TAMI Flashback: Happy Birthday, John Henry Faulk


John Henry Faulk

John Henry Faulk may not be the most famous of famous Austinites -- but he should be. A revered folklorist, storyteller, writer, actor, teacher and civil rights activist, Faulk's ties to Austin run wide and deep.

Born in 1913 in South Austin (his boyhood home is now the elegant Green Pastures restaurant), he spent most of his life in the River City. As a University of Texas student, he was a protégé of the Holy Trinity of Texas letters -- J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Roy Bedichek. He earned a Master's degree in folklore and taught English at the university until the outbreak of World War II, when he joined the Merchant Marines and then came home to serve as an Army medic at Camp Swift in Bastrop.

After the war, Faulk's storytelling talent landed him a career as a popular radio talk show host and entertainer. He hosted The John Henry Faulk Show at WCBS in New York for six years, appeared on TV many times and served as vice president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). But Faulk's radio and TV career ended abruptly in 1957, a victim of anti-communist hysteria and blacklisting. (Faulk was famously liberal, but no communist.)

Faulk's response to his blacklisting, however, earned him an exalted place in entertainment history. He successfully sued those who ruined his career, and his fearless, years-long battle to clear his name helped bring an end to the dark days of McCarthyism. (Faulk's fascinating 1963 book about his experience, Fear on Trial, should be required reading for everyone.)

But although Faulk had won a legal and moral victory, his radio and TV career was all but over. He returned to Austin in the 1960s and did not appear on TV again until his somewhat embarrassing stint on Hee Haw in the 1970s. He returned to teaching, became a playwright and stage actor, appeared in several movies (most famously The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), and devoted the rest of his life to championing the First Amendment and many other progressive causes.

Faulk died of cancer in Austin in 1990. To honor his legacy, the City of Austin renamed its main library the John Henry Faulk Library in 1995. (For more details on Faulk's life and work, Wikipedia is most helpful.)

To mark Faulk's 101st birth anniversary on August 21, this month's TAMI Flashback features three fascinating videos that capture his life and legacy. The first is J. Frank Dobie by Cactus Pryor, a 1988 video of a play based on Faulk's memories of Dobie, his famous mentor.

The original play, titled Two Lone Stars and co-written by Faulk and Pryor, is a folksy and hilarious dialogue between Dobie (Pryor, apparently channeling the Texas icon) and Faulk, full of wonderful stories of Dobie's life and Texas lore. This video captures a slightly updated version of the play featuring Pryor and actor George Smyer, who played Faulk's role after Faulk left the play to work on other projects. Even in his absence, J. Frank Dobie is a wonderful showcase for Faulk's humor and writing talent. (Two Lone Stars has a special place in my heart: I saw it in 1985 at Trinity University in San Antonio, and it inspired my lifelong interest in Texas literature.)

[View original at Texas Archive of the Moving Image.]

Another great video is "Austin at Issue" With Cactus, John Henry, and Liz. This 1989 episode of the KLRU-TV public affairs show features Pryor, Faulk and Liz Carpenter, the quick-witted journalist, author and feminist best known as Lady Bird Johnson's press secretary. The three legendary Austinites have a rambling discussion with host Tom Spencer about why they stayed in Austin, what sets the city apart from the rest of Texas, and Austin's rapid growth (still a hot topic, of course). They also discuss race relations and famous women in Texas. (At the time, Ann Richards was in the early stages of her campaign for governor.)

[View original at Texas Archive of the Moving Image.]

A must-see video for Faulk fans is John Henry Faulk Memorial Service. The April 21, 1990 ceremony is exactly what any Faulk groupie would expect: a thoroughly entertaining mix of music and storytelling, as a roster of A-list speakers and musicians (Pryor, lawyer and activist Maury Maverick, Jr., Jerry Jeff Walker and Bobby Bridger, among others) give Faulk a proper sendoff.

Apparently, mourning is forbidden at the service; everything is funny and feisty and politically charged, with great stories about Faulk's life and passions. The best moment is at the post-service reception, when Molly Ivins tells the crowd a famously off-color and thoroughly Austin story involving Faulk, the Cinema West adult theater near his boyhood home, a crusading preacher, and masturbation. Could there be a better tribute to John Henry?

[View original at Texas Archive of the Moving Image.]