John Huston was one of the greatest filmmakers in history—but his renowned career was also shot through with scandal, controversy, and heartache. After all, this is the director people called a “lusty, hard-drinking libertine.” From his shocking legacies to his inner demons, here are 50 facts about John Huston, Hollywood’s wild thing.
John Huston Facts
1. Father and Son
John Marcellus Huston was born in Nevada, Missouri on August 5, 1906. He was the son of Rhea Gore, a sports editor, and Walter Huston, a vaudevillian who frequently went from theatre to film and back again. In fact, filmmaking was a family affair for the Hustons, and Walter ended up acting in a handful of his son’s films.
2. Torn in Two
When Huston was six, an event occurred that would shape the rest of his life: his parents divorced. While many children have to deal with the trauma of a split, it was particularly difficult for the young John. Without his parents together, he spent much of his childhood growing up in boarding schools, all alone. And that wasn’t even the worst consequence…
3. Can You Say “Oedipus Complex”?
Huston had a complicated relationship with his mother, and it had a little-known dark side. According to many who knew him, Huston was unhealthily obsessed with Rhea. As actress Olivia de Havilland put it, “She was the central character…He seemed pursued by something destructive. If it wasn’t his mother, it was his idea of his mother.” As we’ll see, this had a very notorious effect on his love life.
4. Staying in Bed
Huston’s childhood got even worse after his parent’s divorce. As a young boy, he had many serious ailments, including malfunctioning kidneys and an enlarged heart. In a move that probably only strengthened his bond to mommie dearest, he moved in permanently with Rhea and had to stay bedridden for much of his youth.
5. Total K.O
Huston lived at least a dozen lives before he turned 20. By the time he was 15, he dropped out of school to become—get this—an amateur lightweight boxer. Perhaps even more surprisingly, he was really good at it, and was at the top of his league and weight in California. He wasn’t quite in it for the long haul, though: He quit after he broke his nose.
6. I Knew I Was Forgetting Something
Everyone makes mistakes, but Huston’s flub on his first film set The Maltese Falcon was a doozy. On his first day as director, he watched his actors get into place, wait around, and then look at him expectantly. Apparently, Huston’s more experienced assistant had to whisper into the newbie director’s ear, “Say Action.”
7. For the Love of the Game
Even at the height of his career, Huston was in the grips of a ruinous habit. While filming The Misfits with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in Nevada, Huston’s gambling addiction got the better of him and nearly tanked the film. It was so bad, Huston even demanded that the studio give him $50,000 in “gambling allowance”…and proceeded to run absolutely wild.
8. Partying With the Stars
On the set of The Misfits, Huston went out at all hours to the casinos, and slept in late even when there were scenes to shoot. One day, when the casino had a power outage, Huston even ordered his crew to bring the set’s backup generators so he could keep playing. Everyone, even known party animal Clark Gable, was reportedly disgusted with his behavior.
9. He’s So Drunk, His Blood Type Is ABV
When Huston filmed The African Queen, most of the crew got horrifically sick from drinking the local African water, but Huston and his lead Humphrey Bogart were mysteriously spared. That’s because they’d come up with an ingenious plan. Instead of water, the pair imported scotch whiskey onto the set, and spent the entire time gulping down the booze.
Bogart later quipped: “Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead.”
Huston was infamous for his practical jokes on and off sets, and he once played a cruel trick on his own father. Papa Walter had a cameo in The Maltese Falcon, and after Walter wrapped, Huston recruited his lead actress Mary Astor to pose as a studio secretary, call up Walter, and inform him that the producers hated his performance. This? Did not go over well.
11. Papa Got Punk’d
Walter was outraged, but grudgingly agreed to re-shoot the scene. But Huston wasn’t done yet. He got his dad again: On the same phone call, he took over as a “studio producer” and repeated the criticisms until Walter blew an absolute gasket. At that point, Huston couldn’t contain himself anymore and burst out laughing, letting the cat out of the bag.
12. Food for Thought
One of Huston’s most famous pranks happened on the set of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. While filming a scene, actor Bruce Bennett was supposed to dig into a plate of stew. When Huston saw Bennett go method and actually eat the whole plate, he cheekily called for two more takes. After Bennett had stuffed himself sick, Huston took the joke up a notch.
