The third man reconstructed

A new radio drama which charts the birth of the classic film Citizen Kane brings together some exceptional talents to portray three giants of stage and screen. The play's director, Ned Chaillet, talks about the history of the actors, and characters, involved

John Houseman was my mentor for more than 25 years," says David Ogden Stiers of the actor, director and author who was a fundamental figure in American drama from the Thirties until his death in 1988. "I would not want to do anything that was untrue to his character."

Which is why it was a high-risk strategy to ask him to play John Houseman in a new play for radio by the Canadian-American dramatist Marcy Kahan. If the words were untruthful for any of the three characters in her play, we would be in for a rough ride. For the play is about one of the most famous, and most crucial, collaborations in the history of the cinema - the weeks of austere discipline near the town of Victorville on the edge of the Mojave Desert where Houseman was editor, keeper and companion to Herman J Mankiewicz who was writing Citizen Kane for Orson Welles.

Welles struggled in vain to keep the pretence that he had written the screenplay by himself, and Mankiewicz was able to take some pleasure when the 1941 movie won only one Academy Award, for Best Screenplay. It was Mankiewicz's highest achievement, and possibly Welles's, but it is only recently that Houseman's key role as third writer has been routinely acknowledged. (Houseman himself refused to take credit, except for showing some special pride in the News on the March sequence. He was prouder of his success in keeping Mank sober).

Houseman and Welles had achieved extraordinary success together before Citizen Kane. They had founded the Mercury Theatre, produced Julius Caesar in legendary, modern dress, set Macbeth in Haiti with an all-black cast and, on radio, terrified North America with their production of H G Welles's War of the Worlds. Orson Welles was not yet 25. Houseman was his senior by 14 years.

After Citizen Kane, however, Houseman returned to his own career leaving Welles in pyrotechnical freefall. It left Welles embittered: "I have only one real enemy in my life that I know about," he told Richard Meryman, author of the Mankiewicz biography Mank. "And that is John Houseman. Everything begins and ends with the hostility behind the mandarin benevolence."

The enmity was Welles's convenient memory of a tempestuous separation he had greatly instigated. The Houseman that David Stiers found as his mentor was the Houseman who became familiar to film audiences as an actor, winning an Academy Award himself for his performance in the 1973 film, The Paper Chase. (Displaying a voice which is uncannily evoked by Stiers, and which was described by the New York Daily News as "a measured, thought- filled, erudite rumble".)

Houseman, born in Bucharest, educated at Clifton College in England, and perfectly married in talent to the boy genius Welles for some three years - which included the proletarian musical, The Cradle Will Rock, closed by the police in 1936 and the story of which is about to become a major motion picture by Tim Robbins - was also the man who planted a classical theatrical tradition in Los Angeles and New York.

On the New York side, the actors who have emerged from working with him include Kevin Kline, Patti Lupone and William Hurt. His West Coast company, the Professional Theatre Group at the University of California in Los Angeles became part of LA's Mark Taper Forum - the West Coast's most consistently important resident theatre company for many years.

David Stiers does not share Houseman's exotic history. He was born in Peoria, Illinois, the American equivalent of Basingstoke in the middle of the Mid-West. Best known to English audiences for his role as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III in the long-running television series, M.A.S.H., for which he was twice-nominated for Emmy Awards, Stiers has also become a famous voice in his own right. In 1999 he will be heard in Toy Story 2, and the Internet has photographs of audiences queuing for his autograph on CDs of Disney's Beauty and the Beast. For Woody Allen, for whom he has become part of the de facto film repertory company, he even played the younger Houseman when Houseman was Gena Rowlands's father in Another Woman.

But the exceptional qualities of David Stiers have many sides. As a conductor, he has conducted over 70 orchestras in more than 100 performances, and by choice is now more likely to be found on a podium rather than in front of a camera or on a stage. And far from being a part of the Los Angeles scene, where he is greatly admired, he lives in Oregon, near the Pacific coast.

Working for BBC Radio on Victorville did bring to light another of his passions. As an addicted fan of The Goon Show, he is a Goon completist. And a trade-off for his remarkable performance was my task of seeking out some long unavailable recordings. For that, radio has a new recording in the real time of an hour at the imagined moment when Welles arrived in Victorville to deliver his verdict on the screenplay of Citizen Kane, setting Welles, Mankiewicz and Houseman on their separate paths.

It would be hard to imagine what exile in Victorville was like for those weeks in 1940, except that Hollywood was always just down the road. Desolate stretches of desert highway in Forties' film noir, and the novels of Raymond Chandler are there to conjure up that remote past. Nowadays, US15 speeds the gamblers from Los Angeles through Victorville to Las Vegas. But as we were recording near the beach in Santa Monica, the Old West rose up in Victorville's neighbouring town of Apple Valley as mourners in their thousands turned up in their hats, holsters and spurs in homage to Roy Rogers who had just died. The town has another claim to fame, with its annual Huckleberry Finn Festival but, as Citizen Kane tops the millennial critics' polls as the greatest movie ever made, it is challenging to recreate those intense days at the Campbell Ranch at Cajon Pass.

Gordon Davidson, another heir of Houseman's as the distinguished artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum since its creation, came to see some of the recording. When it was completed, he went in to the studio to congratulate the actors: William Hootkins as Welles, Stanley Kamel as Mankiewicz, and, particularly, David Stiers as Houseman. "What can we offer you," he said, "to get you to the Mark Taper Forum?"

"An orchestra," said Stiers, smiling. Within a few hours, he was back home in Oregon where his music awaited him.

`Victorville' by Marcy Kahan will be broadcast as `The Friday Play', on BBC Radio 4, 14 August at 9pm

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