Orson Welles

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This article is about the American actor and filmmaker. For the unrelated Massachusetts businessman Orson Wells, see Wells House (North Adams, Massachusetts). For the spider, see Orsonwelles.
Orson Welles
Orson Welles 1937.jpg
Welles on March 1, 1937 (age 21), photographed by Carl Van Vechten
Born George Orson Welles
(1915-05-06)May 6, 1915
Kenosha, Wisconsin, U.S.
Died October 10, 1985(1985-10-10) (aged 70)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Heart attack
Resting place Ronda, Spain
Alma mater Todd School for Boys
Occupation Actor, film director, theatre director, screenwriter, playwright, film producer, radio personality
Years active 1931–1985
Partner(s) Oja Kodar (1966–85)
  • Christopher Welles Feder
  • Rebecca Welles Manning (1944–2004)
  • Beatrice Welles
Parent(s) Richard Hodgdon Head Welles
Beatrice Ives Welles
Awards 1941 Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) for Citizen Kane
1970 Academy Honorary Award
Orson Welles signature.svg

George Orson Welles (/ˈwɛlz/; May 6, 1915 – October 10, 1985), known professionally as Orson Welles, was an American actor, director, writer, and producer who worked in theatre, radio, and film. He is best remembered for his innovative work in all three: in theatre, most notably Caesar (1937), a Broadway adaptation of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar; in radio, the 1938 broadcast "The War of the Worlds", one of the most famous in the history of radio; and in film, Citizen Kane (1941), consistently ranked as one of the all-time greatest films.

Welles directed a number of high-profile stage productions for the Federal Theatre Project in his early twenties, including an innovative adaptation of Macbeth with an entirely African American cast, and the political musical The Cradle Will Rock. In 1937 he and John Houseman founded the Mercury Theatre, an independent repertory theatre company that presented an acclaimed series of productions on Broadway through 1941. Welles found national and international fame as the director and narrator of a 1938 radio adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds performed for his radio anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It reportedly caused widespread panic when listeners thought that an invasion by extraterrestrial beings was occurring. Although some contemporary sources claim these reports of panic were mostly false and overstated,[1] they rocketed Welles to notoriety.

His first film was Citizen Kane (1941), which he co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in as Charles Foster Kane. Welles was an outsider to the studio system and directed only 13 full-length films in his career. Because of this, he struggled for creative control from the major film studios, and his films were either heavily edited or remained unreleased. His distinctive directorial style featured layered and nonlinear narrative forms, innovative uses of lighting such as chiaroscuro, unusual camera angles, sound techniques borrowed from radio, deep focus shots, and long takes. He has been praised as a major creative force and as "the ultimate auteur".[2]:6

Welles followed up Citizen Kane with critically acclaimed films including The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942 and Touch of Evil in 1958. Although these three are his most acclaimed films, critics have argued other works of his, such as The Lady from Shanghai (1947)[3] and Chimes at Midnight (1966),[4] are underappreciated.

In 2002, Welles was voted the greatest film director of all time in two British Film Institute polls among directors and critics,[5][6] and a wide survey of critical consensus, best-of lists, and historical retrospectives calls him the most acclaimed director of all time.[7] Well known for his baritone voice,[8] Welles was a well-regarded actor in radio and film, a celebrated Shakespearean stage actor, and an accomplished magician noted for presenting troop variety shows in the war years.

Early life[edit]

Welles's birthplace in Kenosha, Wisconsin (2013)

George Orson Welles was born May 6, 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, son of Richard Head Welles (b. Richard Hodgdon Wells, November 12, 1872, near St. Joseph, Missouri; d. December 28, 1930, Chicago, Illinois)[9]:26[10][a] and Beatrice Ives Welles (b. September 1, 1881, Springfield, Illinois; d. May 10, 1924, Chicago).[10][11][b] He was named after his paternal great-grandfather, influential Kenosha attorney Orson S. Head, and his brother George Head.[9]:37

Despite his family's affluence, Welles encountered hardship in childhood. His parents separated and moved to Chicago in 1919. His father, who made a fortune as the inventor of a popular bicycle lamp,[12] became an alcoholic and stopped working. Welles's mother, a pianist, played during lectures by Dudley Crafts Watson at the Art Institute of Chicago to support her son and herself; the oldest Welles boy, "Dickie," was institutionalized at an early age because he had learning difficulties. Beatrice died of hepatitis in a Chicago hospital[13]:3–5 May 10, 1924, aged 42, just after Welles's ninth birthday.[14]:326 The Gordon String Quartet, which had made its first appearance at her home in 1921, played at Beatrice's funeral.[15][16]

After his mother's death Welles ceased pursuing music. It was decided that he would spend the summer with the Watson family at a private art colony in Wyoming, New York, established by Lydia Avery Coonley Ward.[17]:8 There he played and became friends with the children of the Aga Khan, including the 12-year-old Prince Aly Khan. Then, in what Welles later described as "a hectic period" in his life, he lived in a Chicago apartment with both his father and Dr. Maurice Bernstein, a Chicago physician who had been a close friend of both his parents. Welles briefly attended public school[18]:133 before his alcoholic father left business altogether and took him along on his travels to Jamaica and the Far East. When they returned they settled in a hotel in Grand Detour, Illinois, that was owned by his father. When the hotel burned down Welles and his father took to the road again.[17]:9

"During the three years that Orson lived with his father, some observers wondered who took care of whom", wrote biographer Frank Brady.[17]:9

"In some ways, he was never really a young boy, you know," said Roger Hill, who became Welles's teacher and lifelong friend.[19]:24

Orson Welles in 1926: "Cartoonist, Actor, Poet and only 10"

Welles briefly attended public school in Madison, Wisconsin, enrolled in the fourth grade.[17]:9 On September 15, 1926, he entered the Todd Seminary for Boys,[18]:3 an expensive independent school in Woodstock, Illinois, that his older brother, Richard Ives Welles, had attended ten years before but was expelled for misbehavior.[9]:48 At Todd School Welles came under the influence of Roger Hill, a teacher who was later Todd's headmaster. Hill provided Welles with an ad hoc educational environment that proved invaluable to his creative experience, allowing Welles to concentrate on subjects that interested him. Welles performed and staged theatrical experiments and productions there.

"Todd provided Welles with many valuable experiences", wrote critic Richard France. "He was able to explore and experiment in an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement. In addition to a theater the school's own radio station was at his disposal."[20]:27 Welles's first radio performance was on the Todd station, an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes that he also wrote.[13]:7

On December 28, 1930, when Welles was 15, his father died at the age of 58, alone in a hotel in Chicago. His will left it to Orson to name his guardian. When Roger Hill declined, Welles chose Maurice Bernstein.[21]:71–72

Following graduation from Todd in May 1931,[18]:3 Welles was awarded a scholarship to Harvard University, while his mentor Roger Hill advocated he attend Cornell College in Iowa.[22] Rather than enrolling, he chose travel. He studied for a few weeks at the Art Institute of Chicago[23]:117 with Boris Anisfeld, who encouraged him to pursue painting.[17]:18

Welles would occasionally return to Woodstock, the place he eventually named when he was asked in a 1960 interview, "Where is home?" Welles replied, "I suppose it's Woodstock, Illinois, if it's anywhere. I went to school there for four years. If I try to think of a home, it's that."[24]

Early career (1931–1935)[edit]

After his father's death, Welles traveled to Europe using a small portion of his inheritance. Welles said 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 an impassioned quality in his audition.[25]:134 Welles made his stage debut at the Gate Theatre on October 13, 1931, appearing in Ashley Dukes's adaptation of Jew Suss as Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg. He performed small supporting roles in subsequent Gate productions, and he produced and designed productions of his own in Dublin. In March 1932 Welles performed in W. Somerset Maugham's The Circle at Dublin's Abbey Theatre and travelled to London to find additional work in the theatre. Unable to obtain a work permit, he returned to the U.S.[14]:327–330

Welles found his fame ephemeral and turned to a writing project at Todd School that would become the immensely successful, first entitled 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.

