- Birth name:
- Walter Houghston
- Date of Birth:
- 7 April 1884 Toronto, Ontario, Canada
- 6' (1.83 m)
Walter Huston, who was born Toronto, Ontario on April 6, 1884, established himself as one of the great actors of the English-speaking stage and cinema. Though he never achieved true star status on the silver screen, he established himself as a well-respected and much-sought-after character lead beginning with the early talkies and continuing through the 1930s & '40s.Born Walter Houghston, he originally studied engineering before seeking a life in the theater, which is unusual in that Huston suffered from stage fright, a condition he never completely overcame. He married journalist Rhea Gore in 1905, who became the mother of his son John Huston, who would go on to become a celebrated screenwriter and director. To support his new family, Huston quit vaudeville and went to work as an engineer for a Missouri water works. Fortunately for the American stage and cinema, Huston's skills as an engineer were inferior to his acting skills, and after one nearly disastrous engagement (a reservoir he worked on proved flaw and nearly flooded a town), he returned to a professional acting career in 1909.Huston made his Broadway debut as the eponymous lead in '"Mr. Pitt", Pulitzer Prize-winner Zona Gale's last Broadway production, on January 22, 1924. The show was a modest success, running through April, but it was his next appearance on Broadway that made him a stage star. Joining the Provincetown Players, Huston originated the role of Ephraim Cabot in Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms (1958) off-Broadway, at the Greenwich Village Theatre. The play was such a success, it transferred to Broadway, totaling an eleven-month run of 420 performances. Huston would remain one of the Nobel Prize-winning playwright's favorite actors.He worked steadily on Broadway through the 1920s until he became one of the legion of Broadway actors that traveled West to provide voices to the faces on the newly-talking silver screen. Huston memorably played the villain Trampas in the original 1929 production of The Virginian (1929) against future screen superstar Gary Cooper before being cast as the martyred 16th president Abraham Lincoln (1930) in D.W. Griffith's penultimate film. Though Griffith's film was a flop, Huston had established himself as a major player in Hollywood.William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Productions cast the half-Anglo-Saxon, half-Scot-Canadian Huston as super-tough Irish American police chief Jim Fitzpatrick in the often-overlooked Depression-era crime classic The Beast of the City (1932), with Jean Harlow as the moll who corrupts his kid brother. It was one of Huston's most memorable early roles, and showcased his superb talent for underplaying while conveying great emotion. (Huston himself said that working in the cinema made him a better stage actor, as it influenced him to eliminate elocutionary-style gestures and use a more natural voice when he returned to Broadway.) Other memorable roles in his early Hollywood period include the virtuous banker in Frank Capra's American Madness (1932) and the antagonist of Miss Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford) in the 1932 remake of 'W. Somerset Maugham''s Rain (1932). It's a testament to Huston's acting prowess that his interpretation of the self-righteous Davidson arguably surpasses that of Lionel Barrymore in the silent original: Barrymore generally was considered the best American cinema actor of his time until the rise of Paul Muni during the 1930s.Hearst's Cosmpolitan Pictures once again handed Huston one of his more memorable roles, casting him as the corrupt politician who transmogrifies into a righteous President in the bizarre Depression Era film curio Gabriel Over the White House (1933). Huston is equally adept playing the ne'er-do-well hack solon (modelled after the public perception of Warren G. Harding) elevated to the White House by political fixers in smoke-filled rooms as he is as the saintly president, possessed by the Holy Spirit after a near-fatal car accident.The great William Wyler directed Huston in what is perhaps his finest performance on film, the eponymous Dodsworth (1936) in Wyler's 1936 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's novel. Huston received the first of his four Academy Award nominations for the role, which he had originated on Broadway in 1934. Huston's reputation as a great actor is rooted in this performance, one of the greatest by an English-speaking actor preserved on film.Huston continued to return to the stage. After a three-week run in the title role of Shakespeare's "Othello" in 1937 (it wasn't until Paul Robeson played the role on Broadway that an African-American was cast as the Moor opposite a white cast on the American stage), he scored one of his greatest successes on Broadway in the musical Knickerbocker Holiday (1944). Playing Peter Stuyvestant, Huston achieved Brodway musical immortality singing the classic "September Song" (music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Maxwell Anderson). Unfortunately, he was not hired to repeat the role when the musical was filmed in 1944.Huston received his second Best Actor nomination playing Mr. Scratch in the film adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's All That Money Can Buy (1941) and his third Oscar nod (for Best Supporting Actor) playing the father of George M. Cohan' (James Cagney) in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) the following year. Just before playing Lucifer, he had made a brief cameo appearance as the dying sea captain who delivers The Maltese Falcon (1941) to the office of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). That film represented the directorial debut of his son by first wife Rhea Gore, John Huston, who had established himself in Hollywood as a screenwriter in the 1930s. Father Walter who go on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1948 for his role as the old miner in his writer-director son John' s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), in support of Bogie. Accepting his Academy Award, the elder Huston said, "Many years ago.... Many, MANY years ago, I brought up a boy, and I said to him, 'Son, if you ever become a writer, try to write a good part for your old man sometime.' Well, by cracky, that's what he did!"Walter Huston died the following year in Beverly Hills from an aortic aneurysm, one day after his 66th birthday. Due to his great talent and his understated style, his reputation has not suffered as has some other of his "great actor" contemporaries of the 1930s, but rather, seems to have been burnished as time goes by, as the hot acting style of the past has been replaced by a cooler style that continues into the present.