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Imagine how different The Treasure of the Sierra Madre would have been if Walter Houston played Humphrey Bogart’s part...
Well, that could have happened.
Before Sierra Madre, John and his father, Walter, had only worked briefly together. Walter appeared in uncredited roles in two of his son's films, The Maltese Falcon (1941) and In This Our Life (1942).
Now, with this moody tale of greed, they finally had a chance to work together in a deeper capacity. John envisioned his father in the role of Fred C. Dobbs, and the novel's author, B. Traven, even endorsed the idea.
But as John wrote the script, he began to rethink his plan.
He said, “I don't write with an actor in mind. But as I wrote it, I realized Bogart would be good for it, and my father would be good as the old man.”
Thankfully, the role of the knowledgeable prospector fit his father even better. Walter made the character especially memorable by incorporating two unique characteristics – a maniacal laugh he had once done after receiving a bad theater review and a jig he learned from playwright Eugene O’Neil.
Interestingly, the part was actually intended for an even older actor, but John knew his father could handle it. His only request was for his dad to play the part without his false teeth – just his gums.
While some fathers and sons perhaps would have found it hard to navigate working together on a film set, the Hustons got along wonderfully. This was in part thanks to their unique relationship.
John said, “I didn't see a great deal of him until I was about fifteen years old. I had merely been told by my mother that he was an actor, which meant he was away.”
After his parents got divorced, the two remained in contact via letters and occasional meetings. While the communication was infrequent, John enjoyed each opportunity to spend time with his dad.
“Since he had never played a father, he never assumed that role with me. We were more like brothers or good friends. He was a great companion. He loved great humor. I've never laughed with anyone else as much as I did with him.”
While filming Sierra Madre, their bond remained the same.
"There is an objectivity on the set that does away with any of the regular relationships that one might have with these same people off the set. The director is always the father figure on the set, so I suppose that, while the film was being made, I was my father's father figure,” John said.
Walter’s impeccable performance was not only recognized by his son but also by the Academy. In 1949, he won his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
During his speech, he joked, “Many years ago – many, many, years ago – I raised a son, and I said, ‘If you ever become a director or a writer, please find a good part for your old man. He did all right.”
John said, “I regard that film with great sentiment. And since I learned a lot about direction from seeing my father work, it was very gratifying. I learned from his actions, from his way of looking at life. My father was my closest friend, and he would have been even had he not been my father.”
Years later in 1985, John Huston directed another family member who also won an Oscar – his daughter Anjelica in Prizzi's Honor.