In 1933, Roger and Hortense Hill invited Welles along to a party in Chicago, where Welles met Thornton Wilder. Wilder arranged for Welles to meet Alexander Woollcott in New York, in order that he be introduced to Katharine Cornell, who was assembling a repertory theatre company. Cornell's husband, director Guthrie McClintic, immediately put Welles under contract and cast him in three plays.[17]:46–49 Romeo and Juliet, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Candida toured in repertory for 36 weeks beginning in November 1933, with the first of more than 200 performances taking place in Buffalo, New York.[14]:330–331

In 1934, Welles got his first job on radio — on The American School of the Air — through actor-director Paul Stewart, who introduced him to director Knowles Entrikin.[14]:331 That summer Welles staged a drama festival with the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, inviting Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards from Dublin's Gate Theatre to appear along with New York stage luminaries in productions including Trilby, Hamlet, The Drunkard and Tsar Paul. At the old firehouse in Woodstock he also shot his first film, an eight-minute short titled The Hearts of Age.[14]:330–331

A revised production of Katharine Cornell's Romeo and Juliet opened December 20, 1934, at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York.[14]:331–332[26] The Broadway production brought the 19-year-old Welles (now playing Tybalt) to the notice of John Houseman, a theatrical producer who was casting the lead role in the debut production of Archibald MacLeish's verse play, Panic.[27]:144–158

On November 14, 1934, Welles married Chicago socialite and actress Virginia Nicolson[14]:332 (often misspelled "Nicholson")[28] in a civil ceremony in New York. To appease the Nicolsons, who were furious at the couple's elopement, a formal ceremony took place December 23, 1934, at the New Jersey mansion of the bride's godmother. Welles wore a cutaway borrowed from his friend George Macready.[21]:182

By 1935 Welles was supplementing his earnings in the theater as a radio actor in Manhattan, working with many actors who would later form the core of his Mercury Theatre on programs including America's Hour, Cavalcade of America, Columbia Workshop and The March of Time.[14]:331–332 "Within a year of his debut Welles could claim membership in that elite band of radio actors who commanded salaries second only to the highest paid movie stars," wrote critic Richard France.[20]:172

Theatre (1936–1938)[edit]

Federal Theatre Project[edit]

Part of the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Theatre Project (1935–39) was a New Deal program to fund theatre and other live artistic performances and entertainment programs in the United States during the Great Depression. It was created as a relief measure to employ artists, writers, directors and theater workers. Under national director Hallie Flanagan it was shaped into a true national theatre that created relevant art, encouraged experimentation and innovation, and made it possible for millions of Americans to see live theatre for the first time.[29]

John Houseman, director of the Negro Theatre Unit in New York, invited Welles to join the Federal Theatre Project in 1935. Far from unemployed — "I was so employed I forgot how to sleep" — Welles put a large share of his $1,500-a-week radio earnings into his stage productions, bypassing administrative red tape and mounting the projects more quickly and professionally. "Roosevelt once said that I was the only operator in history who ever illegally siphoned money into a Washington project," Welles said.[14]:11–13

The Federal Theatre Project was the ideal environment in which Welles could develop his art. Its purpose was employment, so he was able to hire any number of artists, craftsmen and technicians, and he filled the stage with performers.[30]:3 The company for the first production, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth with an entirely African-American cast, numbered 150.[31] The production became known as the Voodoo Macbeth because Welles changed the setting to a mythical island suggesting the Haitian court of King Henri Christophe,[32]:179–180 with Haitian vodou fulfilling the rôle of Scottish witchcraft.[33]:86 The play opened April 14, 1936, at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem and was received rapturously. At 20, Welles was hailed as a prodigy.[34] The production then made a 4,000-mile national tour[14]:333[35] that included two weeks at the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas.[36]

Welles next mounted the farce Horse Eats Hat, an adaptation by Welles and Edwin Denby of Eugène Labiche's play, Un Chapeau de Paille d'Italie.[19]:114 The play was presented September 26 – December 5, 1936, at Maxine Elliott's Theatre, New York,[14]:334 and featured Joseph Cotten in his first starring role.[37]:34 It was followed by an adaptation of Dr. Faustus that used light as a prime unifying scenic element in a nearly black stage, presented January 8 – May 9, 1937, at Maxine Elliott's Theatre.[14]:335

Outside the scope of the Federal Theatre Project,[20]:100 American composer Aaron Copland chose Welles to direct The Second Hurricane (1937), an operetta with a libretto by Edwin Denby. Presented at the Henry Street Settlement Music School in New York for the benefit of high school students, the production opened April 21, 1937, and ran its scheduled three performances.[14]:337

In 1937, Welles rehearsed Marc Blitzstein's political operetta, The Cradle Will Rock. It was originally scheduled to open June 16, 1937, in its first public preview. Because of severe federal cutbacks in the Works Progress projects, the show's premiere at the Maxine Elliott Theatre was canceled. The theater was locked and guarded to prevent any government-purchased materials from being used for a commercial production of the work. In a last-minute move, Welles announced to waiting ticket-holders that the show was being transferred to the Venice, 20 blocks away. Some cast, and some crew and audience, walked the distance on foot. The union musicians refused to perform in a commercial theater for lower non-union government wages. The actors' union stated that the production belonged to the Federal Theater Project and could not be performed outside that context without permission. Lacking the participation of the union members, The Cradle Will Rock began with Blitzstein introducing the show and playing the piano accompaniment on stage with some cast members performing from the audience. This impromptu performance was well received by its audience.

Mercury Theatre[edit]

At age 22 Welles was Broadway's youngest impresario — producing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Julius Caesar that broke all performance records for the play (1938)
Welles as the octogenarian Captain Shotover in the Mercury Theatre production of Heartbreak House, on the cover of Time (May 9, 1938)
Main article: Mercury Theatre

Breaking with the Federal Theatre Project in 1937, Welles and Houseman founded their own repertory company, which they called the Mercury Theatre. The name was inspired by the title of the iconoclastic magazine, The American Mercury.[17]:119–120 Welles was executive producer, and the original company included such actors as Joseph Cotten, George Coulouris, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Arlene Francis, Martin Gabel, John Hoyt, Norman Lloyd, Vincent Price, Stefan Schnabel and Hiram Sherman.

"I think he was the greatest directorial talent we've ever had in the [American] theater," Lloyd said of Welles in a 2014 interview. "When you saw a Welles production, you saw the text had been affected, the staging was remarkable, the sets were unusual, music, sound, lighting, a totality of everything. We had not had such a man in our theater. He was the first and remains the greatest."[38]

The Mercury Theatre opened November 11, 1937, with Caesar, Welles's modern-dress adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy Julius Caesar — streamlined into an anti-fascist tour de force that Joseph Cotten later described as "so vigorous, so contemporary that it set Broadway on its ear."[37]:108 The set was completely open with no curtain, and the brick stage wall was painted dark red. Scene changes were achieved by lighting alone.[39]:165 On the stage was a series of risers; squares were cut into one at intervals and lights were set beneath it, pointing straight up to evoke the "cathedral of light" at the Nuremberg Rallies. "He staged it like a political melodrama that happened the night before," said Lloyd.[38]

Beginning January 1, 1938, Caesar was performed in repertory with The Shoemaker's Holiday; both productions moved to the larger National Theatre. They were followed by Heartbreak House (April 29, 1938) and Danton's Death (November 5, 1938).[30]:344 As well as being presented in a pared-down oratorio version at the Mercury Theatre on Sunday nights in December 1937, The Cradle Will Rock was at the Windsor Theatre for 13 weeks (January 4–April 2, 1938).[14]:340 Such was the success of the Mercury Theatre that Welles appeared on the cover of Time magazine, in full makeup as Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House, in the issue dated May 9, 1938—three days after his 23rd birthday.[40]

Radio (1936–1940)[edit]

Simultaneously with his work in the theatre, Welles worked extensively in radio as an actor, writer, director and producer, often without credit.[30]:77 Between 1935 and 1937 he was earning as much as $2,000 a week, shuttling between radio studios at such a pace that he would arrive barely in time for a quick scan of his lines before he was on the air. While he was directing the Voodoo Macbeth Welles was dashing between Harlem and midtown Manhattan three times a day to meet his radio commitments.[20]:172

