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Hughes in front of his Boeing 100.

"Listen everybody,
let me tell you about dreams,
dreams are made
in a time of need,
get up in the mornin
and put on your shoes
and you can read about Howard Hughes"
Lead Belly, "Howard Hughes"
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Howard Robard Hughes (December 24, 1905 – April 5, 1976) was an American business tycoon, entrepreneur, investor, aviator, aerospace engineer, inventor, filmmaker and philanthropist.

He is perhaps the most legendary tycoon of the 20th Century, simply for the drastic contrast between his public profile at the height of his fame in the 30s and 40s and the absolute recluse he became at the time of his death. Once known for his good-looks and playboy reputation, along with an assortment of gorgeous movie star girlfriends, when his body was found, he was unrecognizable, his fingernails having grown enormously, his hair being uncut and his appearance haggard and shabby, his arms were filled with broken-off hypodermic needles. His body had to be identified by fingerprints. The circumstances of his death, the unusual levels of control he kept on his staff and the revelations of his eccentricities and mental illnesses made Hughes a source of enduring fascination and Conspiracy Theory to this very day.

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Hughes had two major careers, one in aviation and one in film-making. They overlapped briefly when he directed Hell's Angels, a World War I combat film with impressive footage of aerial combat. As as an aviation pioneer in the 1930s he set many records for flight times. But in the 1940s he became notorious for his rather impractical plane designs on government contracts, many of them proving to be Awesome, but Impractical in terms of being unsafe and expensive to enter mass production. The famous Spruce Goose (a name which Hughes hated, preferring its official designation "H-4 Hercules")note  was the definitive example. The Spruce Goose was commissioned to be made of non-strategic materials, intended to transport a mammoth number of troops and materiel. It is the largest flying boat ever built and still boasts the longest wingspan of any plane. It also took so long to build that the war ended by the time it was complete, rendering its purpose meaningless. In the same period, Hughes also took a test-flight of another design, the XF-11 which crashed in Beverly Hills. Hughes barely survived the incident, and it is believed that the cocktail of drugs that he took in this time accelerated his mental breakdown.

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As a film-maker, Hughes' most important film was Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932) which he produced. His reputation after that is significantly more ambiguous. His 1943 Western The Outlaw caused a scandal for its lewd sexualization of actress Jane Russell, earning the disapproval of The Hays Code. Hughes was insistent that the camera focus on Russell's large chest and went the extra step to design a bra, using aviation design principles, to better accentuate her bust. (Russell later said that the bra was so uncomfortable that she couldn't wear it, so she just padded her own). He also took over RKO Pictures in the 40s and during his time, he came into conflict with several film-makers, Preston Sturges (who was briefly Hughes' friend), Max Ophuls, Josef von Sternberg among others. He also became a rabid anti-communist, producing the notorious The Woman on Pier 13, better known as I Married a Communist. His eccentric business practises became the stuff of Hollywood legend, including: meetings at 3:00 in the morning at a gas station several miles outside of Los Angeles, a cult of secrecy; whimsical changes ordered to the editing of a film; hiring, firing and rehiring of directors (the 1950 film Vendetta which had four directors and later Hughes contributed some pick-ups, because why not). This later culminated in a bunch of tacky 50s spectacles that led to RKO, one of the most creative and enterprising of the Big 7 studios, to be reduced to a shell of its former self, described by one historian as a "systematic seven-year rape". The most notorious is The Conqueror starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan, in which Hughes' irresponsible production led to the film being made on a nuclear testing site. Exposure on the set is believed to have caused the cancer-related deaths of many of the cast members.

This was also a period where Hughes started withdrawing from public life, returning briefly in the 70s, when a biography by Clifford Irving was denounced by Hughes as a hoax at a teleconference. Since his death, Hughes became a Historical-Domain Character, the subject of many films and books. Likewise most eccentric tycoons in comics and fiction are usually heavily based on Hughes.


Selected Filmography


Films about Hughes

  • Caught, 1949 Film Noir by Max Ophuls with Robert Ryan playing a No Celebrities Were Harmed version called Smith Ohlrig, intended by Ophuls as a Take That! over his treatment by Hughes on the film Vendetta.
  • Melvin and Howard by Jonathan Demme
  • F for Fake by Orson Welles which tackles the Clifford Irving scandal. Welles also notes that initially he wanted to model Kane from Citizen Kane on Hughes.
  • Diamonds Are Forever included an expy of Hughes in the character of Willard White who, like Hughes, was the reclusive millionaire owner of a Las Vegas casino who made his money in the oil business (Hughes' original fortune was from manufacturing oil-drilling equipment), who turned out to be a front for Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
  • The Amazing Howard Hughes is a 1977 TV movie starring Tommy Lee Jones as Hughes.
  • Tucker: The Man and His Dream by Francis Ford Coppola features Dean Stockwell as Hughes appearing in a small but memorable cameo where he voices encouragement for Tucker, displays his Spruce Goose and gives him advice on where he can get the steel he needs to build the contractually obligated number of cars and suggests a new engine to replace Tucker's now unviable original choice.
  • The Rocketeer features a brief appearance by Hughes, who built the jet pack used by the titular hero.
  • The Aviator by Martin Scorsese, a biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes.
  • The Hoax, a fictional film about the Clifford Irving scandal.
  • Rules Don't Apply, a 2016 film directed by Warren Beatty who also plays Hughes.

Tropes associated with Hughes in Fiction and his own films

  • Author Appeal: Planes, girls with large breasts, and, in the case of Jet Pilot, his Red Scare story with John Wayne and Janet Leigh, both at the same time.
  • Captain Ersatz: Quite a few:
    • Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, was modeled on Hughes and later versions of Batman also take the eccentric millionaire from him. Howard Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a direct allusion with Dominic Cooper channeling the Leonardo DiCaprio portrayal from The Aviator well.
    • Robert House of Fallout: New Vegas was also inspired by Hughes, and even has an in-game photo mirroring one of Hughes' most famous pictures.
    • Horace Derwent from The Shining, a former owner of the Overlook Hotel turned into one of its supernatural denizens, is heavily based on Hughes and has a background in aviation.
    • The Simpsons occasionally referenced both his later life and the H-4 Hercules, often with Mr Burns, such as Burns opening a casino and becoming a germaphobe and paranoid recluse (visually resembling Hughes at the time of his death), creating a plane he calls the "Spruce Moose", while a much later episode reveals Burns built a massive transport dubbed the "Plywood Pelican".
    • Diamonds Are Forever features Jimmy Dean as a reclusive businessman living in the penthouse of one of his casinos.
  • Dirty Communists: Being a vehement anti-communist, he helped create the trope in his 40s and 50s productions.
  • Eccentric Millionaire: He was the Trope Codifier in popular consciousness. His real-life paranoia and weird activities still leads to snarky jokes about urine collected in bottles in popular culture.
  • Historical-Domain Character: He appears quite often, usually shown sympathetically as a Byronic Hero.


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