Orson Welles in 1937
|May 6, 1915|
Kenosha, Wisconsin, U.S.A
|October 10, 1985|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.A
George Orson Welles (May 6, 1915 - October 10, 1985) was an American theater and film director, and theater, radio and film actor. He gained international notoriety for his October 30, 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, which panicked millions of listeners into believing the broadcast was real. He also did notable and innovative theater and radio work in the 1930s and later on. However, he is best known for his 1941 film classic Citizen Kane, often chosen in polls of film critics as the greatest film ever made.
Youth and early career (1915 to 1934)
Welles was born in 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the second son of Richard Head Welles, a wealthy inventor, and Beatrice Ives, a concert pianist and suffragette. He was born on the day that Babe Ruth hit his first home run. At eighteen months, Welles was declared a child prodigy by Dr. Maurice Bernstein, a Chicago physician. His mother taught him Shakespeare, as well as the piano and violin; he learned magic from vaudevillians. When Welles was six, his parents divorced and his mother moved to Chicago with him, where they attended the opera, theater, and concerts. Beatrice Welles died of jaundice on May 10, 1924. Richard Welles died when the boy was fifteen, the summer after Welles's graduation from the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois. Bernstein then became his guardian.
Welles performed and staged his first theatrical productions while attending the Todd School and was brought under the guidance of a teacher, later Todd's headmaster, Roger Hill.
As a child he was deeply fascinated by conjuring, both stage and close up. He traveled with a magic act on several occasions throughout his adult life. His interest in the psychology employed by a magician surfaced in much of his film-making. For example, in Citizen Kane, during the dialogue in the famous puzzle scene with his wife Susan Alexander, Kane walks back in the shot to stand near the fireplace. He is unexpectedly dwarfed by the fireplace; a visual representation of his downward decline. The optical illusion obtained by Welles employs principles of "manipulation of perspective" used by magicians.
Welles made his stage debut at the Gate Theatre of Dublin, Ireland in 1931 at the age of sixteen, when he talked himself onto the stage and appeared in small supporting roles. By 1934 he was a radio actor in New York City, working with actors who would later join him in forming the Mercury Theatre. In 1934, he married the actress and socialite Virginia Nicholson (they would have one daughter, Christopher, who is a well-known illustrator of children's books known as Chris Welles Feder). His early film, the eight-minute silent short film, The Hearts of Age, also featured Nicholson. Welles also appeared in two Broadway productions with Katherine Cornell's company (where he came to the attention of producer John Houseman) and later accompanied them on a national tour.
Renown in theater and radio (1936 to 1939)
In 1936, the Federal Theater Project (part of Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration), began putting unemployed theater performers and employees to work. Welles was hired by John Houseman and assigned to direct a project for Harlem's Negro Theater Unit. Wanting to give his all-black cast a chance to play classics, he offered them Macbeth, set in Haiti at the court of King Henri Christophe, and with a setting of voodoo witch doctors; this has often been called the Voodoo Macbeth. The play was rapturously received and later toured the nation. It is considered a landmark of African-American theater. Welles was 20 and hailed as a prodigy.
After the success of Macbeth, Welles put on Dr. Faustus and the satire Horse Eats Hat. In 1937, he rehearsed Marc Blitzstein's pro-union 'labor opera' The Cradle Will Rock, but due to Congressional worries about Communist propaganda in the Federal Theater, the show's premiere at the Maxine Elliott Theater was cancelled, the theater locked and guarded by National Guardsmen. Welles and Houseman announced to ticket-holders that the show was being taken to another theater, The Venice, about twenty blocks away. Cast, crew and audience walked the distance on foot. Ironically, since the unions forbade the actors and musicians to perform from the stage, The Cradle Will Rock began with Blitzstein introducing the show and playing the piano accompaniment onstage, with the cast performing their parts from the audience. The show was a tremendous hit.
Welles and Houseman then formed their own company, the Mercury Theater, which included actors such as Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, George Colouris, Frank Readick, Everett Sloane, Eustace Wyatt, and Erskine Sanford, all of whom would continue to work for Welles for years. The first Mercury Theater production was Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, set in fascist Italy. Cinna the Poet died at the hands not of a mob but a secret police force. According to Norman Lloyd, who played Cinna, "it stopped the show." The applause lasted more than 3 minutes. It was a great success and widely acclaimed.
At the same time, Welles became very active on radio, first as an actor and soon as a director and producer, for CBS and the Mutual Network. In the summer of 1938 CBS gave him (and the Mercury Theater) a weekly hour-long show to broadcast radio plays based on classic literary works, entitled The Mercury Theater on the Air, with original music by Bernard Herrmann, who would continue working with Welles on radio and in films for years.
During Welles' radio years, he often freelanced and would split his time between the Mercury Theater, CBS, Mutual, and NBC, among others. Due to this, Welles rarely rehearsed, instead reading ahead during other actors' lines, a practice used by some radio stars of the time. Many of his co-stars on The Shadow have remarked about this in various interviews. There are a number of apocryphal stories where Welles was reported to have turned to an actor during the mid-show commercial break and commented that this week's story was fascinating and he couldn't wait to "find out how it all ends." Welles admitted to preferring the cold-reading style in his on-air performances as he described the hectic nature of radio work to Peter Bogdanovich in This Is Orson Welles:
Soon I was doing so many [programs] that I didn't even rehearse. I'd come to a bad end in some tearjerker on the seventh floor of CBS and rush up to the ninth (they'd hold an elevator for me), where, just as the red light was going on, somebody'd hand me a script and whisper, "Chinese mandarin, seventy-five years old," and off I'd go again… Not rehearsing… made it so much more interesting. When I was thrown down the well or into some fiendish snake pit, I never knew how I'd get out.
