)
Best Supporting Actor ... The Cardinal (1963)
Best Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material ... The Man Who Would Be King (1975) (Shared with Gladys Hill)
Best Director ... Prizzi's Honor (1985)


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John Huston Filmography (As director)

In This Our Life
Winning Your Wings (short)
Across the Pacific
Report from the Aleutians (documentary) (uncredited)
1944 Tunisian Victory (documentary) (replacement scenes)
San Pietro (documentary short) (uncredited)
Let There Be Light (documentary)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
On Our Merry Way (uncredited)
Key Largo
We Were Strangers
The Red Badge of Courage
The African Queen
Moulin Rouge
Beat the Devil
Moby Dick
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
A Farewell to Arms (uncredited)
The Roots of Heaven
1958 The Barbarian and the Geisha
The Unforgiven
The Misfits
The List of Adrian Messenger
The Night of the Iguana
The Bible: In the Beginning...
Casino Royale (various scenes)
Reflections in a Golden Eye
Sinful Davey
A Walk with Love and Death
The Madwoman of Chaillot (first director)