In addition to continuing as a repertory player on The March of Time, in the fall of 1936 Welles adapted and performed Hamlet in an early two-part episode of CBS Radio's Columbia Workshop. His performance as the announcer in the series' April 1937 presentation of Archibald MacLeish's verse drama The Fall of the City was an important development in his radio career[30]:78 and made the 21-year-old Welles an overnight star.[41]:46

In July 1937, the Mutual Network gave Welles a seven-week series to adapt Les Misérables. It was his first job as a writer-director for radio,[14]:338 the radio debut of the Mercury Theatre, and one of Welles's earliest and finest achievements.[42]:160 He invented the use of narration in radio.[14]:88

"By making himself the center of the storytelling process, Welles fostered the impression of self-adulation that was to haunt his career to his dying day," wrote critic Andrew Sarris. "For the most part, however, Welles was singularly generous to the other members of his cast and inspired loyalty from them above and beyond the call of professionalism."[41]:8

That September, Mutual chose Welles to play Lamont Cranston, also known as The Shadow. He performed the role anonymously through mid-September 1938.[30]:83[43]

The Mercury Theatre on the Air[edit]

Welles at the press conference after "The War of the Worlds" broadcast (October 31, 1938)

After the theatrical successes of the Mercury Theatre, CBS Radio invited Orson Welles to create a summer show for 13 weeks. The series began July 11, 1938, initially titled First Person Singular, with the formula that Welles would play the lead in each show. Some months later the show was called The Mercury Theatre on the Air.[41]:12 The weekly hour-long show presented radio plays based on classic literary works, with original music composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann.

The Mercury Theatre's radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells October 30, 1938, brought Welles instant fame. The combination of the news bulletin form of the performance with the between-breaks dial spinning habits of listeners was later reported to have created widespread confusion among listeners who failed to hear the introduction, although the extent of this confusion has come into question.[1][44][45][46] Panic was reportedly spread among listeners who believed the fictional 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 some months later.[47]

Welles's growing fame drew Hollywood offers, lures that the independent-minded Welles resisted at first. The Mercury Theatre on the Air, which had been a sustaining show (without sponsorship) was picked up by Campbell Soup and renamed The Campbell Playhouse.[48] The Mercury Theatre on the Air made its last broadcast on December 4, 1938, and The Campbell Playhouse began five days later.

Welles began commuting from Hollywood to New York for the two Sunday broadcasts of The Campbell Playhouse after signing a film contract with RKO Pictures in August 1939. In November 1939, production of the show moved from New York to Los Angeles.[14]:353

After 20 shows, Campbell began to exercise more creative control and had complete control over story selection. As his contract with Campbell came to an end, Welles chose not to sign on for another season. After the broadcast of March 31, 1940, Welles and Campbell parted amicably.[17]:221–226

Hollywood (1939–1948)[edit]

RKO Radio Pictures president George Schaefer eventually offered Welles what generally is considered the greatest contract offered to an untried director: complete artistic control.[citation needed] After signing a summary agreement with RKO on July 22, Welles signed a full-length 63-page contract August 21, 1939.[14]:353

Welles's first experience on a Hollywood film was narrator for RKO's 1940 production of Swiss Family Robinson.[49]

Citizen Kane[edit]

Main article: Citizen Kane
Welles in Citizen Kane (1941)

RKO rejected Welles's first two movie proposals, but agreed on the third offer — Citizen Kane. Welles co-wrote, produced and directed the film, and performed the lead role.[50] Welles conceived the project with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who was writing radio plays for The Campbell Playhouse.[51]:16 Mankiewicz based the original outline on the life of William Randolph Hearst, whom he knew socially and came to hate after being exiled from Hearst's circle.[52]:231

Welles supplied Mankiewicz with 300 pages of notes and put him under contract to write the first draft screenplay under the supervision of John Houseman. Welles later explained, "I left him on his own finally, because we'd started to waste too much time haggling. So, after mutual agreements on storyline and character, Mank went off with Houseman and did his version, while I stayed in Hollywood and wrote mine."[14]:54 Taking these drafts, Welles drastically condensed and rearranged them, then added scenes of his own. The industry accused Welles of underplaying Mankiewicz's contribution to the script, but Welles countered the attacks by saying, "At the end, naturally, I was the one making the picture, after all—who had to make the decisions. I used what I wanted of Mank's and, rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own."[14]:54

Welles's project attracted some of Hollywood's best technicians, including cinematographer Gregg Toland.[50] For the cast, Welles primarily used actors from his Mercury Theatre. Filming Citizen Kane took ten weeks.[50]

Hearst's media outlets boycotted the film and exerted enormous pressure on the Hollywood film community by threatening to expose 15 years of suppressed scandals and the fact that most studio bosses were Jewish. At one point, heads of the major studios jointly offered RKO the cost of the film in exchange for the negative and existing prints, fully intending to burn them. RKO declined.[citation needed]

While waiting for the film to be released, Welles directed the original Broadway production of Native Son, a drama written by Paul Green and Richard Wright based on Wright's novel. Starring Canada Lee, the show ran March 24–June 28, 1941, at the St. James Theatre. The Mercury Production was the last time Welles and Houseman worked together.[30]:12

Citizen Kane was given a limited release and the film was well-received critically. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood".[53] By the time it reached the general public, the publicity had waned. It garnered nine Academy Award nominations but won only for Best Original Screenplay, shared by Mankiewicz and Welles. Citizen Kane is now hailed as one of the greatest films ever made.[54] Andrew Sarris called it "the work that influenced the cinema more profoundly than any American film since The Birth of a Nation."[50]

The delay in its release and uneven distribution contributed to mediocre results at the box office; it earned back its budget and marketing, but RKO lost any chance of a major profit. RKO shelved the film and did not re-release it until 1956.[citation needed]

During the 1950s, the film came to be seen by young French film critics such as François Truffaut as exemplifying the "auteur theory", in which the director is the "author" of a film. Truffaut, Godard and others inspired by Welles's example made their own films, giving birth to the Nouvelle Vague. In the 1960s Citizen Kane became popular on college campuses as a film-study exercise and as an entertainment subject. Its revivals on television, home video and DVD have enhanced its status and ultimately recouped costs. The film is considered by most film critics and historians to be one of, if not the, greatest motion pictures in cinema history.[citation needed]

The Magnificent Ambersons[edit]

Welles's second film for RKO was The Magnificent Ambersons, adapted by Welles from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington. Toland was not available, so Stanley Cortez was named cinematographer. The meticulous Cortez worked slowly and the film lagged behind schedule and over budget. Prior to production, Welles's contract was renegotiated, revoking his right to control the final cut.[citation needed] The Magnificent Ambersons was in production October 28, 1941 – January 22, 1942.[55]

Throughout the shooting of the film Welles was also producing a weekly half-hour radio series, The Orson Welles Show. Many of the Ambersons cast participated in the CBS Radio series, which ran September 15, 1941 – February 2, 1942.[56]:525

Journey into Fear[edit]

At RKO's request, Welles worked on an adaptation of Eric Ambler's spy thriller, Journey into Fear, co-written with Joseph Cotten. In addition to acting in the film, Welles was the producer. Direction was credited to Norman Foster. Welles later said that they were in such a rush that the director of each scene was determined by whoever was closest to the camera.[citation needed]

Journey into Fear was in production January 6–March 12, 1942.[57]

War work[edit]

Goodwill ambassador[edit]

In late November 1941, Welles was appointed as a goodwill ambassador to Latin America by Nelson Rockefeller, U.S. Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs and a principal stockholder in RKO Radio Pictures.[58]:244 The mission of the OCIAA was cultural diplomacy, promoting hemispheric solidarity and countering the growing influence of the Axis powers in Latin America.[58]:10–11 John Hay Whitney, head of the agency's Motion Picture Division, was asked by the Brazilian government to produce a documentary of the annual Rio Carnival celebration taking place in early February 1942.[58]:40–41 In a telegram December 20, 1941, Whitney wrote Welles, "Personally believe you would make great contribution to hemisphere solidarity with this project."[59]:65