Due to Welles' often tight radio schedule, he was hard pressed to find ways to get from job to job in busy New York City traffic. In an interview conducted in his later years, Welles tells how he "discovered that there was no law in New York that you had to be sick to travel in an ambulance." Therefore, he took to hiring ambulances to take him, sirens blazing, through the crowded streets to get to various buildings.
On October 30, 1938, The Mercury Theater on the Air did H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. This brought Welles fame on an international level, as the program's realism created widespread panic among listeners who believed an actual Martian invasion was underway. Because of the notoriety of the production, Hollywood offers soon came Welles' way.
Welles in Hollywood (1939 to 1948)
RKO Pictures president George Schaefer offered what is considered to have been the greatest contract ever offered: A two-picture deal with total artistic control, including script, cast, final cut, and crew. So Welles (and the entire Mercury Theater) moved to Hollywood.
For his first project for RKO, Welles settled briefly on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. He planned to film the action with a subjective camera from the protagonist's point of view. But when a budget was drawn up, RKO's enthusiasm began to cool.
Realizing that he had to come up with something or else lose his film contract, Welles finally found a suitable project in an idea co-conceived with screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. Initially called American, it would eventually become Welles' first feature film, Citizen Kane (1941).
Mankiewicz' idea was based mainly on the life of William Randolph Hearst, whom Mankiewicz knew socially; he was friends with Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies. At Welles' urging, Mankiewicz wrote the screenplay, assisted by John Houseman, who wrote the opening narration in a pastiche of The March of Time newsreels. Welles then took the Mankiewicz draft, drastically condensed and rearranged it, and added at least three scenes of his own. While the character of Charles Foster Kane is based at least partly on Hearst, there are also strong allusions to Welles himself, most noticeably in the treatment of Kane's childhood.
Welles hired the best technicians he could, including cinematographer Gregg Toland and film editor Robert Wise. For the cast, Welles primarily used actors from his Mercury Theatre. Later on, when asked how he had learned to make film, Wells replied, "By studying the Old Masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." Welles reportedly viewed Ford's Stagecoach dozens of times as preparation for making Citizen Kane.
There was little concern or controversy at the time that Welles completed production on the film. However, Mankiewicz gave a copy of the final shooting script to his friend Charles Lederer, the husband of Welles' ex-wife Virginia Nicholson and nephew of Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies. In this way, Hearst found out about the existence of the movie and sent his gossip columnist, Louella Parsons, to a screening of the picture. Parsons, realizing immediately that the film was based on Hearst's life, reported back to him. Thus began the controversy over Citizen Kane.
Hearst's media empire boycotted the film and exerted an enormous amount of pressure on the Hollywood film community, even threatening to expose all the studio bosses as Jewish. At one point, the heads of all the studios jointly offered RKO the cost of the film in exchange for the negative and all existing prints, for the express purpose of burning it. RKO declined, and eventually the film was released. However, Hearst had successfully threatened every theater chain by stating that if they showed Citizen Kane he would not allow any advertising for any of their films in any of his papers, so aside from the theaters RKO owned, there weren't many movie houses that actually played it. The film was critically well-received. It garnered nine Academy Award nominations, though it won only for Best Original Screenplay, shared by Mankiewicz and Welles. But the picture fared poorly at the box-office, due to its lack of exposure, losing RKO most of its $800,000 investment.
Welles was dating Billie Holiday around the time he was making Citizen Kane. According to Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, she saw the film nine times before it ever played in a theater.
Welles' second film for RKO was The Magnificent Ambersons, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington, and on which RKO executives hoped to make back the money lost by Citizen Kane's relative commercial failure. Welles wrote the screen adaptation himself, purportedly while on King Vidor's yacht. Toland was not available, so Stanley Cortez was named cinematographer. Cortez worked much more slowly than had Toland in realizing Welles' intentions, and the film lagged behind schedule and over budget.
Simultaneously (and at RKO's request), Welles worked on an adaption of Eric Ambler's spy thriller, Journey Into Fear, which he co-wrote with Joseph Cotten. In addition to acting in the film, Welles was also a producer. Direction was credited solely to Norman Foster, but Welles later stated that they were in such a rush that the director of each scene was whoever was closest to the camera.
During the production of Ambersons and Journey into Fear, Welles was asked by John Rockefeller and Jock Whitney to make a documentary film about South America on behalf of the government's Good Neighbor Policy. Expected to film the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Welles was in a great rush to finish the editing on Ambersons and his acting scenes in Journey into Fear. He ended his CBS radio show, put together a rough cut of Ambersons with film editor Robert Wise, and left the United States. He completed his final cut via phone call, telegram, and shortwave radio, and that version was previewed to a disastrous audience reaction. Since Welles' original contract granting him complete control was no longer in effect, the studio took control of the film, and proceeded to remove fifty minutes of Welles' footage, re-shooting sequences which had a bad audience reaction, rearranging the scene order, and tacking on a happy ending. Schaefer was then replaced by new RKO president Charles Koerner, who released the shortened film on the bottom of a double-bill with the Lupe Velez comedy, Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. Ambersons was an expensive flop for RKO, though Agnes Moorehead did receive a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance.
