Photographic Memories / My Love Affair With John Huston

Assi Dayan remembers how he became a star overnight while working with a director who, unbeknownst to the actor, had made the favorite films of his youth.

In 1968, at the age of 23, after the Six-Day War and the unsuccessful conclusion of my second year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I moved to London with my wife Aarona. She studied television there (production, directing and editing ), while I arrived with minimal acting experience, in the films "He Walked Through the Fields" and the Italian film "Five Days in Sinai," plus about 50 theater performances of the play "Telemachus Clay," in which I played the main character (the play was a hit, and after I left I was replaced by Dudu Topaz and Motti Barkan for another 550 performances ). For months I waited for a phone call from my British agent in London. Mainly I waited in a casino, where I kept losing money.

My "career-oriented" side didn't relate to cinema at the time, but mainly to my failure in my philosophy and English literature studies at university. To this day my films for the most part represent some philosophical argument, and the scripts are written in an attempt to reflect the frustrated author and playwright within me.

'A Walk With Love and Death.'
Photo reproduction: Daniel Tchetchik

One day the agent called me and said I had been invited to audition for John Huston. I didn't know what an audition was or who John Huston was. I did know something about epistemology and who John Stuart Mill was [a 19th-century British philosopher, the father of the philosophy of utilitarianism]. So I went with the agent to a big place where an old man with a calm and wrinkled face was sitting on a small stage. Behind him stood about 30 assistants, minor producers, who informed me that John had already seen 200 actors for the lead in his next film, and was looking for an actor who would look and sound foreign.

Huston asked me if I knew how to ride a horse and I lied to him and said yes, having grown up in a moshav (until age 3 ). We continued to chat and he led me to understand that he knew nothing about Moshe Dayan, who was the defense minister at the time. I replied in excellent English that I didn't know much about my father either, and I forgot to get excited about the occasion due to a genetic disability, because being the son of "Napoleon" means not getting excited about people or events, and that's a shame because it leaves you only one bit of excitement that is designed for falling in love.

After less than 20 minutes, John - with an almost-Irish accent - informed me that the role was mine! The agent bombarded me with hugs and kisses and told me that, from that moment, I was an international star in the film of mega-director John Huston, who was considered the Hemingway of American cinema (in 1990 the film "White Hunter Black Heart" was made, with Clint Eastwood playing a fictionalized version of him and his passion for adventure, hunting tigers and wrestling ). The John Huston who died aged 81, after enriching American cinema with films, and himself and his actors with Oscars and Oscar nominations.

And then I reviewed the list of his films and discovered that I had spent my years of enrichment sneaking into Gan Rina, Orda and Orion [movie theaters] in order to eagerly watch his handiwork and the Oscars he grabbed: "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (an Oscar for best director and best screenplay; his father Walter won for best supporting actor ); "The Maltese Falcon" with Humphrey Bogart, based on the book by Dashiell Hammett (nominated for best picture and screenplay ); "The African Queen" with Bogart and Katharine Hepburn (Bogart won for best actor ); "Moby Dick" (based on the brilliant book by Herman Melville, starring Gregory Peck ); "The Misfits" (the three stars - Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe - all died shortly after making the film ), and dozens of other films, which gave him a total of 15 Oscar nominations in his lifetime.

And there were also films based on books that I loved as a student of literature, such as "The Night of the Iguana" with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner, which was originally written by Tennessee Williams, and "Under the Volcano" based on the amazing book by Malcolm Lowry. And his last film, "The Dead," based on a story by James Joyce. And I became a star overnight.

So let it be clear to [Israeli actors] Aki Avni and Noa Tishbi that, from that day on, I was driven around in a limousine, in a film that cost tens of millions of dollars and was shot near Vienna. I and Huston's daughter, Anjelica, who was 17 years old, played Romeo and Juliet during a medieval war that Huston made sure to fill with lots of blood and hundreds of knights whom I fought on a huge Belgian horse, without a saddle and with reins made of rope.

After riding I got my own trailer, a driver and a huge black Mercedes, a chair with my name on it, and I lived in a luxury apartment in Vienna that they rented for me on the street where Freud and Herzl used to live.