The OCIAA sponsored cultural tours to Latin America and appointed goodwill ambassadors including George Balanchine and the American Ballet, Bing Crosby, Aaron Copland, Walt Disney, John Ford and Rita Hayworth. Welles was thoroughly briefed in Washington, D.C., immediately before his departure for Brazil, and film scholar Catherine L. Benamou, a specialist in Latin American affairs, finds it "not unlikely" that he was among the goodwill ambassadors who were asked to gather intelligence for the U.S. government in addition to their cultural duties. She concludes that Welles's acceptance of Whitney's request was "a logical and patently patriotic choice".[58]:245–247

In addition to working on his ill-fated film project, It's All True, Welles was responsible for radio programs, lectures, interviews and informal talks as part of his OCIAA-sponsored cultural mission, which was regarded as a success.[60]:192 He spoke on topics ranging from Shakespeare to visual art at gatherings of Brazil's elite, and his two intercontinental radio broadcasts in April 1942 were particularly intended to tell U.S. audiences that President Vargas was a partner with the Allies. Welles's ambassadorial mission was extended to permit his travel to other nations including Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.[58]:247–249, 328 Welles worked for more than half a year with no compensation.[58]:41, 328[60]:189

Welles's own expectations for the film were modest. "It's All True was not going to make any cinematic history, nor was it intended to," he later said. "It was intended to be a perfectly honorable execution of my job as a goodwill ambassador, bringing entertainment to the Northern Hemisphere that showed them something about the Southern one."[19]:253

It's All True[edit]

Main article: It's All True (film)

In July 1941, Welles conceived It's All True as an omnibus film mixing documentary and docufiction[19]:221[58]:27 in a project that emphasized the dignity of labor and celebrated the cultural and ethnic diversity of North America. It was to have been his third film for RKO, following Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).[61]:109 Duke Ellington was put under contract to score a segment with the working title, "The Story of Jazz", drawn from Louis Armstrong's 1936 autobiography, Swing That Music.[62]:232–233 Armstrong was cast to play himself in the brief dramatization of the history of jazz performance, from its roots to its place in American culture in the 1940s.[61]:109 "The Story of Jazz" was to go into production in December 1941.[58]:119–120

Mercury Productions purchased the stories for two other segments — "My Friend Bonito" and "The Captain's Chair" — from documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty.[58]:33, 326 Adapted by Norman Foster and John Fante, "My Friend Bonito" was the only segment of the original It's All True to go into production.[61]:109 Filming took place in Mexico September–December 1941, with Norman Foster directing under Welles's supervision.[58]:311

In December 1941, the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs asked Welles to make a film in Brazil that would showcase the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro.[59]:65 With filming of "My Friend Bonito" about two-thirds complete, Welles decided he could shift the geography of It's All True and incorporate Flaherty's story into an omnibus film about Latin America — supporting the Roosevelt administration's Good Neighbor policy, which Welles strongly advocated.[58]:41, 246 In this revised concept, "The Story of Jazz" was replaced by the story of samba, a musical form with a comparable history and one that came to fascinate Welles. He also decided to do a ripped-from-the-headlines episode about the epic voyage of four poor Brazilian fishermen, the jangadeiros, who had become national heroes. Welles later said this was the most valuable story.[14]:158–159[30]:15

Required to film the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro in early February 1942, Welles rushed to edit The Magnificent Ambersons and finish his acting scenes in Journey into Fear. He ended his lucrative CBS radio show[60]:189 February 2, flew to Washington, D.C., for a briefing, and then lashed together a rough cut of Ambersons in Miami with editor Robert Wise.[14]:369–370 Welles recorded the film's narration the night before he left for South America: "I went to the projection room at about four in the morning, did the whole thing, and then got on the plane and off to Rio — and the end of civilization as we know it."[14]:115

Welles left for Brazil on February 4 and began filming in Rio February 8, 1942.[14]:369–370 At the time it did not seem that Welles's other film projects would be disrupted, but as film historian Catherine L. Benamou wrote, "the ambassadorial appointment would be the first in a series of turning points leading — in 'zigs' and 'zags,' rather than in a straight line — to Welles's loss of complete directorial control over both The Magnificent Ambersons and It's All True, the cancellation of his contract at RKO Radio Studio, the expulsion of his company Mercury Productions from the RKO lot, and, ultimately, the total suspension of It's All True.[58]:46

In 1942 RKO Pictures underwent major changes under new management. Nelson Rockefeller, the primary backer of the Brazil project, left its board of directors, and Welles's principal sponsor at RKO, studio president George Schaefer, resigned. RKO took control of Ambersons and edited the film into what the studio considered a commercial format. Welles's attempts to protect his version ultimately failed.[55][63] In South America, Welles requested resources to finish It's All True. Given a limited amount of black-and-white film stock and a silent camera, he was able to finish shooting the episode about the jangadeiros, but RKO refused to support further production on the film.

"So I was fired from RKO," Welles later recalled. "And they made a great publicity point of the fact that I had gone to South America without a script and thrown all this money away. I never recovered from that attack."[64]:188 Later in 1942 when RKO Pictures began promoting its new corporate motto, "Showmanship In Place of Genius: A New Deal at RKO",[59]:29 Welles understood it as a reference to himself.[64]:188

Radio (1942–43)[edit]

Welles performs a card trick for Carl Sandburg before the War Bond drive broadcast I Pledge America (August 1942).
Welles and Col. Arthur I. Ennis, head of the public relations branch of the Army Air Forces, discuss plans for the CBS Radio series Ceiling Unlimited (October 1942).
Promotional herald for The Mercury Wonder Show (August 1943)
Welles led the Treasury Department's campaign urging Americans to buy $16 billion in War Bonds to finance the Normandy landings (June 12–July 8, 1944).
Welles introduced Vice President Henry A. Wallace at a Madison Square Garden rally advocating a fourth term for President Franklin D. Roosevelt (September 21, 1944).[14]:385

Welles returned to the United States August 22, 1942, after more than six months in South America.[14]:372 A week after his return[65][66] he produced and emceed the first two hours of a seven-hour coast-to-coast War Bond drive broadcast titled I Pledge America. Airing August 29, 1942, on the Blue Network, the program was presented in cooperation with the United States Department of the Treasury, Western Union (which wired bond subscriptions free of charge) and the American Women's Voluntary Services. Featuring 21 dance bands and a score of stage and screen and radio stars, the broadcast raised more than $10 million — more than $146 million today[67] — for the war effort.[68][69][70][71][72][73]

On October 12, 1942, Cavalcade of America presented Welles's radio play, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, an entertaining and factual look at the legend of Christopher Columbus.

"It belongs to a period when hemispheric unity was a crucial matter and many programs were being devoted to the common heritage of the Americas," wrote broadcasting historian Erik Barnouw. "Many such programs were being translated into Spanish and Portuguese and broadcast to Latin America, to counteract many years of successful Axis propaganda to that area. The Axis, trying to stir Latin America against Anglo-America, had constantly emphasized the differences between the two. It became the job of American radio to emphasize their common experience and essential unity."[74]:3

Admiral of the Ocean Sea, also known as Columbus Day, begins with the words, "Hello Americans" — the title Welles would choose for his own series five weeks later.[14]:373

Hello Americans, a CBS Radio series broadcast November 15, 1942 – January 31, 1943, was produced, directed and hosted by Welles under the auspices of the Office of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs. The 30-minute weekly program promoted inter-American understanding and friendship, drawing upon the research amassed for the ill-fated film, It's All True.[75] The series was produced concurrently with Welles's other CBS series, Ceiling Unlimited (November 9, 1942 – February 1, 1943), sponsored by the Lockheed-Vega Corporation. The program was conceived to glorify the aviation industry and dramatize its role in World War II. Welles's shows were regarded as significant contributions to the war effort.[41]:64

Throughout the war Welles worked on patriotic radio programs including Command Performance, G.I. Journal, Mail Call, Nazi Eyes on Canada, Stage Door Canteen and Treasury Star Parade.