Welles' South American documentary, titled It's All True, was budgeted at one million dollars, with half of the budget to be paid by the U.S. Government upon completion of the film. However, RKO was appalled by the "rushes" they saw of interracial revelers at Carnival (not commercial fare for 1942). Welles was recreating the journey of the jangadeiros, four poor fisherman who had made a 1500 mile journey on their open raft to petition Brazilian president Vargas about their working conditions. The four had become national folk heroes. After their leader, Jacare, died during a filming mishap, Koerner closed the film and fired Welles and his entire company. Welles begged to be able to finish the film and was given a limited amount of black-and-white stock and a silent camera. He completed the sequence, but RKO refused to let him complete the film. Some of the surviving footage was released in 1993, including a reconstruction of the Four Men on a Raft segment. RKO launched a publicity campaign against Welles, claiming he had gone down to Brazil without a screenplay and squandered a million dollars.
Unable to find work as a film director after the twin disasters of The Magnificent Ambersons and It's All True, Welles did find work directing in 1942 on radio. CBS offered him two weekly series, Hello Americans, which was based on the research he'd done in Brazil, and Ceiling Unlimited, sponsored by Lockheed/Vega and which was a wartime salute to advances in aviation. But within a few months Hello Americans was cancelled and Welles was replaced as host of Ceiling Unlimited by Joseph Cotten. Welles guest-starred on a great variety of shows, notably guest-hosting Jack Benny's show for a month in 1943.
Around this time, Welles married Rita Hayworth. They had a child, Rebecca Welles, and divorced in 1948. Welles also found work as an actor in other directors' films. He also had a cameo in the 1944 wartime salute, Follow the Boys, in which he performed his Mercury Wonder Show magic act and sawed Marlene Dietrich in half.
In 1945 Welles starred in the tear-jerker Tomorrow Is Forever with Claudette Colbert. While his suitability as a film director remained in question, Welles' popularity as an actor continued. Pabst Blue Ribbon gave Welles their radio series This Is My Best to direct, but after one month he was fired for creative differences. He started writing a political column for the New York Post, again called Orson Welles Almanac. While requested by the paper to write about Hollywood, Welles wanted to explore political issues, and the column became a confused blending of both. The column failed in syndication and was soon dropped by the Post.
In 1946, International Pictures released Welles' film The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and Welles. Sam Spiegel produced the film, which follows the hunt for a Nazi war criminal living under an alias in America. Seeking to avoid the expense and controversy of Welles' earlier films, Spiegel kept tight control of the project, and the result was comparatively unimaginative work from Welles. Welles resolved not to have a career as a cog in a Hollywood studio and resumed looking for the creative control which had originally brought him to Hollywood.
In the summer of 1946, Welles directed a musical stage version of Around the World in Eighty Days, with a comedic and ironic rewriting of the Jules Verne novel by Welles, incidental music and songs by Cole Porter, and production by Mike Todd (who would later produce the successful film version with David Niven). When Todd pulled out from the lavish and expensive production, Welles supported the finances himself. When he ran out of money at one point, he convinced Columbia president Harry Cohn to send him enough to continue the show, and in exchange Welles promised to write, produce, direct and star in a film for Cohn for no further fee. The stage show would soon fail due to poor box-office, with Welles unable to claim the losses on his taxes. He wound up owing the IRS several hundred thousand dollars, and in a few years time Welles would seek tax-shelter in Europe.
In 1946, he began two new radio series, The Mercury Summer Theatre for CBS and Orson Welles Commentaries for ABC. While Summer Theatre featured half-hour adaptations of some of the classic Mercury radio shows from the 1930s. Several original Mercury actors returned for the series, as well as Bernard Herrmann. It was only scheduled for the summer months, and Welles invested his earnings into his failing stage play, Commentaries, a political soap-box, continuing the themes from his New York Post column. Again Welles lacked a clear focus, until the NAACP brought to his attention the case of Isaac Woodward. Welles devoted the rest of the run of the series to Woodward's cause and caused shockwaves across the nation. Soon Welles was being hung in effigy in the South and The Stranger was banned in several southern states. But ABC was unable to find a sponsor for the radio show and soon canceled it, and Welles never had a regular radio show in America again and would never direct another anywhere.
The film for Cohn wound up being The Lady from Shanghai, filmed in 1947 for Columbia Pictures. Intended to be a modest thriller, the budget skyrocketed after Cohn suggested that Welles' then-estranged second wife Rita Hayworth co-star. Cohn was enraged by Welles' rough-cut, in particular the confusing plot and lack of close-ups, and ordered extensive editing and re-shoots. After heavy editing by the studio, approximately one hour of Welles' first cut had been removed. The film was considered a disaster in America at the time of release. Welles recalled people refusing to speak to him about it to save him embarrassment. Not long after release, Welles and Hayworth finalized their divorce. Though the film was acclaimed in Europe, it was not embraced in the U.S. for several decades.
Unable to find work as a director at any of the major studios, in 1948 Welles convinced Republic Pictures to let him direct a low-budget version of Macbeth, which featured paper-maché sets, cardboard crowns and a cast of actors lip-synching to a prerecorded soundtrack. Republic did not care for the Scottish accents on the soundtrack and held up release for almost a year. Welles left for Europe, while his co-producer and life-long supporter Richard Wilson reworked the soundtrack. The film was decried as another disaster. In the late 1970s, it was restored to Welles' original version.