The director finally revealed to Bennett that he’d actually gotten what he wanted on the first take—and then he rubbed salt in the wound. After wrapping the scene, Huston called a lunch break. That is next level pranking right there.
13. Dreaded Director
Huston’s relationship with Katharine Hepburn during the filming of The African Queen was notoriously tense and complicated. Hepburn despised Huston’s drinking habits on set, especially when she found herself so sick from dysentery that she had to puke into a bucket between takes. But there might have been a more scandalous reason for her disgust.
In her memoir about her time on The African Queen, Hepburn all but admits that she had Huston had an affair, even though they were both married at the time. They went on a safari together, shared bottles of wine on mountain tops, and she even recounts the night a drunk Huston stumbled into her cabin and gave her a sensual massage. In short, all that disdain might have been misplaced guilt.
15. First Comes Love, Then Comes Cheating
Huston’s love life is the stuff of legends, especially if you’re into horrible, depressing tragedies. He was married no less than five times throughout his life, with each relationship seeming to end even worse than the last. As I think you’re probably seeing, Huston was rarely, if ever, faithful to his spouses—but the marital strife got even worse than that.
16. I’ve Been Untrue
Though Huston’s first marriage to his high school sweetheart Dorothy Harvey lasted a relatively uneventful seven years, his second marriage to Lesley Black really took things up a notch. While married to Black. Huston was a shameless cheater, most famously with the beautiful (and also married) socialite Marietta FitzGerald. Some say FitzGerald was “the only woman Huston every truly loved.”
17. Breaking It in
FitzGerald and Huston’s affair was incredibly passionate and dramatic, and it led to one infamously embarrassing moment. While FitzGerald’s husband was out of town one day, the two went to town on each other at a friend’s place. In fact, they were going at it so hard, they broke the bed. That’s one awkward morning confession.
18. Second Time’s Not the Charm
Huston’s third marriage to actress Evelyn Keyes only upped the drama. When Huston started working on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Mexico, he and Evelyn had just wed—so she didn’t realize the torment she was in for. Huston reportedly berated her almost every day while she was on set. Before the film wrapped, Keyes stormed home to get away from her new husband.
19. Honey, We’re Home
That wasn’t even the biggest punishment Huston put Keyes through. While working on Sierra Madre after Keyes made her escape, Huston took a shining to a young Mexican boy named Pablo. Without even consulting his wife, Huston adopted the boy. The first Keyes heard about it was when she met the two of them at the airport. Oof.
20. Two Can Play at That Game
Huston’s longest-lasting marriage was with the beautiful ballerina Enrica Soma, and it was a potent mix of scandal and heartache. They married in 1950 and had two children together, but it didn’t stay happy for long. In 1964, they aired their dirty laundry: Soma got pregnant by another man and had his child, a girl named Allegra. Sadly, the worst was yet to come.
21. Single Dad
Scandalous extramarital affairs aside, Huston’s marriage to Enrica Soma was doomed to an utterly heartbreaking end. In 1969, Soma was visiting Dijon, France when she got into a horrific and fatal car crash. Suddenly, Huston found himself as a single father to a brood of children, even raising the illegitimate Allegra as his own.
22. Crocodile Tears
Huston’s marriage to his fifth and last wife Celeste Shane made it five years, but it ended the most bitter of all. Huston swore that Shane was the absolute worst of all his wives, denouncing her as a “crocodile.” He even went so far as to say that marrying her was one of his biggest mistakes, and if he could do it all over, he would have stopped after his fourth marriage.
23. Hollywood Dynasty
All in all, Huston had five children, three biological and the rest adopted. Many of them followed in their father’s footsteps and became actors: His daughter Anjelica Huston is probably the most famous, but Danny and Tony Huston are both also actors in their own right. Pablo and Allegra largely stayed away from celluloid.
24. Daddy’s Little Girl
Huston’s women troubles extended all the way to his famous daughter Anjelica, mostly because he could be a disturbingly controlling father. As a teen, Anjelica began acting in small roles, and when Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet started casting for Juliet, she was desperate for the part. But her father’s response was chilling.