The Mercury Wonder Show[edit]

In early 1943, the two concurrent radio series (Ceiling Unlimited, Hello Americans) that Orson Welles created for CBS to support the war effort had ended. Filming also had wrapped on the 1943 film adaptation of Jane Eyre and that fee, in addition to the income from his regular guest-star roles in radio, made it possible for Welles to fulfill a lifelong dream. He approached the War Assistance League of Southern California and proposed a show that evolved into a big-top spectacle, part circus and part magic show. He offered his services as magician and director,[76]:40 and invested some $40,000 of his own money in an extravaganza he co-produced with his friend Joseph Cotten: The Mercury Wonder Show for Service Men. Members of the U.S. armed forces were admitted free of charge, while the general public had to pay.[77]:26 The show entertained more than 1,000 service members each night, and proceeds went to the War Assistance League, a charity for military service personnel.[78]

The development of the show coincided with the resolution of Welles's oft-changing draft status in May 1943, when he was finally declared 4-F — unfit for military service — for a variety of medical reasons. "I felt guilty about the war," Welles told biographer Barbara Leaming. "I was guilt-ridden about my civilian status."[79]:86 He had been publicly hounded about his patriotism since Citizen Kane, when the Hearst press began persistent inquiries about why Welles had not been drafted.[59]:66–67[80][81]

The Mercury Wonder Show ran August 3–September 9, 1943, in an 80-by-120-foot tent[78] located at 9000 Cahuenga Boulevard, in the heart of Hollywood.[14]:377[77]:26

At intermission September 7, 1943, KMPC radio interviewed audience and cast members of The Mercury Wonder Show — including Welles and Rita Hayworth, who were married earlier that day. Welles remarked that The Mercury Wonder Show had been performed for approximately 48,000 members of the U.S. armed forces.[14]:378[30]:129

Radio (1944–45)[edit]

The idea of doing a radio variety show occurred to Welles after his success as substitute host of four consecutive episodes (March 14–April 4, 1943) of The Jack Benny Program, radio's most popular show, when Benny contracted pneumonia on a performance tour of military bases.[17]:368[82] A half-hour variety show broadcast January 26–July 19, 1944, on the Columbia Pacific Network, The Orson Welles Almanac presented sketch comedy, magic, mindreading, music and readings from classic works. Many of the shows originated from U.S. military camps, where Welles and his repertory company and guests entertained the troops with a reduced version of The Mercury Wonder Show.[41]:64[83][84] The performances of the all-star jazz group Welles brought together for the show were so popular that the band became a regular feature and was an important force in reviving interest in traditional New Orleans jazz.[85]:85

Welles was placed on the U.S. Treasury payroll May 15, 1944, as an expert consultant for the duration of the war, with a retainer of $1 a year.[86] On the recommendation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau asked Welles to lead the Fifth War Loan Drive, which opened June 12 with a one-hour radio show on all four networks, broadcast from Texarkana, Texas. Including a statement by the President,[87] the program defined the causes of the war and encouraged Americans to buy $16 billion in bonds to finance the Normandy landings and the most violent phase of World War II. Welles produced additional war loan drive broadcasts June 14 from the Hollywood Bowl, and June 16 from Soldier Field, Chicago.[17]:371–373 Americans purchased $20.6 billion in War Bonds during the Fifth War Loan Drive, which ended July 8, 1944.[88]

Welles campaigned ardently for Roosevelt in 1944. A longtime supporter and campaign speaker for FDR, he occasionally sent the president ideas and phrases that were sometimes incorporated into what Welles characterized as "less important speeches".[17]:372, 374 One of these ideas was the joke in what came to be called the Fala speech, Roosevelt's nationally broadcast September 23 address to the International Teamsters Union which opened the 1944 presidential campaign.[19]:292–293[89] Welles campaigned for the Roosevelt–Truman ticket almost full-time in the fall of 1944, traveling to nearly every state[17]:373–374 to the detriment of his own health[19]:293–294 and at his own expense.[9]:219 In addition to his radio addresses he filled in for Roosevelt, opposite Republican presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey, at The New York Herald Tribune Forum broadcast October 18 on the Blue Network.[14]:386[19]:292 Welles accompanied FDR to his last campaign rally, speaking at an event November 4 at Boston's Fenway Park before 40,000 people,[19]:294[90] and took part in a historic election-eve campaign broadcast November 6 on all four radio networks.[14]:387[56]:166–167

On November 21, 1944, Welles began his association with This Is My Best, a CBS radio series he would briefly produce, direct, write and host (March 13–April 24, 1945).[91][92] He wrote a political column called Orson Welles' Almanac (later titled Orson Welles Today) for The New York Post January–November 1945, and advocated the continuation of FDR's New Deal policies and his international vision, particularly the establishment of the United Nations and the cause of world peace.[59]:84

On April 12, 1945, the day Franklin D. Roosevelt died, the Blue-ABC network marshalled its entire executive staff and national leaders to pay homage to the late president. "Among the outstanding programs which attracted wide attention was a special tribute delivered by Orson Welles", reported Broadcasting magazine.[93] Welles spoke at 10:10 p.m Eastern War Time, from Hollywood, and stressed the importance of continuing FDR's work: "He has no need for homage and we who loved him have no time for tears … Our fighting sons and brothers cannot pause tonight to mark the death of him whose name will be given to the age we live in."[94]

Welles presented another special broadcast on the death of Roosevelt the following evening: "We must move on beyond mere death to that free world which was the hope and labor of his life."[14]:390[42]:242

He dedicated the April 17 episode of This Is My Best to Roosevelt and the future of America on the eve of the United Nations Conference on International Organization.[14]:390[91][92] Welles was an advisor and correspondent for the Blue-ABC radio network's coverage of the San Francisco conference that formed the UN, taking place April 24–June 23, 1945. He presented a half-hour dramatic program written by Ben Hecht on the opening day of the conference, and on Sunday afternoons (April 29–June 10) he led a weekly discussion from the San Francisco Civic Auditorium.[95][96]

The Stranger[edit]

Director and star Orson Welles at work on The Stranger (October 1945)

In the fall of 1945 Welles began work on The Stranger (1946), a film noir drama about a war crimes investigator who tracks a high-ranking Nazi fugitive to an idyllic New England town. Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and Welles star.[97]

Producer Sam Spiegel initially planned to hire director John Huston, who had rewritten the screenplay by Anthony Veiller. When Huston entered the military, Welles was given the chance to direct and prove himself able to make a film on schedule and under budget[30]:19 — something he was so eager to do that he accepted a disadvantageous contract. One of its concessions was that he would defer to the studio in any creative dispute.[17]:379[19]:309–310

The Stranger was Welles's first job as a film director in four years.[14]:391 He was told that if the film was successful he could sign a four-picture deal with International Pictures, making films of his own choosing.[17]:379 Welles was given some degree of creative control,[30]:19 and he endeavored to personalize the film and develop a nightmarish tone.[98]:2:30 He worked on the general rewrite of the script and wrote scenes at the beginning of the picture that were shot but subsequently cut by the producers.[14]:186 He filmed in long takes that largely thwarted the control given to editor Ernest J. Nims under the terms of the contract.[98]:15:45

The Stranger was the first commercial film to use documentary footage from the Nazi concentration camps.[14]:189[99] Welles had seen the footage in early May 1945[98]:102:03 in San Francisco,[100]:56 as a correspondent and discussion moderator at the UN Conference on International Organization.[19]:304 He wrote of the Holocaust footage in his syndicated New York Post column May 7, 1945.[100]:56–57

Completed a day ahead of schedule and under budget,[17]:379–380 The Stranger was the only film made by Welles to have been a bona fide box office success upon its release. Its cost was $1.034 million; 15 months after its release it had grossed $3.216 million.[101] Within weeks of the completion of the film, International Pictures backed out of its promised four-picture deal with Welles. No reason was given, but the impression was left that The Stranger would not make money.[17]:381

Around the World[edit]

In the summer of 1946, Welles moved to New York to direct the Broadway musical Around the World, a stage adaptation of the Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days with a book by Welles and music by Cole Porter. Producer Mike Todd, who would later produce the successful 1956 film adaptation, pulled out from the lavish and expensive production, leaving Welles to support the finances. When Welles ran out of money he convinced Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn to send enough money 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 soon failed due to poor box-office, with Welles unable to claim the losses on his taxes.[citation needed]

Radio (1946)[edit]

In 1946, Welles began two new radio series — The Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air for CBS, and Orson Welles Commentaries for ABC. While Mercury Summer Theatre featured half-hour adaptations of some classic Mercury radio shows from the 1930s, the first episode was a condensation of his Around the World stage play, and is the only record of Cole Porter's music for the project. Several original Mercury actors returned for the series, as well as Bernard Herrmann. Welles invested his earnings into his failing stage play. Commentaries was a political vehicle for him, 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 Woodard. Welles brought significant attention to Woodard's cause.[citation needed]

The last broadcast of Orson Welles Commentaries on October 6, 1946, marked the end of Welles's own radio shows.[14]:401

The Lady from Shanghai[edit]

The film that Welles was obliged to make in exchange for Harry Cohn's help in financing the stage production Around the World was The Lady from Shanghai, filmed in 1947 for Columbia Pictures. Intended as a modest thriller, the budget skyrocketed after Cohn suggested that Welles's then-estranged second wife Rita Hayworth co-star.

Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Cohn disliked Welles's rough-cut, particularly the confusing plot and lack of close-ups, and was not in sympathy with Welles's Brechtian use of irony and black comedy, especially in a farcical courtroom scene. Cohn ordered extensive editing and re-shoots. After heavy editing by the studio, approximately one hour of Welles's first cut was removed, including much of a climactic confrontation scene in an amusement park funhouse. While expressing displeasure at the cuts, Welles was appalled particularly with the musical score. The film was considered a disaster in America at the time of release, though the closing shootout in a hall of mirrors has since become a touchstone of film noir. Not long after release, Welles and Hayworth finalized their divorce.

Although The Lady From Shanghai was acclaimed in Europe, it was not embraced in the U.S. until decades later. A similar difference in reception on opposite sides of the Atlantic followed by greater American acceptance befell the Welles-inspired Chaplin film Monsieur Verdoux, originally to be directed by Welles starring Chaplin, then directed by Chaplin with the idea credited to Welles.


Main article: Macbeth (1948 film)

Prior to 1948, Welles convinced Republic Pictures to let him direct a low-budget version of Macbeth, which featured highly stylized sets and costumes, and a cast of actors lip-syncing to a pre-recorded soundtrack, one of many innovative cost-cutting techniques Welles deployed in an attempt to make an epic film from B-movie resources. The script, adapted by Welles, is a violent reworking of Shakespeare's original, freely cutting and pasting lines into new contexts via a collage technique and recasting Macbeth as a clash of pagan and proto-Christian ideologies. Some voodoo trappings of the famous Welles/Houseman Negro Theatre stage adaptation are visible, especially in the film's characterization of the Weird Sisters, who create an effigy of Macbeth as a charm to enchant him. Of all Welles's post-Kane Hollywood productions, Macbeth is stylistically closest to Citizen Kane in its long takes and deep focus photography.

Republic initially trumpeted the film as an important work but decided it did not care for the Scottish accents and held up general release for almost a year after early negative press reaction, including Life's comment that Welles's film "doth foully slaughter Shakespeare."[102] Welles left for Europe, while co-producer and lifelong supporter Richard Wilson reworked the soundtrack. Welles returned and cut 20 minutes from the film at Republic's request and recorded narration to cover some gaps. The film was decried as a disaster. Macbeth had influential fans in Europe, especially the French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who hailed the film's "crude, irreverent power" and careful shot design, and described the characters as haunting "the corridors of some dreamlike subway, an abandoned coal mine, and ruined cellars oozing with water."[103]

Europe (1948–1956)[edit]

In Italy he starred as Cagliostro in the 1948 film Black Magic. His co-star, Akim Tamiroff, impressed Welles so much that Tamiroff would appear in four of Welles's productions during the 1950s and 1960s.

The following year, Welles starred as Harry Lime in Carol Reed's The Third Man, alongside Joseph Cotten, his friend and co-star from Citizen Kane, with a script by Graham Greene and a memorable score by Anton Karas.

A few years later, British radio producer Harry Alan Towers would resurrect the Lime character in the radio series The Adventures of Harry Lime.

Welles appeared as Cesare Borgia in the 1949 Italian film Prince of Foxes, with Tyrone Power and Mercury Theatre alumnus Everett Sloane, and as the Mongol warrior Bayan in the 1950 film version of the novel The Black Rose (again with Tyrone Power). [104]


Main article: Othello (1952 film)

During this time, Welles was channeling 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. The film featured Welles's friends, Micheál Mac Liammóir as Iago and Hilton Edwards as Desdemona's father Brabantio. Suzanne Cloutier starred as Desdemona and Campbell Playhouse alumnus Robert Coote appeared as Iago's associate Roderigo.

Filming was suspended several times as Welles ran out of funds and left for acting jobs, accounted in detail in MacLiammóir's published memoir Put Money in Thy Purse. The American release prints had a technically flawed soundtrack, suffering from a drop-out of sound at every quiet moment. Welles's daughter, Beatrice Welles-Smith, restored Othello in 1992 for a wide re-release. The restoration included reconstructing Angelo Francesco Lavagnino's original musical score, which was originally inaudible, and adding ambient stereo sound effects, which were not in the original film. The restoration went on to a successful theatrical run in America.

In 1952, Welles continued finding work in England after the success of the Harry Lime radio show. Harry Alan Towers offered Welles another series, The Black Museum, which ran for 52 weeks with Welles as host and narrator. Director Herbert Wilcox offered Welles the part of the murdered victim in Trent's Last Case, based on the novel by E. C. Bentley. In 1953, the BBC hired Welles to read an hour of selections from Walt Whitman's epic poem Song of Myself. Towers hired Welles again, to play Professor Moriarty in the radio series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

Welles briefly returned to America to make his first appearance on television, starring in the Omnibus presentation of King Lear, broadcast live on CBS October 18, 1953. Directed by Peter Brook, the production costarred Natasha Parry, Beatrice Straight and Arnold Moss.[105]

In 1954, director George More O'Ferrall offered Welles the title role in the 'Lord Mountdrago' segment of Three Cases of Murder, co-starring Alan Badel. Herbert Wilcox cast Welles as the antagonist in Trouble in the Glen opposite Margaret Lockwood, Forrest Tucker and Victor McLaglen. Old friend John Huston cast him as Father Mapple in his 1956 film adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, starring Gregory Peck.

Mr. Arkadin[edit]

Main article: Mr. Arkadin
Welles in Madrid during the filming of Mr. Arkadin in 1954

Welles's next turn as director was the film Mr. Arkadin (1955), which was produced by his political mentor from the 1940s, Louis Dolivet. It was filmed in France, Germany, Spain and Italy on a very limited budget. Based loosely on several episodes of the Harry Lime radio show, it stars Welles as a billionaire who hires a man to delve into the secrets of his past. The film stars Robert Arden, who had worked on the Harry Lime series; Welles's third wife, Paola Mori, whose voice was dubbed by actress Billie Whitelaw; and guest stars Akim Tamiroff, Michael Redgrave, Katina Paxinou and Mischa Auer. Frustrated by his 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 that Dolivet completed was retitled Confidential Report. In 2005 Stefan Droessler of the Munich Film Museum oversaw a reconstruction of the surviving film elements.

Television projects[edit]

In 1955, Welles also directed two television series for the BBC. The first was Orson Welles' Sketch Book, a series of six 15-minute shows featuring Welles drawing in a sketchbook to illustrate his reminiscences for the camera (including such topics as the filming of It's All True and the Isaac Woodard case), and 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 (a technique he would continue to explore in later works).

In 1956, Welles completed Portrait of Gina. The film cans would remain in a lost-and-found locker at the hotel for several decades, where they were discovered after Welles's death.

Return to Hollywood (1956–1959)[edit]

Welles the magician with Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy (October 15, 1956)

In 1956, Welles returned to Hollywood.[citation needed]

He began filming a projected pilot for Desilu, owned by Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz, who had recently purchased the former RKO studios. The film was The Fountain of Youth, based on a story by John Collier. Originally deemed not viable as a pilot, the film was not aired until 1958 — and won the Peabody Award for excellence.

