John Huston: The Man Who Would Be King

Who He? Oscar-winning, legendary tough-guy director whose offscreen exploits were as absorbing as his films. Best-known for classic films The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle and The African Queen, he practically invented a whole new style of films with The Maltese Falcon.

Almost just as well-known for chain-smoking, heavy drinking, womanizing and reckless gambling, he reportedly once lost over $50,000 in mere hours in Reno casinos. No doubt he earned his nickname, The Monster.

In addition to making films noir, Huston made war films (The Red Badge of Courage), westerns (The Unforgiven), comedies (Beat the Devil), documentaries, musicals (Annie) and most of all, adaptations of literary classics (The Bible, The Dead). Critics castigated his auteur-free approach, he responded by claiming he was "eclectic."

Huston favoured shooting films in sequence and on location. Like another legendary tough-guy director John Ford, he shot economically and edited in his head so that his financiers would have trouble cutting scenes. It may have helped but didn't prevent his battles with studio heads in Hollywood. Still, Huston teamed up with Hollywood often enough to make some enduring classics.


Born John Marcellus Huston on Aug. 5, 1906, in the tiny town of Nevada, MO. Claims his grandfather, a professional gambler, won the town in a poker game. Only child of actor Walter Huston and newspaper woman Rhea Gore.

When John is 6, mum and dad divorce so he grows up traveling the vaudeville circuit with his father and the racetracks with his sports reporter mother. Sickly as a child, he is treated for heart and kidney ailments at the age 11 or 12. Recovers when mum moves him from Texas to California.

Learns to box as a high-school student in Los Angeles. Get the sense knocked out of him and drops out at age 15. Wins 23 out of 25 fights, the California amateur lightweight boxing championship at age 18 and a broken nose.

Becomes an honorary officer in the Mexican cavalry.

Journalist mum Rhea gets him a job at her workplace, the New York Graphic newspaper. Ever the filial son, he turns in stories with big factual errors and loses his job.

"I was the world's lousiest reporter." --Huston on getting fired

1931-1932. Actor dad Walter gets him a job writing screenplays in Hollywood.

1933. Tragedy strikes when Huston kills a woman while driving his car, but a jury clears him. He leaves Hollywood and bums around London and Paris.

"John was well into his twenties before anyone could imagine he would ever amount to more than an awfully nice guy to get drunk with." --James Agee, screenwriter

1937. Huston returns to Hollywood determined to succeed. He lands jobs at Warner Brothers co-writing hits such as High Sierra, Jezebel, Juarez, and Sergeant York.

1941. Makes his directing debut with The Maltese Falcon, filmed in 8 weeks for $300,000. Falcon soars to critical and commercial success. In a cheeky move, Huston casts dad Walter in a cameo as a sea captain who stumbles into Humphrey Bogart's office and drops dead with a knife in his back.

1943. Huston joins the Army Signal Corps as a captain and makes three documentaries including Report From the Aleutians, which eventually wins an Oscar for best documentary. Is promoted to major and earns the Legion of Merit medal for courage.

1945. Gets into a fistfight with matinee idol Errol Flynn at Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick's house, possibly over Huston dating Flynn's estranged wife Nora Eddington. Flynn wins, Huston gets over it and casts the faded star years later in The Roots of Heaven.

1947. Huston, who identifies himself politically as a Jeffersonian Democrat, joins the Committee for the First Amendment, a group that protests the House Un-American Activities Committee's efforts to root out communists in the film industry.

1948. Makes it all in the family while directing The Treasure of Sierra Madre.
Huston wins Academy Awards for writing and directing, while dad Walter wins the best supporting Oscar for his acting.

On the set of Treasure of Sierra Madre

1952. Increasingly unhappy over HUAC and "moral rot" in the United States, Huston moves to Galway, Ireland and becomes an Irish citizen in 1964.

Huston stands with Jack Nicholson after the latter's bizarre shaving accident in Chinatown

1975. Moves from Ireland to the west coast of Mexico. Spends his time reading, painting, snorkeling, taking care of (and probably separating) his pet boas and ocelot, and whale-watching.

1978. Finally decides Irish eyes aren't smiling. Gives up his estate in Ireland because "it cost me so much to live there that I had to stay away and work all the time to afford it."

Emphysema forces him to use oxygen tanks to breathe. Some reports say that despite his failing health (and risk of exploding), Huston continues to smoke.

1985. We are family, alright. Directs Prizzi's Honour. Daughter Angelica wins the Oscar for best supporting actress.

1987. Poor health forces him into a wheelchair but can't make him quit working as he directs The Dead, based on the story by James Joyce.

July 1987. Mr. North is a family affair co-written by Huston and directed by son Danny. Huston begins acting in the film but poor health causes him to step down and old buddy Robert Mitchum to step in. Huston remains on location in Rhode Island during the film.

Dies August 28, 1987 in Middletown, RI in his sleep of complications from emphysema.

Notable Quotables

"He was a great charmer, a witty raconteur, tall and good-looking in that broken-nosed ex-pugilist way..."
--National Review

"He was a divinely ugly man."
--Washington Post

"A 6-foot-2, lanky man with a craggy, kindly face."
--New York Times

--Humphrey Bogart describing Huston the actor.

"Daring, unpredictable, maddening, mystifying and probably the most charming man on earth."
--Lauren Bacall (Key Largo) on Huston

"He feels, for the kind of money we get paid, we ought to know how to do it ourselves."
--Michael Caine (The Man Who Would be King) on Huston's minimalist approach to directing actors

"Eleanor Roosevelt. Let her be your model."
--Huston directing Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen

"[The] best piece of direction I have ever heard."
--Hepburn on Huston's instructions

"Directing is simply an extension of the process of writing. The most important element to me is always the idea that I'm trying to express. The audience should not be aware of what the camera is doing. They should be following the action and the road of the idea. I don't believe in overdressing anything. No extra words, no extra images, no extra music. But it seems to me that this is the universal principle of art."

"We're all hostages in one way or another."
--Huston on freedom

"I don't seek to interpret reality by placing my stamp on it. I never try to duplicate myself. One must avoid personal cliches."
--Huston to his critics

"If you make movies about movies and about characters instead of people, the echoes get thinner and thinner until they're reduced to mechanical sounds."
--Huston on his fears for the future of filmmaking

"I would spend more time with my children. I would make my money instead of spending it. I would learn the joys of wine instead of hard liquor. I would not smoke cigarettes when I had pneumonia. I would not marry the fifth time."
--Huston, on how he would live his life over

Selected Films Including Noirography

High Sierra (1941) (writer)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Killers (1946) (uncredited writer)
Key Largo (1948)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
The African Queen (1951)
Red Badge of Courage (1951)
Moulin Rouge (1952)
Moby Dick (1956)
The Misfits (1961)
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Prizzi's Honor (1985)
The Dead (1987)

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