Huston barred her from taking the role, and insisted on casting her in his own film, A Walk With Love and Death, instead. According to Anjelica, papa Huston wanted to be the one to “introduce” her to Hollywood.
25. Troubled Teen
John and Anjelica Huston’s collaboration in A Walk With Love and Death ended in total disaster. The teenaged Huston was resentful that she had to work on the film, but John was even worse. As the director, he was unusually harsh on the young girl—even for him—and would rip into her in front of the crew when she forgot her lines.
26. Wild Thing
Huston imagined himself as a real man’s man, something like the Ernest Hemingway of film. People called him “one of the wild men of Hollywood,” and Anjelica once said that he hated Hollywood falseness and “liked to be in the wild places.” Huston was also obsessed with hunting animals—so much so that it once almost ended his film career.
27. Close Call
One day while filming The African Queen, Huston dragged his lead actress Katharine Hepburn out on a hunt with him, but the jaunt nearly ended in disaster. The director and the starlet suddenly stumbled into a stampede of animals, and only barely escaped with their lives.
28. Memoirs of a Geisha
Huston’s bedroom life was always bizarre and never boring, but one steamy proposition proved too much even for him. At one point in his career, he wanted to cast a geisha in his new film. While negotiating with the geisha house to procure an untried geisha-in-training, the house informed him that he could have the girl for a $3,000 fee—which included much more than Huston bargained for.
29. On Second Thought…
According to the director, the geisha house told him that if he paid the so-called “pillow money,” he was not only allowed to screen-test the woman for his movie, he could also take her virginity. Even the hard-living, hard-bedding Huston was utterly disturbed by the transaction, and ended up turning the whole deal down.
30. Fighting With Flynn
Huston wasn’t just a demanding and cruel director, he also wasn’t afraid to get in all-out brawls with his actors. One day on the set of The Roots of Heaven, the notoriously alcoholic Errol Flynn was in his cups again, enraging his director Huston. When Flynn added insult to injury by giving Huston some sass, Huston immediately knocked out the heartthrob with a single punch.
31. The Duke Is Displeased
When Huston directed legendary macho man John Wayne in The Barbarian and the Geisha, he finally met his match. The two men detested each other throughout the entire shoot, and Wayne once got so furious, he actually tried to choke out the director before punching him in the face. Ugh, seriously, what is it with men?
32. Whatever It Takes
Huston was a lifelong smoker, and in the 1980s, his bad habits finally caught up with him. He suffered from severe emphysema for much of his later years, and his health got so bad at the end that he couldn’t breathe for more than 20 minutes straight without needing an oxygen tank. For his final film, 1987’s The Dead, he directed almost exclusively from a wheelchair.
33. Daddy’s Not Home
Huston’s daughter Anjelica has admitted that growing up with a famous director for a father meant that he was largely absent from her life. At one point, she recalled overhearing an interview where the journalist asked, “What is the most precious thing to you on earth?” When Huston answered “My children,” Anjelica was flabbergasted and suspicious.
34. I Didn’t Inhale
For all that Huston liked a regular drink, he considered other substances off-limits. When he tried a certain potent green stuff in Mexico with his father, his reaction was terrifying. Huston started panicking so much that he actually called a doctor over to treat him. That was enough for Huston, and he never touched it again.
35. I Saw the Beginning and the End
In 1950, Huston directed The Asphalt Jungle, and the film gave an enormous star her start. A young Marilyn Monroe appeared in a supporting role, and many people consider it her big break. In a haunting coincidence, Huston also directed Monroe in The Misfits 10 years later, which turned out to be the very last film she made before she passed on.
36. My Father’s Daughter
In 1985, Huston directed his daughter Anjelica in the film Prizzi’s Honor all the way to an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Right after she won, Anjelica leapt off the stage and ran into the audience to see her elderly father. His reaction was heartbreaking. The proud dad had tears streaming down his face as she rushed over to thank him.
37. A Star Has Fallen
On August 28, 1987, John Huston passed on just a few weeks after his 81st birthday. He’s buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery beside his beloved mother.