Welles in Europe (1948 to 1956)
Welles left Hollywood for Europe in 1948, drawn by some acting offers and to look for producers who would allow him to direct. He also had the tax bill to pay. Further, some people speculated that Welles was blacklisted or greylisted in Hollywood.
In Italy he starred as Cagliostro in the 1948 film Black Magic. His co-star was Akim Tamiroff, who impressed Welles so much that he appeared in four of Welles' own productions during the 1950s and 1960s.
The following year, Welles appeared as Harry Lime in The Third Man, written by Graham Greene, directed by Carol Reed, starring Mercury Theatre alumnus Joseph Cotten, and with a memorable zither score by Anton Karas. The film was an international smash hit, but Welles unfortunately turned down a percentage of the gross in exchange for a lump-sum advance.
Welles also appeared as Cesare Borgia in the 1949 Italian film Prince of Foxes, and as the Mongol warrior Bayan in the 1950 film version of the novel The Black Rose. During this time, Welles was channelling his money from acting jobs into a self-financed film version of Shakespeare's play Othello.
From 1949 to 1951, Welles worked on Othello, filming on location in Europe and Morocco. Filming was suspended several times over the years as Welles ran out of funds and left to find other acting jobs. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival it won the Palme d'Or, but was not given a general release in the United States until 1955 and played only in New York and Los Angeles. The American release prints had a technically flawed soundtrack, and it was one of these flawed prints that was restored by Welles' daughter Beatrice Welles-Smith in 1992 for a wide re-release. The restoration included reconstructing the original musical score (which was inaudible) and adding ambient stereo sound effects (which weren't in the original film).
Late in 1953 Welles returned to America to star in a live CBS Omnibus television presentation of Shakespeare's play King Lear. While Welles received good notices, he was guarded by IRS agents, prohibited to leave his hotel room when not at the studio, prevented from making any purchases, and the entire sum (less expenses) he earned went to his tax bill. Welles returned to England after the broadcast.
In 1954, director George More O'Ferrall offered Welles the title role in the Lord Mountdrago segment of Three Cases of Murder. Director Herbert Wilcox cast him as the antagonist in Trouble in Glen. And director John Huston cast him as Father Mapple in his film adaption of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck.
Welles' next turn as director was Mr. Arkadin, the 1955 film produced by Louis Dolivet. It was filmed in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. Based on several episodes of the Harry Lime radio show, it stars Welles as a paranoid billionaire who hires a petty smuggler to delve into the secrets of his seedy past. Welles' absurd and obvious makeup has been the subject of much derision, but it may have been the intent to show a character who was in disguise and hiding his true identity. The film stars Robert Arden (who had worked on the Harry Lime series), Welles' third wife Paola Mori (whose voice was completely redubbed by actress Billie Whitelaw), and a bevy of guest stars. Frustrated by Welles' slow progress in the editing room, producer Dolivet removed Welles from the project and finished the film without him. Eventually five different versions of the film would be released, two in Spanish and three in English. The version which Dolivet completed was retitled Confidential Report (this was the version furthest from Welles' original intentions.) In 2005, Stefan Droessler of the Munich Film Museum oversaw a reconstruction of what might have been Welles' original intention. It was released by the Criterion Company on DVD and is considered by director and Welles scholar Peter Bogdanovich to be the best version available.
Also in 1955, Welles directed two television series for the BBC. The first was Orson Welles' Sketchbook, a series of six 15-minute shows featuring Welles drawing in a sketchbook to illustrate his reminiscences for the camera; the second was Around the World with Orson Welles, a series of six travelogues set in different locations around Europe (such as Venice, the Basque country between France and Spain, and England). Welles served as host and interviewer, his commentary including documentary facts and his own personal observations.
In 1956 Welles completed Portrait of Gina (posthumously aired on German television under the title Viva Italia), a thirty minute personal essay on Gina Lollobrigida and the general subject of Italian sex symbols. Dissatisfied with the results, he left the only print behind at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, where the film cans would remain in a lost and found locker for several decades (ultimately to be rediscovered after his death).
Return to Hollywood (1956 to 1959)
In 1956, Welles returned to Hollywood, guesting on radio shows (notably as narrator of Tomorrow, a nuclear holocaust drama produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration) and television shows (including I Love Lucy) and began filming a projected pilot for Desilu (owned by his former protegee Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz, who had recently purchased the defunct RKO studios). The film was The Fountain of Youth, based on a story by John Collier. Deemed un-commercial and unviable as a pilot, the film sat on the shelf for two years. When it was aired in 1958, it won the Peabody Award for excellence.
Welles' next feature film role was in Man in the Shadow for Universal Pictures in 1957, starring Jeff Chandler.
