To call John Huston merely a great filmmaker would not do the man justice. Yes, he was an accomplished screenwriter and director, an artist whose eclectic career spanned almost sixty years. But he was also a legendary boxer, horseman, poker player, and womanizer –to name just a few of the manly pursuits that kept his attention between, and sometimes during, his famously adventurous film shoots. He directed forty-one movies, many in remote locations and some in the middle of battlefields, survived five marriages, countless studio battles, scornful critics, and years of debilitating illness before succumbing to emphysema at the age of eighty-one.
Huston was born on August 5, 1906, in Nevada, Missouri. His father was Walter Huston, the actor, and his mother was Reah Gore, a journalist. His parents divorced when he was six and Huston split time between the road (his father was in a traveling vaudeville show) and the race track (his mother covered horse racing). Huston battled numerous illnesses as a youth, including an enlarged heart and a kidney ailment. Ignoring his ill health, he learned to box and dropped out of school at fifteen to become a top-ranking amateur in California. By nineteen, he had drifted to New York and acted in several Off-Broadway plays. He tried his hand at journalism, learned to ride horses in Mexico, and by his mid-twenties had drifted back to Los Angeles to try screenwriting.
Huston’s first writing credits were in films starring his father, Walter: “A House Divided” (1931) and “Law and Order” (1932). He gained a reputation in Hollywood as a hard worker and an even harder drinker. After he was involved in a drunken auto accident that killed a young woman, Huston was so distraught he moved to Europe and drifted for several years. Returning to Hollywood in 1937, he recommitted himself to writing, and worked on such projects as “Jezebel” (1938) and “Sergeant York” (1941). In 1941 Huston finally got a chance to direct. “The Maltese Falcon” starred Humphrey Bogart and was an immediate critical and commercial success. But Huston’s promising directing career took a backseat to World War II. He joined the Army Signal Corps and made films for the military, including “Report from the Aleutians” (1943).
Returning to Hollywood, Huston won Oscars for writing and directing his father in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948). He worked constantly from then on –with mixed results– but scored triumphs with “The Asphalt Jungle” (1951), “The African Queen” (1953), “Fat City” (1972), and “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985), for which his daughter, Angelica, won an Oscar for Best Actress. Over these years, Huston traveled the world and moved several times, finally settling in Mexico. He also acted, turning in a brilliant performance as the corrupt tycoon, Noah Cross, in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” (1974). When he died in 1987, he was working on the movie “The Dead” (1987), a James Joyce adaptation that was produced by his son, Tony.