Welles in the trailer for Touch of Evil (1958)
May 6, 1915
October 10, 1985
1931 - 1985
Welles first found national and international fame as the director and narrator of a 1938 radio adaptation of H. G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds performed for the radio drama anthology series Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was reported to have caused widespread panic when listeners thought that an extraterrestrial invasion was occurring. Although these reports of panic were mostly false and overstated, they rocketed Welles to instant notoriety.
Citizen Kane, his first film with RKO, in which he starred in the iconic role of Charles Foster Kane, is often considered the greatest film ever made. Several of his other films, including The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, and F for Fake, are also widely considered to be masterpieces.
In 2002, he was voted the greatest film director of all time in two separate British Film Institute polls among directors and critics, and a comprehensive survey of critical opinion, best-of lists, and critics' polls has determined that Welles is the most acclaimed director of all time. Well known for his baritone voice, Welles was also an extremely well regarded actor and was voted number 16 in AFI's 100 Years. 100 Stars list of the greatest American film actors of all time. He was also a celebrated Shakespearean stage actor and an accomplished magician, starring in troop variety shows in the war years.
Welles was born May 6, 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, son of Richard Hodgdon Head Welles (1873, Missouri – December 28, 1930, Chicago, Illinois) and Beatrice (née Ives; 1882 or 1883, Springfield, Illinois – May 10, 1924, Chicago, Illinois). He was raised Roman Catholic. Despite his parents' affluence, Welles encountered many hardships in childhood. In 1919, his parents separated and moved to Chicago. His father, who had made a fortune as the inventor of a popular bicycle lamp, became an alcoholic and stopped working. Welles's mother, a concert pianist, played during lectures by Dudley Crafts Watson at the Chicago Art Institute to support her son and herself (the oldest Welles boy, "Dickie", had been institutionalized at an early age because he had learning difficulties). Beatrice died of jaundice in 1924 in a Chicago hospital a few days after Welles's ninth birthday. After his mother's death, Welles ceased pursuing his interest in music. He was taken in by Dudley Crafts Watson and lived with the family at Watson's family home, "Trillium Dell", on Marshman Avenue in Highland Park, Illinois. At the age of ten, Orson with Watson's third daughter, Marjorie (of the same age), ran away from home. They were found a week later, singing and dancing for money on a street corner in Milwaukee. His father died when Orson was 15 during the summer after Orson's graduation from Todd School for Boys, an independent school in Woodstock, Illinois. Maurice Bernstein, a physician from Chicago, became his guardian.
Early career Edit
After his father's death, Welles traveled to Europe with the aid of a small inheritance. Welles later reported that while on a walking and painting trip through Ireland, he strode into the Gate Theatre in Dublin and claimed he was a Broadway star. The manager of Gate, Hilton Edwards, later said he had not believed him but was impressed by his brashness and some impassioned quality in his audition. Welles made his stage debut at the Gate in 1931, appearing in Jew Suss as the Duke. He acted to great acclaim, which reached the United States. He performed smaller supporting roles as well. On returning to the United States he found his fame ephemeral and turned to a writing project at Todd School that would become the immensely successful Everybody's Shakespeare and subsequently, The Mercury Shakespeare. Welles traveled to North Africa while working on thousands of illustrations for the Everybody's Shakespeare series of educational books, a series that remained in print for decades.
An introduction by Thornton Wilder led Welles to the New York stage. In 1933, he toured in three off-Broadway productions with Katharine Cornell's company, including two roles in Romeo and Juliet. Restless and impatient when the planned Broadway opening of Romeo and Juliet was canceled, Welles staged a drama festival of his own with the Todd School, inviting Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards from Dublin's Gate Theatre to appear, along with New York stage luminaries. It was a roaring success. The subsequent revival of Cornell's Romeo and Juliet brought Welles to the notice of John Houseman, who was casting for an unusual lead actor for the lead role in the Federal Theatre Project.
By 1935 Welles was supplementing his earnings in the theater as a radio actor in Manhattan, working with many of the actors who would later form the core of his Mercury Theatre. He married Chicago actress Virginia Nicholson in 1934 and that year he shot an eight-minute silent short film, The Hearts of Age with her. The couple had one daughter, Christopher. She made her only film appearance in 1948, taking the role of Macduff's son in Welles's film Macbeth and later became known as Chris Welles Feder, an author of educational materials for children.
Theatre and radioEdit
Federal Theatre ProjectEdit
In 1936, the Federal Theatre Project (part of Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration) put unemployed theater performers and employees to work. Welles was hired by John Houseman and assigned to direct a play for the Federal Theatre Project's Negro Theater Unit. He offered them Macbeth. The production became known as the Voodoo Macbeth, because Welles set it in the Haitian court of King Henri Christophe, with voodoo witch doctors for the three Weird Sisters. Jack Carter played Macbeth. The incidental music was composed by Virgil Thomson. The play opened April 14, 1936, at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem and was received rapturously. It later toured the nation. When the lead actor, Maurice Ellis, fell ill on tour, Welles quickly boarded an airplane to fly to the location and stepped into the part, playing the role in blackface. At the age of 20, Welles was hailed as a prodigy. A few minutes of the Welles production of Macbeth was recorded on film in a 1937 documentary called We Work Again.