Welles stayed on at Universal to costar with Charlton Heston in the 1958 film of Whit Masterson's novel Badge of Evil (which Welles famously claimed never to have read). Originally only hired as an actor, he was promoted to director by Universal Studios at the suggestion (and insistence) of Charlton Heston. Reuniting many actors and technicians with whom he'd worked in Hollywood in the 1940s—including cameraman Russell Metty (The Stranger), make-up artist Maurice Siederman (Citizen Kane), and actors Joseph Cotten, Marlene Dietrich, and Akim Tamiroff—the filming proceeded smoothly, with Welles finishing on schedule and on budget, and the studio bosses praising the daily rushes. However, once in the editing room, the studio wrested Touch of Evil from Welles' hands, re-edited it, re-shot some scenes, and shot new exposition scenes to clarify the plot. When Welles viewed the studio's preview version, he wrote a 58-page memo outlining his suggestions and objections. The studio followed a few of the ideas, then cut another 30 minutes from the film and released it. Even in this state, the film was widely praised across Europe, awarded the top prize at the Brussels World's Fair. In 1978, the long preview version of the film was rediscovered and released, and in 1998, editor Walter Murch and producer Rick Schmidlin consulted the original memo, and using a workprint version they attempted to restore the film as close as possible to the memo. Welles stated in that memo that the film was no longer his version; it was the studio's, but as such, he was still prepared to help them with it.
While Universal reworked Evil, Welles began filming his adaptation of Miguel Cervantes' novel Don Quixote in Mexico, starring Mischa Auer as Quixote and Akim Tamiroff as Sancho Panza. While filming would continue in fits and starts for several years, Welles would never complete the project.
Welles continued acting, notably in The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and Compulsion (1959), but soon returned to Europe to continue his pattern of self-producing low budget films over which he would have creative control and final cut.
Return to Europe (1959 to 1970)
Welles returned to Europe and resumed acting jobs. He continued shooting Don Quixote in Spain, but replaced Mischa Auer with Francisco Reiguera.
In Italy, in 1959, Welles directed his own scenes as King Saul in Richard Pottier's film David and Goliath. In Hong Kong he costarred with Curt Jurgens in Lewis Gilbert's film Ferry to Hong Kong.
In 1960 in Paris he costarred in Richard Fleischer's film Crack in the Mirror. In Yugoslavia he starred in Richard Thorpe's film The Tartars. He also staged a play at the Gate Theatre in Dublin which compressed five of Shakespeare's history plays in order to focus on the story of Falstaff. Keith Baxter played Prince Hal and Welles called the adaption Chimes at Midnight.
By this time he had completed filming on Quixote. Though he would continue toying with the editing well into the 1970s, he never completed the film. On the scenes he did complete, Welles voiced all the actors and provided the narration. In 1992 a version of the film was completed by director Jess Franco, though not all the footage Welles shot was available to him. What was available had decayed badly. While the Welles footage was greeted with interest, the post-production by Franco was met with harsh criticism.
In 1962, Welles directed his adaption of The Trial, based on the novel by Franz Kafka. The cast included Anthony Perkins as Josef K, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Paola Mori, and Akim Tamiroff. While filming exteriors in Zagreb, Welles was informed that the producers had run out of money, meaning that there could be no set construction. No stranger to shooting on found locations, Welles soon filmed the interiors in the Gare d'Orsay, at that time an abandoned railway station in Paris. Welles thought the location possessed a "Jules Verne modernism" and a melancholy sense of "waiting," both suitable for Kafka. The film failed at the box-office. Peter Bogdanovich would later observe that Welles found the film riotously funny. During the filming, Welles met Oja Kodar, who would later become his muse, star and partner for 20 years until the end of his life.
Welles continued taking what work he could find acting, narrating or hosting other people's work, and began filming Chimes at Midnight, which was completed in 1966. Filmed in Spain, it was a condensation of five Shakespeare plays, telling the story of Falstaff and his relationship with Prince Hal.
In 1966, Welles directed a film for French television, an adaption of The Immortal Story, by Isak Dinesen. Released in 1968, it stars Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio and Norman Eshley. The film had a successful run in French theaters. At this time Welles met Kodar again, and gave her a letter he had written to her and had been keeping for four years; they would not be parted again. They immediately began a collaboration both personal and professional, which would continue for the rest of his life. The first of these was an adaptation of Isak Dinesen's "The Heroine," meant to be a companion piece to "The Immortal Story" and starring Kodar; unfortunately, the funding disappeared after one day's shooting.
In 1967 Welles began directing The Deep, based on the novel Dead Calm by Charles Williams and filmed off the shore of Yugoslavia. The cast included Jeanne Moreau, Laurence Harvey and Kodar. Personally financed by Welles and Kodar, they could not obtain the funds to complete the project, and it was abandoned a few years later after the death of Laurence Harvey. The surviving footage was eventually restored by the Filmmuseum München.
In 1968 Welles began filming a TV special for CBS under the title Orson's Bag, combining travelogue, comedy skits and a condensation of Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice with Welles as Shylock. Funding for the show sent by CBS to Welles in Switzerland was seized by the IRS, reputedly due to the anger of Richard Nixon over a record Welles had not written but had narrated (the political satire The Begatting of the President.) Without funding, the show was not completed. The surviving portions were eventually restored by the Filmmuseum München.
In 1969, Welles authorized the use of his name for a movie theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Orson Welles Cinema remained in operation until 1986 (with Welles making a personal appearance there in 1977).
Drawn by the numerous offers he received to work in television and films, and upset by a tabloid scandal reporting his affair with Kodar, Welles abandoned the editing of Don Quixote and moved back to America in 1970.
Return to America and final years (1970 to 1985)
Welles returned to Hollywood, where he continued to self-finance his own film and television projects. While offers to act, narrate and host continued, Welles also found himself in great demand on talk shows, and made frequent appearances for Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, and Dean Martin. Welles' primary focus in this period was filming The Other Side of the Wind, a project that took six years to film but has remained unfinished and unreleased.
