Column: An encounter with Hollywood royalty

John Huston
John Huston

Greetings from San Miguel de Allende, the 16th Century colonial city nestled in the central highlands of Mexico.

On this occasion, I’m looking back on my first visit to Mexico, in the autumn of 1963 when, as a young reporter for United Press International, I managed to bag a plum assignment that took me to Puerto Vallarta, which was then a sleepy village on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. I’m also thinking of the Academy Awards to be handed out on Sunday, and my encounter with Hollywood glamour on that first Mexico visit.

That long-ago autumn, Puerto Vallarta became the site of a much-ballyhooed movie production of the Tennessee Williams play, “The Night of the Iguana,” filmed by the big-shot director, John Huston. Spurred by all the hype generated by that event, the small village soon exploded into a major beach resort.

Huston had assembled a strong cast for the picture of Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr. Being new to this game, I was dazzled by the star power when I arrived on the set.

But as that first day wore on, I stopped gawking and got down to the business of getting enough stories to justify my being there. I did my duty with the three stars, as well as some of the lesser lights, but my main focus was on the director.

By this time, Huston was established as one of the giants of American cinema. At least three of his films — “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen” — have been recognized as classics, and Huston aficionados (like me) would add some of his other pictures to that honor roll.

He brought to his craft an impressive pedigree — his father, Walter Huston, was one of the most celebrated actors of his generation — and a flamboyant, Hemingwayesque passion for macho enthusiasms such as boxing, big-game hunting, riding to hounds and deep-sea fishing. “All the blood sports,” as he put it when I interviewed him.

During my two-day visit to the “Iguana” set, I had a lengthy interview with him. We obviously talked about that work-in-progress, but I also asked him about some of his other films. At one point, I noted that Mexico had also provided the location for his greatest triumph – “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

With a broad grin, and in his deep, theatrical voice, he said, “It will always be my favorite. For obvious reasons.”

One of reason was the presence of his father in “Treasure,” the only time Walter Huston ever appeared in one of his son’s pictures.

A gripping, intricate tale of how greed can warp and ultimately destroy men’s lives, “Treasure” came out in 1948, and the Hustons wound up winning three Academy Awards for their work. Two were bestowed on John – one for best director and the other for best screenplay and his papa received the Oscar for best performance by a supporting actor. A family triple crown that’s never been equaled.

The elder Huston played Howard, a grizzled geezer who has spent much of his life prospecting for gold but without much success. Howard hooks up with two much younger Americans who are also down on their luck played by Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt. The three men pool their meager resources and go off in search of gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.

As Huston reminisced about the filming of “Treasure,” I asked him if he ever gave his father any direction.

“Just once,” he said. “We had just finished a scene with the three of them, and I called for another take. Then, turning to my dad, I said, ‘And I’d like you to slow it down a bit. I think you’re talking too fast.’

“He promptly jumped to his feet and his first words to me were, ‘Listen, sonny!’ – which was not my favorite way of being addressed on the set of a picture I’m making. Especially in front of Bogey and Tim and most of the crew.

“Dad then said, ‘There’s a reason why I’m talking fast. This Howard I’m playing is an honest man. And an honest man talks fast because he doesn’t have to think about what he’s supposed to say.’”

Then came a very long pause, during which Huston seemed to be recalling, in all its detail and nuance, that moment from another film shoot in another part of Mexico that had occurred more than 15 years earlier. Finally he said with a faint smile: “So I learned my lesson. I never again tried to give him direction.”

I thought that charming yarn revealed a vulnerable side of Huston rarely seen in public, and so, in addition to including it in the UPI feature piece I wrote about him that fall, I dined out on it for many years thereafter.

But there is more to this story. Huston continued directing films until 1987, the year he died at the age of 81. By then, he had become a legendary figure and eulogies poured in from all quarters.

I happened to catch one television tribute that featured an interview with Michael Caine, who had co-starred in the 1975 movie “The Man Who Would Be King,” one of Huston’s best pictures from his later years.

In that film, adapted from a Rudyard Kipling novella, Caine plays Peachy, a former British noncom who has served for years in India. Peachy and his longtime comrade-in-arms, Danny, played by Sean Connery, have soured on military service. Going rogue, they concoct a scheme to become rulers of a remote kingdom in Afghanistan.

In the TV interview, Caine talked with relish about the experience of working in a John Huston movie, and at one point he was asked if the famous filmmaker ever gave him any direction.

“Only once, as I recall,” he replied. “He interrupted a scene we were filming and said, “Let’s start this one over.” Then, looking at me, John said, “And Michael, I’d like you to talk a little faster. You should talk faster. Your Peachy is an honest man.”