Orson Welles

Orsen Welles was born on May 6, 1915 in Kenosha,Wisconsin. Welles was a precocious and gifted child who began acting, writing, and directing for theater in his teens.
He became an established radio star in the mid 1930's when he performed in "The March of Time" and "The Shadow," (among other shows). Then Orsen, along with partner John Houseman, revolutionized both the radio medium and the theater with the forwardthinking productions of the Mercury Players.

Their "War of the Worlds" broadcast on Halloween night of 1938 made history when it terrified thousands of listeners and it made the name Orsen Welles" a household name.

Hollywood courted the “boy wonder” from New York, and RKO won his services by promising complete freedom (including the unprecedented right of “final cut” on his first feature). Welles did preliminary work on several projects, including an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, and a life of Christ set in the Old West, but settled instead on an ambitious pseudobiography of a publishing magnate and political kingmaker (based on William Randolph Hearst and Chicago’s Robert McCormick).

Welles worked with Herman J. Mankiewicz on the script, and had the great fortune of having innovative cameraman Gregg Toland volunteer to work with him on his maiden voyage. Welles would play the leading role-a tour de force in itselfand surrounded himself with members of the Mercury troupe (including Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, and Agnes Moorehead, most of whom were making their film debuts).

“Citizen Kane” (1941) rewrote the book on moviemaking in Hollywood, with bold and startling ideas about narrative storytelling, the creation of pictures and sound. (Welles worked closely with such collaborators as composer Bernard Herrmann, who’d been with him in radio, sound man James G. Stewart, and special effects man Linwood Dunn, whose optical printer helped create many of the film’s most dazzling images.)

Even Welles’ makeup, which convincingly aged him through a period of decades, was revolutionary. Hearst is was furious about the film and he tried to sabatoge it through his newspapers. He also put pressure on the studios to stop it from being released. MGM mogual, Louis B. Mayer, reportedly tried to buy the negative and bury it, literally. At the age of 25, Orsen made a masterpiece that earned nine Academy Award nominations, winning one for Best Screenplay.Though Heart’s meddling prevented it from being a commercial success at the time of its release, it is considered one if the best movies of all time.

For his next project he set about filming Booth Tarkington’s sprawling saga of an American family-and an American era “The Magnificent Ambersons” which he’d already adapted for radio. This time he wouldn’t star, which “freed up” the prolific Welles to appear in another RKO film, “Journey Into Fear” (sometimes shooting scenes at night after directing his own film during the day). He was urged by Nelson Rockefeller of the Office of InterAmerican Affairs to go to South America and make a film there that would further understanding between our cultures, and benefit the “Good Neighbor Policy.” Welles agreed, and arranged to work with editor Robert Wise on Ambersons just before his departure.

It was at this juncture that Welles’ life and career took a disastrous turn. New management at RKO was not sympathetic to the “boy wonder,” and when “Ambersons” did poorly at sneak previews, orders were given to reedit the film and shoot new scenes-without Welles’ knowledge or approval.

The studio also did not approve of his South American jaunt, particularly since Welles was still developing his story ideas, while bills were mounting. All at once, RKO gave the truncated Ambersons a desultory release, pulled the plug on his South American movie, It’s All True and ejected Mercury Productions from its studio headquarters. (The footage from It’s All True the subject of bitter fights and much speculation over the years, was finally fashioned into a feature release in 1993.) Like Erich von Stroheim twenty years earlier, Welles acquired an undeserved reputation of being a commercial failure, an irresponsible director, and a spendthrift. What’s more, no studios in town were willing to give him the freedom he’d enjoyed at the outset of his RKO tenure.

He found acting jobs, in “Jane Eyre” (1944) and “Tomorrow Is Forever” (1946) but it wasn’t until 1946 that he was able to direct another film, the first-rate thriller “The Stranger” in which he starred with Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson. He then charmed Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn, and made “The Lady From Shanghai” (1948) with Cohn’s biggest star and Orsen’s estranged wife, Rita Hayworth.

Cohn was uncomfortable with Welles-or anyonehaving as much power as he did on that film, as director, writer, and star, and there was no followup. Later that year he made a low-budget version of “Macbeth” (1948) at Republic Pictures (of all places), with many of his favorite radio-actor colleagues. Welles relocated to Europe, where he landed one of his all-time best film roles, as the elusive Harry Lime, in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).

