Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Orson Welles
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Orson Welles

George Orson Welles (May 6, 1915 - October 10, 1985) is commonly considered one of Hollywood's greatest directors, as well as a fine actor and screenwriter.

Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He had an unusual childhood: His parents applied enormous pressure on his older brother Dickie to become a great and famous person. Dickie Welles was terribly unsuited to this role and became a homeless drunk. Orson inherited the role of wonder boy and seemed magically adept at it, though his personal relationships surely suffered as a result.

He made his stage debut in Dublin, Ireland in 1931, and by 1934 was a radio producer in the United States. Welles drew a great deal of attention in 1937 with a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar set in Fascist Italy. Shortly afterward, he and John Houseman founded the Mercury Theatre company.

In the summer of 1938, Welles and the Mercury Theatre began weekly broadcasts of short radio plays based on classic or popular literary works. Their October 30 broadcast of that year was an adaptation of the War of the Worlds. This brought Welles his first public notoriety on a national level—the program created panic among some listeners who found it completely convincing. Welles's adaptation of H. G. Wells's classic novel simulated a news broadcast, cutting into a routine dance music program to describe the landing of Martian spacecraft in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. The innovative broadcast was realistic enough to frighten many in the audience into believing that an actual Martian invasion was in progress. Recordings of the broadcast are still available (see old-time radio). The publicity that resulted from this led to the offer of a three-picture Hollywood contract from RKO.

Welles toyed with various ideas for his first project for RKO, settling briefly on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" before ultimately rejecting it. In a display of his avant garde sensibility, Welles' plans for that project included filming the action entirely from the protagonist's point of view.

Welles was once again the centre of controversy with his first film, Citizen Kane (1941). The gossip writer Louella Parsons convinced the yellow-press magnate, William Randolph Hearst, that he was the basis for Kane, with the result that Hearst's media empire boycotted the film. On its release, this event overshadowed the film's radical formal innovations. Welles is said to have sardonically remarked, concerning Hearst's attitude, that if he were to do a movie about the journalism magnate, the fact would be more grand and shockingly unbelievable than the fiction. This possibly apocryphal quote is uttered by Liev Schrieber (as Welles) in the 1999 TV movie RKO 281.

Welles' second film for RKO was the more traditional 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. During the production, Welles was asked to make a documentary film about South America on behalf of the U. S. Government. Welles left the United States to begin shooting this documentary after putting together the first rough cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, on the understanding that further editing decisions would be carried out via telegram. At this point RKO, in a perilous financial situation and fearing another commercial failure, wrested control of the film from Welles' Mercury Productions staff, cut over fifty minutes of footage, and added a reshot, upbeat ending: the cut footage, including Welles's original ending to the film, has been lost, apparently permanently. This event marked the beginning of a recurring pattern in Welles' Hollywood career of damaging executive interference.

After three more attempts to work within the Hollywood system (listed below), Welles left Hollywood in 1948. The following year, he made a notable appearance in front of the camera. In Graham Greene's The Third Man, Welles (as Harry Lime) gave the infamous "Cuckoo Clock" speech. This is the only piece of dialogue in the film which Greene himself did not write: Welles penned it himself and insisted that it be put in. Greene is reputed to have hated it.

Barring a brief return in 1958 to make Touch of Evil (which was also butchered by the studio, but has since been restored to something close to Welles' vision), the rest of Welles' directorial career was spent in Europe, his films self-financed with acting fees or, later, funded by sympathetic producers. On almost all of these projects he retained final cut, but the independence thus gained also resulted in drastically reduced budgets and technical facilities. Despite such setbacks, some of Welles' best work was produced during this period. He was an aficionado of stage magic and often appeared at Hollywood's Magic Castle. He even did TV, performing a few tricks with Lucille Ball as his assistant in an episode of I Love Lucy. In his later years, when his weight had ballooned, he appeared in a sketch on Johnny Carson's show, playing an extremely heavy and tyrannical king not unlike Henry VIII.

Welles starred in many of his films and wrote the scripts, often using the talents of the Mercury Theatre. These included several stories from English literature, such as Macbeth (1948), Jane Eyre (which he produced uncredited, and in which he appeared opposite Joan Fontaine), and Chimes at Midnight (1965), an underrated classic in which Welles played Falstaff.

During his career he won one Oscar and was nominated for a further four. One of his last notable film appearances was as Cardinal Wolsey in A Man for All Seasons (1966). In 1971 the Academy gave him an Honorary award "For superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures".

Always a large figure of a man, he achieved profound obesity in his later years. He capitalized on his image in various advertising campaigns hawking certain brands of wines, hot dogs, and correspondence courses. A famous bootleg of one of his later commercials still circulates, in which Welles flubs lines, grows progressively more annoyed with the copy, and gets rather profane. This was the source material for the Pinky and the Brain short, "Yes, Always".

Welles died of a heart attack in Hollywood, California. His last movie appearance was as the voice of Unicron in the Transformers movie. His last TV appearance was in the introduction of the episode "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice" of the series Moonlighting.

Table of contents
1 Directorial filmography
2 Additional acting filmography
3 External links

Directorial filmography

Additional acting filmography

External links