A year later, my spending allowance was $500 a day, not including my contract for $70,000. At the conclusion of filming, Anjelica and I embarked on a public relations campaign in which we would fly to a different state in the United States every night, be guests on a television talk show in the morning and sleep in the afternoon.

At that point I got tired of the business of stardom. Although I got good reviews, the film ("A Walk With Love and Death," produced by Twentieth Century Fox ) got mediocre ones, and Anjelica got bad ones. I had to console her on a journey filled with journalists who made her life miserable, like Dick Cavett who asked on a coast-to-coast broadcast: "Why do you think that at the age of 17 you deserve a present in the form of a film that costs $40 million?" She attacked him, telling him, "Fuck you." The broadcast was interrupted, and then they focused on me and wanted to hear why I thought the Palestinians deserved a state. I answered serenely: "They're a nation, and nations are usually given a state." They asked what my father said about my acting career. I replied that he only wanted to know if you could make a living from it, and I answered: "More than defense ministers."

And in fact Fox picked up my contract, in which I committed myself to two films. They didn't do the next film and I got another $100,000 for nothing (and now the gossips will say: "And all that went on drugs." Incidentally, I only encountered them for the first time at the age of 40 ). And the high point came when I was one of the five nominees for the Golden Globes as most promising newcomer. I didn't go because I hated Los Angeles, of which Woody Allen once said: "The only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light."

I returned to Israel with Aarona, who had progressed nicely as a television producer. Whereas I had acted in several films as the handsome fighter who was usually killed in a manner at which I had become a pro: a backward somersault and a forward twist with an astonished expression, as in the film with the enigmatic name "Death of a Jew." But I had started to direct short films.

And I continued to star, as a young Romain Gary in "Promise at Dawn" (Melina Mercouri played my mother ). As the young Jewish novelist, I narrate the film, and although it was a failure, they asked me and Hanna Maron to participate in the film "Fiddler on the Roof" starring Haim Topol.

On the flight to London we were hijacked by terrorists and landed at Munich airport, and there was a theory that they wanted to kidnap me as the son of the defense minister. But the terrorists didn't know anything about John Huston or epistemology and were determined to grab a quick judo lesson from the captain, which unfortunately ended with one person dead and the loss of part of Hanna Maron's leg.

And I ran for my life. In 1977 I played the deputy of Yehoram Gaon [in the film "Operation Thunderbolt," about the Entebbe rescue], who played Yoni Netanyahu, the brother of the present star of this nonsensical country. Because of the terrorists' activity, Lloyd's - the insurance company - refused to insure any film in which I appeared. At the time I was the wet dream of the Aki Avnis and Noa Tishbis, and other Israeli actors who are candidates to play the terrorists who screwed up my past and left me with just Israeli cinema - which is run like a footnote on the bottom of the mainstream page.

Beyond the entire decorative aspect of a star's status, I found myself growing increasingly close to John Huston because of his unique personality, which was authoritative on the one hand and pampering on the other. After about 40 films and quite a crazy life, I was infected by his impatience with the organizational details between shots. He was the one who told me that someone like Gregory Peck had said: "I've acted in about 50 films, and I've discovered that in 20 years of working in the profession, I spent almost five years waiting between shots." And that's why I turned into a fast-moving director who was thrifty with raw materials.

I directed "Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer" and "Beautiful Troubles" in 10 days, and in "Life According to Agfa" I used the material in a ratio of two takes to one (while in Israeli films they usually film for six to eight weeks, and a ratio of at least six takes to one ).

On the other hand Huston, like Hitchcock, was not very impressed by actors and said something to me that he used to say to them: "The baseline for good acting is to remember your lines and not bump into the furniture." As a director I didn't adopt that extreme, but as an actor I almost always ask to have my text written on boards. Or, for "Betipul" [the TV series "In Treatment" about a psychologist], on a monitor that was placed opposite me where the patient sat, and whose words were read to me by the script girl, and in all my close-ups I said my lines directly to the monitor (a flat television screen with the text of the scene ), and I didn't bump into the furniture.