Welles guest starred on television shows including I Love Lucy.[106] On radio, he was narrator of Tomorrow (October 17, 1956), a nuclear holocaust drama produced and syndicated by ABC and the Federal Civil Defense Administration.[107][108]

Welles's next feature film role was in Man in the Shadow for Universal Pictures in 1957, starring Jeff Chandler.

Touch of Evil[edit]

Main article: Touch of Evil
Welles as corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958)

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. Originally only hired as an actor, Welles was promoted to director by Universal Studios at the insistence of Charlton Heston.[109]:154 The film reunited many actors and technicians with whom Welles had worked in Hollywood in the 1940s, including cameraman Russell Metty (The Stranger), makeup artist Maurice Seiderman (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.[109]:175–176 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.[109]:175–176

In 1978, a longer preview version of the film was discovered and released.

As Universal reworked Touch of Evil, Welles began filming his adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes' novel Don Quixote in Mexico, starring Mischa Auer as Quixote and Akim Tamiroff as Sancho Panza.

Return to Europe (1959–1970)[edit]

He continued shooting Don Quixote in Spain and Italy, but replaced Mischa Auer with Francisco Reiguera, and resumed acting jobs. In Italy in 1959, Welles directed his own scenes as King Saul in Richard Pottier's film David and Goliath. In Hong Kong he co-starred with Curt Jürgens in Lewis Gilbert's film Ferry to Hong Kong. In 1960, in Paris he co-starred in Richard Fleischer's film Crack in the Mirror. In Yugoslavia he starred in Richard Thorpe's film The Tartars and Veljko Bulajić's "Battle of Neretva".

Throughout the 1960s, filming continued on Quixote on-and-off until the decade, as Welles evolved the concept, tone and ending several times. Although he had a complete version of the film shot and edited at least once, he would continue toying with the editing well into the 1980s, he never completed a version film he was fully satisfied with, and would junk existing footage and shoot new footage. (In one case, he had a complete cut ready in which Quixote and Sancho Panza end up going to the moon, but he felt the ending was rendered obsolete by the 1969 moon landings, and burned 10 reels of this version.) As the process went on, Welles gradually voiced all of the characters himself and provided narration. In 1992, the director Jesús Franco constructed a film out of the portions of Quixote left behind by Welles. Some of the film stock had decayed badly. While the Welles footage was greeted with interest, the post-production by Franco was met with harsh criticism.

Welles being interviewed in 1960

In 1961, Welles directed In the Land of Don Quixote, a series of eight half-hour episodes for the Italian television network RAI. Similar to the Around the World with Orson Welles series, they presented travelogues of Spain and included Welles's wife, Paola, and their daughter, Beatrice. Though Welles was fluent in Italian, the network was not interested in him providing Italian narration because of his accent, and the series sat unreleased until 1964, by which time the network had added Italian narration of its own. Ultimately, versions of the episodes were released with the original musical score Welles had approved, but without the narration.

The Trial[edit]

Main article: The Trial (1962 film)

In 1962, Welles directed his adaptation of The Trial, based on the novel by Franz Kafka and produced by Michael and Alexander Salkind. 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 Salkinds 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. To remain in the spirit of Kafka Welles set up the cutting room together with the Film Editor, Frederick Muller (as Fritz Muller), in the old un-used, cold, depressing, station master office. The film failed at the box-office. Peter Bogdanovich would later observe that Welles found the film riotously funny. Welles also told a BBC interviewer that it was his best film.[110] While filming The Trial Welles met Oja Kodar, who later became his mistress and collaborator for the last 20 years of his life.[14]:428

Welles played a film director in La Ricotta (1963)—Pier Paolo Pasolini's segment of the Ro.Go.Pa.G. movie, although his renowned voice was dubbed by Italian writer Giorgio Bassani.[14]:516 He 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.

Chimes at Midnight[edit]

Main article: Chimes at Midnight

Filmed in Spain, Chimes at Midnight was based on Welles's play, Five Kings, in which he drew material from six Shakespeare plays to tell the story of Sir John Falstaff (Welles) and his relationship with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter). The cast includes John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau, Fernando Rey and Margaret Rutherford; the film's narration, spoken by Ralph Richardson, is taken from the chronicler Raphael Holinshed.[30]:249 Welles held the film in high regard: "It's my favorite picture, yes. If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that's the one I would offer up."[64]:203

In 1966, Welles directed a film for French television, an adaptation of The Immortal Story, by Karen Blixen. 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 Oja 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. The first of these was an adaptation of Blixen's The Heroine, meant to be a companion piece to The Immortal Story and starring Kodar. Unfortunately, funding disappeared after one day's shooting. After completing this film, he appeared in a brief cameo as Cardinal Wolsey in Fred Zinnemann's adaptation of A Man for All Seasons—a role for which he won considerable acclaim.

Sergei Bondarchuk and Orson Welles at the premiere of The Battle of Neretva in Sarajevo (November 1969)

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 Harvey. The surviving footage was eventually edited and released 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. In 1969 Welles called again the Film Editor Frederick Muller to work with him re-editing the material and they set up cutting rooms at the Safa Palatino Studios in Rome. Funding for the show sent by CBS to Welles in Switzerland was seized by the IRS. Without funding, the show was not completed. The surviving film clips portions were eventually released by the Filmmuseum München.

In 1969, Welles authorized the use of his name for a cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Orson Welles Cinema remained in operation until 1986, with Welles making a personal appearance there in 1977. Also in 1969 he played a supporting role in John Huston's The Kremlin Letter. 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.

Later career (1970–1985)[edit]

Welles returned to Hollywood, where he continued to self-finance his film and television projects. While offers to act, narrate and host continued, Welles also found himself in great demand on television talk shows. He made frequent appearances for Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Dean Martin and Merv Griffin.

Welles's primary focus during his final years was The Other Side of the Wind, an unfinished project that was filmed intermittently between 1970 and 1976. Written by Welles, it is the story of an aging film director (John Huston) looking for funds to complete his final film. The cast includes Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Edmond O'Brien, Cameron Mitchell and Dennis Hopper. Financed by Iranian backers, ownership of the film fell into a legal quagmire after the Shah of Iran was deposed. While there have been several reports of all the legal disputes concerning ownership of the film being settled, enough disputes still exist to prevent its release.

Welles portrayed Louis XVIII of France in the 1970 film Waterloo, and narrated the beginning and ending scenes of the historical comedy Start the Revolution Without Me (1970).

In 1971, Welles directed a short adaptation of Moby-Dick, a one-man performance on a bare stage, reminiscent of his 1955 stage production Moby Dick—Rehearsed. Never completed, it was eventually released by the Filmmuseum München. He also appeared in Ten Days' Wonder, co-starring with Anthony Perkins and directed by Claude Chabrol, based on a detective novel by Ellery Queen. That same year, 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, thanking the Academy on film. Huston criticized the Academy for awarding Welles, even while they refused to give Welles any work.

In 1972, Welles acted as on-screen narrator for the film documentary version of Alvin Toffler's 1970 book Future Shock. Working again for a British producer, Welles played Long John Silver in director John Hough's Treasure Island (1972), an adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, which had been the second story broadcast by The Mercury Theatre on the Air in 1938. This was the last time he played the lead role in a major film. Welles also contributed to the script, his writing credit was attributed to the pseudonym 'O. W. Jeeves'. Some of Welles' original recorded dialog was redubbed by Robert Rietty.

Orson Welles in F for Fake (1973), a film essay and the last film he completed.

In 1973, Welles completed F for Fake, a personal essay film about art forger Elmyr de Hory and the biographer Clifford Irving. Based on an existing documentary by François Reichenbach, it included new material with Oja Kodar, Joseph Cotten, Paul Stewart and William Alland. An excerpt of Welles's 1930s War of the Worlds broadcast was recreated for this film; however, none of the dialogue heard in the film actually matches what was originally broadcast. Welles filmed a five-minute trailer, rejected in the U.S., that featured several shots of a topless Kodar.