Shortly after its completion he began filming Othello on location in Morocco, but had to suspend production after just a few weeks because his backers backed out. Welles immediately started taking acting jobs in Europe-in Black Magic and Prince of Foxes (both 1949) and The Black Rose (1950)-to help raise funds to keep his own film alive. Othello-filled with ingenious camerawork and a handful of vibrant performances, including Welles’ own as the Moor, which compensate for its “rough edges"-was finally completed in 1952, though unseen in the U.S. until 1955. (In the 1970s Welles shot a documentary, Filming Othello for German Television that’s almost as interesting as the movie itself!)

But his travails in getting it made were to be echoed countless times in the years ahead as he tried to float other film ventures.

(While making Othello he appeared as himself in a 1951 short subject called Return to Glennascaul for his friends Micheal MacLiammoir-who played Iago in Othello-and Hilton Edwards; when released in the U.S. in 1953 it was nominated for an Academy Award.)

As always, he found acting jobs-in the British Trent’s Last Case (1952), the Italian-made Man, Beast and Virtueand the French Royal Affairs in Versailles as Benjamin Franklin (both 1953), the British Three Cases of Murder and Trouble in the Glen and the French Napoleon (all 1954), and Moby Dick (1956)-but financing for his own films was another matter. With French and Spanish funding, he did direct and star in Mr. Arkadin (1955), one of his few fully realized projects, but even it was taken away from him in the final stages of editing.

Throughout the 1950s he wrote scripts for unrealized films, and busied himself with stage projects on both sides of the Atlantic. He also made occasional forays into television, and produced, wrote, and directed several television pilots that did not sell. After he was cast as a smarmy police detective in a small-scale Hollywood thriller, A Touch of Evil (1958), the film’s star, Charlton Heston, suggested to Universal that Welles also direct the film. He did a quick rewrite on the script, and was hired.

It was filled with visual flourishesincluding a now-famous three-minute extended opening crane shot-but it was just a minor film at the time of its release, and did not result in any further directing jobs. (It was recut for release without Welles’ participation, but in 1976 a print was found of his original, and that version has been in release ever since.)

From 1957 to 1960 Welles worked on a fanciful adaptation of Don Quixote which was never completed; a version derived from existing footage was presented posthumously in 1992. He was able to complete an adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial (1963), a little-seen but much-praised film, Chimes at Midnight (1966) in which he starred as Shakespeare’s Falstaff, The Immortal Story (1968), an hour-long adaptation of a story by Isak Dinesen, and the pseudodocumentary F for Fake (1974).

Welles never stopped writing or planning film projects; the one that came closest to completion was a story about a Hollywood director, The Other Side of the Wind Like Welles’ other film endeavors, this one was made over an extended period (in this case, seven years, 1970-76), with John Huston in the starring role; it is perhaps the most frustrating of Welles’ unfinished projects, because it apparently came closest to completion, with disputed ownership being the main reason it hasn’t been seen. (Welles did show clips from it when he received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1975.)

Welles continued to act throughout his lifetime, sometimes in worthy roles and films like The Long Hot Summer (1958), Compulsion (1959), Crack in the Mirror (1960), A Man for All Seasons (1966), Is Paris Burning? (1966), Casino Royale (1967), Oedipus the King (1968), Catch-22 (1970), Waterloo Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place (both 1971), Treasure Island (1972), Voyage of the Damned (1976), and It Happened One Christmas (1977, taking Lionel Barrymore’s role as Mr. Potter in this TV remake of It’s a Wonderful Life, but more often in potboilers and outright junk, ranging from The Tartars (1961) to Necromancy (1972) and Butterly (1981).

One novelty of Welleswatching was observing his penchant for the use of false noses and other makeup accoutrements. His last screen appearance was as himself in Jaglom’s largely improvised Someone to Love (1987). He also narrated countless feature films, documentaries, and television shows, and made a very good living as a commercial spokesman. Although he never wrote an official autobiography, he authorized Barbara Leaming’s biography “Orson Welles” (1985) and gave extensive interviews to Peter Bogdanovich which were assembled as “This Is Orson Welles” (1992).

He died on October 10 1985,of a heart attack.