38. Old Hollywood BFFs
If Huston had a muse, it was Old Hollywood hunk Humphrey Bogart. The pair worked together all the way through both of their careers, and collaborated on classics like The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen. Even more than that, they were lifelong best friends, and Huston even delivered the eulogy at Bogart’s funeral.
39. White Wail
Huston’s life was strange enough to be fiction—literally. In 1992, years after Huston’s death, writer Ray Bradbury penned a fictionalized account about his time with the director in his book Green Shadows, White Whale. The result wasn’t exactly flattering. In it, “John” is enthralling and magnetic, but also vicious and demanding. As Bradbury said, he wanted to present the “Huston that I loved along with the one that I began to fear.”
40. Golden Boy
Huston made a lot of firsts when it comes to the Academy Awards, but maybe the most impressive feat was when he got nominated for the Best Director Oscar for his film Prizzi’s Honor. At the time, Huston was 79 years old, and he’s still the oldest person to ever be nominated for the category. Talk about an OG, right?
41. That’s My Boy!
When Huston and his father Walter made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre together, they also made history. At the Oscars that year, Walter won Best Supporting Actor, while Huston won Best Director in a heartwarming father/son triumph. Huston later confessed that his time on Sierra Madre and watching his dad win an Oscar were the top two moments of his life.
42. Like an Auteur
Huston was infamously demanding and particular about his film work, and when he knew what he wanted, he often didn’t stop until he got it. As actor Michael Caine once put it, “Most directors don’t know what they want, so they shoot everything they can think of—they use the camera like a machine gun. John uses it like a sniper.”
43. Are You Ready for Your Close-Up?
When Huston was starting out, he lived out every sensitive young man’s dreams and studied as a painter in Paris. This early experience actually had a huge effect on his films. Huston often created his own storyboards for his projects, and his cinematography is heavily influenced by his experiences as a painter.
44. Tastes Like Chicken
According to a story Huston once told, things got incredibly grim on the set of The African Queen. While filming, the crew apparently hired a hunter to provide them with meat and other foodstuffs. Then one day, they made a disgusting discovery: the hunter had actually been feeding them human flesh. Sadly (uh, or not), most people think Huston’s shocking tale was just another one of his classic pranks.
45. Underrated Thespian
Huston never considered himself as a great actor, though he enjoyed the process and humorously quipped “It’s a cinch, and they pay you darn near as much as you make directing.” Despite Huston’s low opinion of himself, he had an accomplished acting career. He was even nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for his role in The Cardinal.
46. Not Cool, Bro
In another classy move on Huston’s part, he infamously had an affair with Mary Astor, his lead actress in both The Maltese Falcon and Across the Pacific. Keep in mind that Huston was married to his second wife Evelyn Keyes during this time. You know, the one he sprung a surprise child on. But is all this anything new for our man John?
47. Tell Us How You Really Feel
Huston wasn’t exactly beloved by all his peers, and some people downright hated him…with good reason. Once on a visit to the White House, Huston cheerfully insulted then-president Ronald Reagan to his wife Nancy’s face. When Nancy asked Huston if her husband had turned out to be a better president than people expected, Huston’s cruel response was legendary.
“Worse, my dear—far, FAR worse!” He told her. Guess what? That was the last time Huston ever visited the White House.
48. Friend and Foe
As this list proves, Huston had his fair share of illicit trysts—but one day, he absolutely went too far. John took up with his daughter Anjelica’s somewhat older friend, Zoe Sallis. Even worse, he informed his daughter of this important fact by telling her she now had a baby brother, Danny. Not winning any parenting awards there, John.
49. Terrible Tragedy
In 1933, Huston made headlines in the worst way imaginable. While driving on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, he struck and killed the actress Tosca Roulien. Even though the coroner’s jury found Huston not guilty, he was so traumatized that he temporarily abandoned Hollywood. But the true story of that harrowing day may be even darker.
50. Culprit or Patsy?
Many people believe that Huston was framed, and that there was actually a more famous man behind the wheel that night: Clark Gable. According to this theory, infamous Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix covered up the bankable star’s unsightly sin by pinning the blame on Huston, then paying him off for his silence. Old Hollywood was one wild ride, guys.