In 1971, Welles directed a short adaption of Moby Dick, a one-man performance on a bare stage, reminiscent of his stage production Moby Dick—Rehearsed from the 1950s. Never completed, it was eventually restored by the Filmmuseum München.
In 1971, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him an honorary award "For superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures." Welles pretended to be out of town and sent John Huston to claim the award. Huston criticized the Academy for awarding Welles while they refused to give him any work.
In 1973, Welles completed F for Fake, a personal essay film about art forger Elmyr d'Hory and his biographer Clifford Irving. Based on an existing documentary by Francois Reichenbach, it included new material with Oja Kodar, Joseph Cotten, Paul Stewart, and William Alland.
Working again for British producer Harry Alan Towers, Welles played Long John Silver in director John Hough's 1973 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island, which had been the second story broadcast by The Mercury Theatre on the Air in 1938. Welles also contributed to the script, his writing credit was attributed to the pseudonym "O. W. Jeeves," and may have co-directed his scenes, as the film displays some Wellesian cinematic touches.
In 1975, the American Film Institute presented Welles with their third Lifetime Achievement Award (the first two going to director John Ford and actor James Cagney). At the ceremony, Welles screened two scenes from the nearly finished The Other Side of the Wind. By 1976. Welles had almost completed the film. Financed by Iranian backers, ownership of the film fell into a legal quagmire after the Shah of Iran was deposed. Written by Welles, the story told of a destructive old film director looking for funds to complete his final film. It starred John Huston and the cast included Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Edmond O'Brien, Cameron Mitchell, and Dennis Hopper. As of 2006, all legal challenges concerning ownership of the film have been settled and end money for completing the film is being sought, in part from the Showtime cable network.
In 1979 Welles completed his documentary Filming Othello, which featured Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards. Made for West German television, it was also released in theaters. That same year, Welles completed his self-produced pilot for The Orson Welles Show television series, featuring interviews with Burt Reynolds, Jim Henson, and Frank Oz and guest-starring The Muppets and Angie Dickinson. Unable to find network interest, the pilot was never broadcast.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Welles participated in a series of famous television commercial advertisements, acting as the on-camera spokesman for the Paul Masson wine company. The sign-off phrase of the commercials—"We will sell no wine before its time"—became a national catchphrase.
In 1980, the BBC broadcast The Orson Welles Story for the Arena series. Interviewed by Leslie Megahey, Welles examined his past in great detail, and several people from his professional past were interviewed as well.
During the 1980s, Welles worked on such film projects as The Dreamers, based on two stories by Isak Dinesen and starring Oja Kodar, and The Orson Welles Magic Show, which reused material from his failed TV pilot. Another project he worked on was Filming The Trial, the second in a proposed series of documentaries examining his feature films. While much was shot for these projects, none of them were completed. All of them were eventually restored by the Filmmuseum München.
Welles had three daughters to three different mothers: children's author Chris Welles Feder, born 1937 (to mother Virginia Nicholson); Rebecca Welles Manning, 1944-2004 (to mother Rita Hayworth); and Beatrice Welles, born in November 1955 (to mother Paola Mori).
Welles in his later years was unable to get funding for his many film-scripts, but came close with The Big Brass Ring and The Cradle Will Rock: Arnon Milchan had agreed to produce The Big Brass Ring if any one of six actors—Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, or Burt Reynolds—would sign on to star. All six declined for various reasons. Independent funding for The Cradle Will Rock had been obtained and actors had signed on, including Rupert Everett to play the young Orson Welles, location filming was to be done in New York City with studio work in Italy. While pre-production went without a problem, three weeks before filming was to begin the money fell through. Allegedly Welles approached Steven Spielberg to ask for assistance in rescuing the film, but Spielberg declined. The scripts to both films were published posthumously. After a studio auction, he complained that Steven Spielberg spent $50,000 for a Rosebud sled used in Citizen Kane, but would not give him a dime to make a picture. Welles retaliated by publicly announcing the sled to be a fake, the original having been burned in the film, but he later recanted the claim.
Welles performed narration for two songs by the heavy metal band Manowar, a favorite of his niece. The narration on the song "Defender" (from Fighting the World), released two years after his death, is among Welles' last performances. He also narrated "Drippy the Runaway Raindrop" by Sidney, Mary and Alexandra Sheldon which continues to be a popular English educational series in Japan.
His last filmed appearance was on the television show Moonlighting. He recorded an introduction to an episode entitled "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice," which was partially filmed in black and white. The episode aired five days after his death and was dedicated to his memory. His final role was the voice of the planet eating robot Unicron in Transformers: The Movie, released almost a year after his death on August 8, 1986.
Welles died of a heart attack at his home in Hollywood, California at age 70 on October 10, 1985; the same day as his Battle of Neretva co-star Yul Brynner. Wells had various projects underway, including a planned film adaption of King Lear, The Orson Welles Magic Show, and The Dreamers. His final interview had been recorded the day before, on The Merv Griffin Show and with his biographer Barbara Leaming. The last film roles before his death included voice work in the animated films Transformers: The Movie (as the villainous god Unicron) and The Enchanted Journey and on-screen in Henry Jaglom's film Someone to Love, released in 1987.
