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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Mr. Kingsfield the Rebel

John Houseman was a guest artist of the University of Delaware's Theater Department while I was in my senior year as a theater student. He was renown at the time for his role in the award-winning film The Paper Chase which was followed by a successful TV series in which he reprised his role as Professor Kingsfield. Much was made at the time in the media that at such an advanced age- well beyond retirement years - Houseman found "fame."

What was hilarious about this acclaim is Houseman was one of the most influential producers in the history of American Theater; plays such as The Cradle Will Rock and others were far away from the standard "feel good" Broadway and Off-Broadway shows during the 30s and 40s. Houseman was involved in the production of extremely controversial work and it was work considered quite left of the right. During a time of deep suspicion of socialism and communism invading the American way of life, Houseman and his colleagues were went boldly where few dared to go lest their lose their careers.

Theater students learn about the Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov and about the movements that changed the theatrical landscape but detailed history you read in books from the library. I was excited about meeting Houseman because I knew about his career particularly his work with Orson Welles. As it turned out, the head of the theater department selected some seniors (I was one of them) to take Houseman out to dinner and show him campus life. We were given the money to have dinner in a nice restaurant but Houseman preferred to dine in a place where students normally gathered. We wound up taking him to a diner called The Greasy Spoon. He loved it. In private Houseman was far more animated than his public persona and quite enjoyable to listen and talk to. He was very encouraging of all of us in that group and pleased we made the effort to learn about theater history that is not taught.

Funny how such a big deal was made about this man having won fame and fortune when his name had meant something in the theater and film world for almost half a century before Kingsfield came along.

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