Horse Eats HorseEdit
After the success of Macbeth, Welles mounted the farce Horse Eats Hat, an adaptation by Welles and Edwin Denby of Eugène Labiche's play, Un Chapeau de Paille d'Italie. The play was presented September 26 – December 5, 1936, at Maxine Elliott's Theatre, New York. Joseph Cotten was featured in his first starring role.
Resigning from the Federal Theatre, Welles and Houseman formed the Mercury Theatre, of which Welles became executive producer and whose repertory company eventually included actors such as Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, Dolores del Río, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Frank Readick, Everett Sloane, Eustace Wyatt and Erskine Sanford, all of whom would continue to work for Welles for years. The first Mercury Theatre production was a melodramatic and heavily edited version of William Shakespeare's tragedy Julius Caesar, set in a contemporary frame of fascist Italy. Cinna the Poet dies at the hands not of a mob but of a secret police force. According to Norman Lloyd, who played Cinna the Poet, "it stopped the show." The applause lasted more than ten minutes and the production was widely acclaimed.
In the second year of the Mercury Theater, Welles shifted his interests to radio as an actor, director and producer. He played Hamlet for CBS on The Columbia Workshop, while adapting and directing the play. In July 1937, the Mutual Network gave him a seven-week series to adapt Les Misérables, which he did with great success. That September, Mutual chose Welles to play Lamont Cranston, aka The Shadow, anonymously and in the summer of 1938 CBS gave him (and the Mercury Theatre) a weekly hour-long show to broadcast radio plays based on classic literary works. The show was titled The Mercury Theatre on the Air, with original music by Bernard Herrmann, who would continue working with Welles on radio and in films for years.
War of the Worlds BroadcastEdit
heir October 30, 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells brought Welles instant fame. The combination of the news bulletin form of the performance with the between-breaks dial spinning habits of listeners from the rival and far more popular Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy program was later reported in the media to have created widespread confusion among listeners who failed to hear the introduction, although the extent of this confusion has recently come into question. Panic was reported to have spread (after citation from rumors) among many listeners who believed the news reports of a Martian invasion. The myth of the result created by the combination was reported as fact around the world and disparagingly mentioned by Adolf Hitler in a public speech a few months later. The 1975 docudrama The Night That Panicked America was based on events centering around the production of, and events that resulted from, the program.
RKO Radio Pictures president George Schaefer eventually offered Welles what generally is considered the greatest contract ever offered to an untried director: complete artistic control. RKO signed Welles in a two-picture deal; including script, cast, crew, and most importantly, final cut, although Welles had a budget limit for his projects. With this contract in hand, Welles (and nearly the entire Mercury Theatre troupe) moved to Hollywood. He commuted weekly to New York to maintain his commitment to The Campbell Playhouse. (DEBATE: Film historians have cast doubt on the accuracy of this claim of complete control. Based on much later access to the said contract, UK film critic Alexander Walker averred, in a BBC radio documentary about Kane, that Welles did NOT have final cut of his films. Something that would seem to be confirmed by RKO's mashing of Welles' follow-up movie to Kane, "The Magnificent Ambersons"?).
Welles toyed with various ideas for his first project for RKO Radio Pictures, settling on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which he worked on in great detail. He planned to film the action with a subjective camera (a technique later used in the Robert Montgomery film Lady in the Lake). When a budget was drawn up, RKO's enthusiasm cooled because it was greater than the previously agreed limit. RKO also declined to approve another Welles project, The Smiler With the Knife, based on the Cecil Day-Lewis novel, ostensibly because RKO executives lacked faith in Lucille Ball's ability to carry the film as the leading lady.
In a sign of things to come, Welles left The Campbell Playhouse in 1940 due to creative differences with the sponsor. The show continued without him, produced by John Houseman. In perhaps another sign of things to come, Welles's first experience on a Hollywood film was narrator for RKO's 1940 production of The Swiss Family Robinson.
In May 1941, Welles released Citizen Kane which he directed, wrote, and starred in. The film was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but it only recieved 1. The film is now said to be the greatest film ever made and was ranked by the American Film Institute at #1 on both editions of their 100 movies.
Touch of EvilEdit
Welles stayed on at Universal to direct (and co-star with) Charlton Heston in the 1958 film Touch of Evil, based on Whit Masterson's novel Badge of Evil. Welles, who wrote the screenplay for the film, claimed never to have read the book. Originally only hired as an actor, Welles was promoted to director by Universal Studios at the insistence of Charlton Heston. Reuniting many actors and technicians with whom Welles had 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), filming proceeded smoothly, with Welles finishing on schedule and on budget, and the studio bosses praising the daily rushes. Nevertheless, after the end of production, the studio re-edited the film, re-shot scenes, and shot new exposition scenes to clarify the plot. Welles wrote a 58-page memo outlining suggestions and objections, stating that the film was no longer his version—it was the studio's, but as such, he was still prepared to help with it. The studio followed a few of the ideas, but cut another 30 minutes from the film and released it. The film was widely praised across Europe, awarded the top prize at the Brussels World's Fair.
Welles died of a heart attack on October 10, 1985 at the age of 70, coincidentally, he died the same day as his Battle of Nerevat co-star Yul Brynner.