According to Welles' associates, the cinematographer Gary Graver, and his companion Oja Kodar, Welles did not wish to be cremated, but his wife Paola and daughter Beatrice had the cremation performed, and his ashes were eventually placed in a dry well at a friend's estate in Ronda, Spain. According to some reports, some of his ashes have been scattered in the town's famous Plaza de Toros, the oldest bullfighting ring in Spain still in use.
Welles' exile from Hollywood and reliance on independent production meant that many of his later projects were filmed piecemeal or were not completed. In the mid-1950s, Welles began work on the Cervantes' masterpiece Don Quixote, initially a commission from CBS television. Welles expanded the film to feature length, developing the screenplay to take Quixote and Sancho Panza into the modern age. The project was finally abandoned with the death of Francisco Reiguera, the actor playing Quixote, in 1969. An incomplete version of the film was released in 1992.
In 1970, Welles began shooting The Other Side of the Wind, about the effort of a film director (played by John Huston) to complete his last Hollywood picture, and is largely set at a lavish party. Although in 1972 the film was reported by Welles as being "96 percent complete," the negative remained in a Paris vault until 2004, when Peter Bogdanovich (who also acted in the film) announced his intention to complete the production. Footage is included in the documentary Working with Orson Welles (1993)
Other unfinished projects include The Deep, an adaptation of Charles Williams's Dead Calm—abandoned in 1970 one scene short of completion due to the death of star Laurence Harvey—and The Big Brass Ring, the script of which was adapted and filmed by George Hickenlooper in 1999.
Each decade since 1952, the magazine, Sight and Sound, of the British Film institute has conducted a poll of hundreds of film critics worldwide as to what they regard as the best movies ever made. For the past several decades—the most recent poll was in 2002—Citizen Kane has topped that list. Although it is not universally admired, more people have given that film such an accolade than any other. Also, as one critic observed, there are a large number of people who decided to become filmmakers and directors as a result of viewing that movie. So the influence and legacy of Wells to filmmaking and directing is immense. For one important example, when asked to describe Welles' influence, Jean-Luc Godard remarked: "Everyone will always owe him everything" (Ciment, 42).
No one in the history of world cinema has known more about how to make a great movie than Orson Welles. His genius—in theater, and then in film—is second to none. He was a first-rate actor, and his deeply resonant speaking voice was unmistakable and used to its full in radio, theater, and film. In theater he was known especially for his innovative lighting and use of sound. In film his image construction and blocking of scenes, as well as his use of sound and music and his florid style, were powerful, fresh, and instructive. More than one filmmaker has thought that he discovered something new about film, only to see Citizen Kane again and discover that it is already there in that movie.
But there is also the fact that, after that initial success, Wells was responsible for a very large number of unfinished, botched, or only partly realized films, and that he spent much of his life working as an actor or hired hand on second-rate projects of others, although his role as Harry Lime in The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed, is one of the great performances in world cinema. Concerning his career, Welles remarked, "I started out at the top and worked down from there."
The lack of successfully completed projects after Citizen Kane can be blamed partly on boycotts and unwillingness of Hollywood moguls to trust and fund him, especially after the controversy about and lack of commercial success of Kane. But a great deal of the blame must also go to Welles. He was unreliable. He usually did not see things through to the end, leaving them in the hands of others while he rushed off to something else. In addition, although everyone recognized his genius, he was often demanding, expensive to support, and otherwise difficult to work with. He seems not to have wanted to finish and release things because he wanted to continue redoing them, tinkering with them, editing them, because once something was released, it was out of his hands and he could no longer change it.
Welles has said that The Trial and Chimes at Midnight were his most rewarding achievements, Touch of Evil the most fun to make and The Stranger his least significant film.
Some people have asked why he became so fat. The answer seems to be that he had enormous appetites and indulged them. His regular dinner was two steaks and a pint of scotch. During his early years, especially while filming Citizen Kane, Welles' entire dinner menu also included a full pineapple, triple pistachio ice cream, and a full bottle of scotch.
Welles was known to have some close friends and supporters in the film industry; it was he who suggested to Peter Bogdanovich that he film The Last Picture Show in black & white. He had a close association and friendship in his later years with Henry Jaglom. Welles was Francis Ford Coppola's first choice to play Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), based on Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness which Welles was planning to adapt before he wrote Citizen Kane. Welles was originally considered for the part of Darth Vader in Star Wars, but George Lucas thought Wells would be too easily recognized. He voiced a trailer for The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957 as well as the original trailer for Star Wars in 1977.
Especially because of his resonant voice and rococco style, Wells has been parodied and used by others, among them comedian Bill Martin in his monologue, An Evening with Sir William Martin. The Brain, the evil genius lab mouse in the cartoon series Pinky and the Brain, was loosely based on Orson Welles. The Brain even parodies Welles' The War of the Worlds broadcast and his infamous radio commercial argument. Voice artist Maurice LaMarche provided the voice of The Brain, and would later portray a bloated Orson Welles at the low point of his television career in The Critic. And the lyrics of the song "The Union Forever," on the White Stripes 2001 album "White Blood Cells," are almost entirely composed of dialogue from "Citizen Kane."
Directed by Welles
- Hearts of Age (1934)—Welles' first film, a silent one-reeler made at age 18.
- Too Much Johnson (1938)
- Citizen Kane (1941)—won Oscar for Best Writing (Original Screenplay); nominated for Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Director.
