This year marks the 120th anniversary of the publication of H.G. Wells’ genre defining science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds. We reviewed the latest incarnation of the story earlier this year here at borg. This Halloween Eve marked the 80th anniversary of the broadcast of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles‘ theater company adaptation of Wells’ The War of the Worlds–the one that sent a minor panic across the U.S. in 1938. Smithsonian Magazine has the best historical retrospective on the event (written in 2015) at its website here. The show was just a quickly cobbled together episode of the radio drama anthology series Mercury Theatre on the Air, broadcast on CBS–the radio network–when an attentive audience took Welles’ performance for reality. Indiana University’s Lilly Library commemorated the anniversary by publicly streaming its newly digitized version of the infamous event derived from Welles’ personal lacquer disc recordings, for free. If you’re continuing your Halloween celebration through the weekend, there’s no better time to turn off the television and take yourself and your family on a time travel trip to sci-fi entertainment, 1930s style. Stream the original radio presentation of Mercury Theatre’s War of the Worlds plus more classic presentations at the library’s website here.
Along with The War of the Worlds anniversaries, it’s a good time to celebrate actor and writer John Houseman, who co-founded the Mercury Theatre Players with Welles, and produced and co-wrote the script for the War of the Worlds broadcast. Decades before gaining new fame in his Academy Award-winning role as the scary and iconic Professor Kingsfield in the movie The Paper Chase opposite Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner, and later starring in the television series version, Houseman served as an uncredited co-writer to Herman J. Mankiewicz on Citizen Kane. Initially collaborators, “Jack” Houseman and Welles would have a falling out soon after that was never mended. Never escaping his early connection with Welles, Houseman died thirty years ago today, the day after the 50th anniversary of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast.
If you’re a John Carpenter fan, you may recall Houseman as the narrator at the beginning of Carpenter’s 1980 classic ghost story, The Fog. Born in Romania, as the old coastal chap Mr. Machen (a name referencing 1890s horror writer Arthur Machen), Houseman delivered that same brand of captivating storytelling in his one-of-a-kind voice, storytelling that made the War of the Worlds broadcast so famous.
Houseman was also the acting teacher of both Christopher Reeve and Robin Williams at the Juilliard School of Fine Arts.
Other famous genre acting roles for Houseman included appearances in Rollerball (1975) opposite James Caan and Maud Adams, Three Days of the Condor (1975) opposite Robert Redford, The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman in 1976, My Bodyguard (1980) opposite Adam Baldwin, Ghost Story (1981) with Fred Astaire and Alice Krige, as the voice of MILT in Mork & Mindy (1982), and as himself in Scrooged in 1988. In both versions of The Paper Chase, Houseman created both a realistic portrayal of the emblematic law professor, while also creating an archetype copied by law professors in real life ever since.