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CRITIC AT LARGE

Tony Huston Recalls the Joys of 'The Dead'

December 17, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The accent is softly Anglo-Irish, north of a BBC news reader but well south of Barry Fitzgerald. But when the speaker, a very tall and dark-haired young man, expresses excitement and enthusiasm, a word, a phrase, a sentence booms out that causes you to say, "Of course! John Huston's lad. Got to be. It's the voice."

Tony Huston, now 37, was one of the two children born to Huston and the ballerina Ricky Soma. Anjelica is his full sister. They have a half-brother, Danny, who recently directed "Mr. North," in which his father was planning to star at the time of his death, and a half-sister who works in publishing in London.

In that remarkable, family-centered spate of creativity in his final years, John Huston inspired Anjelica to her Academy Award for "Prizzi's Honor." He co-authored the script of "Mr. North" and by his presence helped the project into being so Danny could direct it. And, despite his increasingly fragile health, he agreed to direct "The Dead" from the script Tony wrote of one of the stories from James Joyce's "Dubliners." Anjelica co-stars in the film, thus completing a family circle, in a way of speaking.

Tony was born in Malibu but John moved his family to St. Clerans, Ireland, when Tony was a year old. He holds Irish citizenship, as his father had, and attended a Christian Brothers primary school at nearby Loughrae. His parents separated when he was a teen-ager and he and his mother and sister went to London, where he finished at the excellent, ancient Westminster School.

He played clarinet in a wind quintet for several years, dealt in primitive art and worked in the British film industry as a junior publicist and finally as a second assistant director. He married a daughter of the Lord High Chamberlain of England, Lord Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley).

"At the opening of Parliament, my father-in-law has the privilege of walking backward before the Queen into the chamber," Huston said at lunch in Hollywood this week, offering no comment but somehow inserting a wink in his voice, as his father could.

The Hustons lived on one of the Cholmondeley estates in Norfolk and he trained falcons, a passion with him. Recently separated, he now maintains an apartment in London but plans a permanent base here.

"The Dead" was one of three scripts Huston and his father had worked on. The first was an abortive re-drafting of a script based on a fragmentary story, "The Springs," that Raymond Chandler had been working on at his death and that Ray Stark had acquired. They did another script for Stark that has also not seen the light of day.

Just now Huston is finishing a script on the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel, "a story with moral vigor, " Huston says--"not much of it in films these days."

While he was at Westminster, he discovered that first editions of the great Irish writers, Joyce, Yeats, Synge, were then seriously underpriced. Backed by John, he began collecting them.

"I read them before I took them to him at St. Clerans and when I read 'The Dead,' I immediately thought of it as a film. I told Dad about it, and it turned out that he had thought about making it 20 years before, while he was shooting 'Moby Dick' in Ireland."

The essential idea, Tony Huston says, "was to get Ireland right. Hollywood tends to see Ireland through New York Irish eyes, cops and fighters and the St. Patrick's Day parade.

"Living at St. Clerans all those years was our preparation for doing it." The story had powers of implication and suggestion that were clues to Huston's inventions. "Joyce writes about high-pitched laughter from the next room. Ah, well, what was the laughter about? That gives you the scene about the pig.

"The pleasure of working with a small masterpiece is that it keeps you on course. You always know where you're going."

Because it is John Huston's last film, "The Dead" is a deeply affecting experience to begin with, but it is affecting also as an artist's homage to a place and a people he loved.

Working together on "The Dead" was not quite a reconciliation; father and son had not been estranged. But what was true, Tony Huston says, is that "Dad hadn't been a family man. He was never comfortable about children. He was more comfortable with animals. Possibly," he says with a wry smile, "it was because children didn't have the same awe of him that grown-ups did."

The awe came later. Tony had been writing on his own for seven years, "struggling to make sense of the world." Then, in the last two years of his father's life, Tony says, "I became his closest collaborator and it was like being apprenticed to an old master. Having grown up, I could approach him in a professional way."

It was, he makes clear, very lucky for him. "There's so much talent out there, much of it born to bloom unseen. Think of Gray's 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard.' It's hit or miss even if you have overwhelming talent, but even then the talents can go adrift.

"It was fortunate that I grew up in Ireland and England. Being John's son meant nothing in school. Keats and Shakespeare were the heroes there. I had none of the pressure, let's say, of being Marlon Brando's son in Hollywood, any star's child in this milieu.

"If you're the son of a general, it's tough being a second lieutenant if you're not ready to be a general.

"I had time to find myself. Dad said we're a family of late developers. My grandfather Walter didn't really hit his stride as an actor until he was in his mid-40s."

The best review Tony Huston has had for "The Dead," he says, was from the audience at the Dublin Film Festival where the film was shown. "They got every point, and they chuckled. They'd been found out."

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