- The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) - nominated for Oscar for Best Picture; shortened and recut against Welles' wishes, footage forever lost
- The Stranger (1946)
- The Lady from Shanghai (1947)—shortened and recut against Welles' wishes, footage forever lost
- Macbeth (1948)—shortened and recut against Welles' wishes, recently restored to original vision
- Othello (1952)—won the Palme d'Or, 1952 Cannes Film Festival
- Mr. Arkadin (also known as Confidential Report) (1955)—shortened and recut against Welles' wishes, Criterion's restoration released in April 2006.
- Touch of Evil (1958)—won the top-prize at the Brussels World's Fair; shortened and recut against Welles' wishes, recently restored to original vision
- The Trial (1962)
- Chimes at Midnight (1965)
- The Immortal Story (1968)
- The Deep (1970)—unfinished
- The Other Side of the Wind (1970-76)—currently unreleased, restoration in progress
- F for Fake (also known as Vérités et mensonges) (1974)
Other notable films
- Swiss Family Robinson (1940)—narration
- It's All True (1942)
- Journey Into Fear (1943)—actor, rumored to be co-director with Norman Foster. Welles denied he directed it.
- Jane Eyre (1944)—actor (Rochester)
- Duel in the Sun (1946)—narration
- Monsieur Verdoux (1947)—story idea
- The Third Man (1949)—actor, dialogue
- Moby Dick (1956)—cameo role as actor
- Man in the Shadow (1957)—actor
- The Long Hot Summer (1958) Will Varner
- Compulsion (1959)—actor
- A Man for All Seasons (1966)—actor
- I'll Never Forget What's'isname (1967)—actor
- Casino Royale (1967)—as Bond villain Le Chiffre ("Zero" or "The Cipher")
- Don Quixote (1969, version released 1992)—writer, director, actor
- The Battle of Neretva (1969)—as Chetnik senator
- Start the Revolution Without Me (1970)—narration, cameo role
- Catch-22 (1970)—actor
- Waterloo (1970)—actor
- Flame of Persia (1972)—Documentary narration
- Treasure Island (1972)
- The Muppet Movie (1979)—cameo
- History of the World, Part One (1981)—narration
- The Dreamers (1980-82, unfinished)—actor, writer, director
- Transformers: The Movie (1986)—voice actor
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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- Bazin, André. Orson Welles: A Critical View. Los Angeles: Acrobat Books, 1991. ISBN 0918226287.
- Berg, Chuck, and Tom Erskine (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Orson Welles. New York: Facts On File, 2003. ISBN 0816043906.
- Brady, Frank. Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989. ISBN 0684189828
- Callow, Simon. Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. New York: Viking, 1996. ISBN 0670867225.
- Carringer, Robert L. The Making of Citizen Kane. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. ISBN 0520205677.
- Carringer, Robert L. The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. ISBN 0520078578.
- Comito, Terry (ed.). Touch of Evil: Orson Welles, Director. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985. ISBN 0813510961.
- Conrad, Peter. Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life. London: Faber and Faber, 2003. ISBN 0571209785.
- Cowie, Peter. The Cinema of Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo Press, 1983. ISBN 0306802015.
- Drazin, Charles. In Search of the Third Man. New York: Limelight Editions, 2000. ISBN 0879102942.
- Estrin, Mark. Orson Welles Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002. ISBN 157806208X.
- France, Richard (ed.). Orson Welles on Shakespeare: The W.P.A. and Mercury Theatre Playscripts. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. ISBN 0313273340.
- France, Richard. The Theatre of Orson Welles. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1977. ISBN 0838719724.
- Garis, Robert. The Films of Orson Welles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0521640148.
- Greene, Graham. The Third Man. New York: Penguin, 1981. ISBN 0140032789.
- Heyer, Paul. The Medium and the Magician: Orson Welles, The Radio Years. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005. ISBN 9780742537965.
- Heylin, Clinton. Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2005. ISBN 1556525478.
- Higham, Charles. The Films of Orson Welles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. ISBN 0520015673.
- Higham, Charles. Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985. ISBN 0312589298.
- Leaming, Barbara. Orson Welles. New York: Viking, 1985. ISBN 0670528951.
- Lyons, Bridget Gellert (ed.). Chimes at Midnight. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 1988. ISBN 0813513391.
- Mac Liammóir, Micháel. Put Money in Thy Purse: The Diary of the Film of Othello. London: Methuen, 1952.
- McBride, Joseph. Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996. ISBN 0306806746.
- Naremore, James. The Magic World of Orson Welles. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1989. ISBN 087074299X.
- Naremore, James (ed.). Orson Welles's Citizen Kane: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0195158911.
- Noble, Peter. The Fabulous Orson Welles. London: Hutchinson and Co., 1956.
- Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "The Battle Over Orson Welles." In Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. ISBN 0801878403.
- Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Orson Welles as Ideological Challenge." In Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See. Chicago: A Capella Books, 2000. ISBN 1556524064.
- Taylor, John Russell. Orson Welles: A Celebration. London: Pavilion, 1986. ISBN 1851450025.
- Welles, Orson, and Bogdanovich, Peter. This is Orson Welles. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1992. ISBN 0060166169.
All links retrieved November 17, 2022.
- Orson Welles at the Internet Movie Database
- Orson Welles at the Internet Broadway Database
- Wellesnet The Orson Welles Web Resource
- (French) Orson Welles biography
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