Welles hosted a British syndicated anthology series, Orson Welles's Great Mysteries, over the 1973–74 television season. His brief introductions to the 26 half-hour episodes were shot in July 1973 by Gary Graver.[14]:443 The year 1974 also saw Welles lending his voice for that year's remake of Agatha Christie's classic thriller Ten Little Indians produced by his former associate, Harry Alan Towers and starring an international cast that included Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer and Herbert Lom.

In 1975, Welles narrated the documentary Bugs Bunny: Superstar, focusing on Warner Bros. cartoons from the 1940s. Also in 1975, the American Film Institute presented Welles with its 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.

In 1976, Paramount Television purchased the rights for the entire set of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories for Orson Welles.[c][112][113][114] Welles had once wanted to make a series of Nero Wolfe movies, but Rex Stout – who was leery of Hollywood adaptations during his lifetime after two disappointing 1930s films – turned him down.[113] Paramount planned to begin with an ABC-TV movie and hoped to persuade Welles to continue the role in a mini-series.[112] Frank D. Gilroy was signed to write the television script and direct the TV movie on the assurance that Welles would star, but by April 1977 Welles had bowed out.[115] In 1980 the Associated Press reported "the distinct possibility" that Welles would star in a Nero Wolfe TV series for NBC television.[116] Again, Welles bowed out of the project due to creative differences and William Conrad was cast in the role.[117][118]:87–88

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. Also in 1979, Welles appeared in the biopic The Secret of Nikola Tesla, and a cameo in The Muppet Movie as Lew Lord.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Welles participated in a series of famous television commercial advertisements. For two years he was on-camera spokesman for the Paul Masson Vineyards,[d] and sales grew by one third during the time Welles intoned what became a popular catchphrase: "We will sell no wine before its time."[120] He was also the voice behind the long-running Carlsberg "Probably the best lager in the world" campaign,[121] promoted Domecq sherry on British television[122] and provided narration on adverts for Findus, though the actual adverts have been overshadowed by a famous blooper reel of voice recordings, known as the Frozen Peas reel. He also did commercials for the Preview Subscription Television Service seen on stations around the country including WCLQ/Cleveland, KNDL/St. Louis and WSMW/Boston.

In 1981, Welles hosted the documentary The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, about Renaissance-era prophet Nostradamus. In 1982, the BBC broadcast The Orson Welles Story in 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. It was reissued in 1990 as With Orson Welles: Stories of a Life in Film. Welles provided narration for the tracks "Defender" from Manowar's 1987 album Fighting the World and "Dark Avenger" on their 1982 album, Battle Hymns. His name was misspelled on the latter album, as he was credited as "Orson Wells".[123]

During the 1980s, Welles worked on such film projects as The Dreamers, based on two stories by Isak Dinesen and starring Oja Kodar, and 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 was completed. All of them were eventually released by the Filmmuseum München.

In 1984, Welles narrated the short-lived television series Scene of the Crime. During the early years of Magnum, P.I., Welles was the voice of the unseen character Robin Masters, a famous writer and playboy. Welles's death forced this minor character to largely be written out of the series. In an oblique homage to Welles, the Magnum, P.I. producers ambiguously concluded that story arc by having one character accuse another of having hired an actor to portray Robin Masters.[124] He also, in this penultimate year released a music single, titled "I Know What It Is To Be Young (But You Don't Know What It Is To Be Old)", which he recorded under Italian label Compagnia Generale del Disco. The song was performed with the Nick Perito Orchestra and the Ray Charles Singers and produced by Jerry Abbott who was father to famed metal guitarist Dimebag Darrell.[125]

The last film roles before Welles's death included voice work in the animated films Enchanted Journey (1984) and The Transformers: The Movie (1986), in which he played the planet-eating robot Unicron. His last film appearance was in Henry Jaglom's 1987 independent film Someone to Love, released after his death but produced before his voice-over in Transformers: The Movie. His last television 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.

In the mid-1980s, Henry Jaglom taped lunch conversations with Welles at Los Angeles's Ma Maison as well as in New York. Edited transcripts of these sessions appear in Peter Biskind's 2013 book My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles.[126]

Personal life[edit]

Relationships and family[edit]

Virginia Welles with Eustace Wyatt in Too Much Johnson (1938)
Wedding of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, with best man Joseph Cotten (September 7, 1943)

Orson Welles and Chicago-born actress and socialite Virginia Nicolson (1916–1996) were married on November 14, 1934.[14]:332 The couple separated in December 1939,[17]:226 and divorced February 1, 1940.[127][128] After bearing with Welles's romances in New York, Virginia had learned that Welles had fallen in love with Mexican actress Dolores del Río.[17]:227

Infatuated with her since adolescence, Welles met del Río at Darryl Zanuck's ranch[19]:206 soon after he moved to Hollywood in 1939.[17]:227[19]:168 Their relationship was kept secret until 1941, when del Río filed for divorce from her second husband. They openly appeared together in New York while Welles was directing Native Son.[19]:212 They acted together in the movie Journey into Fear (1943). Their relationship came to an end, among other things, due to the infidelities of Welles. Del Río returned to México in 1943, shortly before Welles married Rita Hayworth.[129]

Welles married Rita Hayworth September 7, 1943.[19]:278 They were divorced November 10, 1947.[79]:142 During his last interview, recorded for The Merv Griffin Show on the evening before his death, Welles called Hayworth "one of the dearest and sweetest women that ever lived … and we were a long time together — I was lucky enough to have been with her longer than any of the other men in her life."[130]

In 1955, Welles married actress Paola Mori (née Countess Paola di Girifalco), an Italian aristocrat who starred as Raina Arkadin in his 1955 film, Mr. Arkadin. The couple had embarked on a passionate affair, and they were married at her parents' insistence.[21]:168 They were wed in London May 8, 1955,[14]:417, 419 and never divorced.

Croatian-born artist and actress Oja Kodar became Welles's longtime companion both personally and professionally from 1966 onwards, and they lived together for some of the last 20 years of his life.[21]:255–258

Welles had three daughters from his marriages: Christopher Welles Feder (born March 27, 1938, with Virginia Nicolson);[e][19]:148 Rebecca Welles Manning (December 17, 1944 – October 17, 2004,[131] with Rita Hayworth); and Beatrice Welles (born November 13, 1955, with Paola Mori).[14]:419

Welles is thought to have a son, British director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (born May 5, 1940), from an affair with Irish actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, then the wife of Sir Edward Lindsay-Hogg, 4th baronet.[132] When Lindsay-Hogg was 16 his mother reluctantly divulged that there were pervasive rumors that his biological father was Welles, and she denied them — but in such detail that he was left confused and dubious.[133][134]:15 Fitzgerald evaded the subject for the rest of her life. Lindsay-Hogg knew Welles, worked with him in the theatre and met him at intervals throughout Welles's life.[132] After he learned that Welles's oldest daughter Chris, his childhood playmate, had long suspected that he was her brother,[135] Lindsay-Hogg initiated a DNA test that proved inconclusive. In his 2011 autobiography Lindsay-Hogg reported that his questions were resolved by his mother's close friend Gloria Vanderbilt, who wrote that Fitzgerald had told her that Welles was his father.[134]:265–267 A forthcoming 2015 biography by Patrick McGilligan reportedly documents the impossibility of Welles's paternity.[136]

After the death of Rebecca Welles Manning, a man named Marc McKerrow was revealed to be her biological son, and therefore the direct descendant of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. McKerrow's reactions to the revelation and his meeting with Oja Kodar are documented in the 2008 film Prodigal Sons.[137] McKerrow died June 18, 2010.[138]

Despite an urban legend promoted by Welles himself,[f] he was not related to Abraham Lincoln's wartime Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. The myth dates back to the first newspaper feature ever written about Welles — "Cartoonist, Actor, Poet and only 10" — in the February 19, 1926, issue of The Capital Times. The article falsely states that he was descended from "Gideon Welles, who was a member of President Lincoln's cabinet".[9]:47–48[59]:311 As presented by Charles Higham in a genealogical chart that introduces his 1985 biography of Welles, Orson Welles's father was Richard Head Welles (born Wells), son of Richard Jones Wells, son of Henry Hill Wells (who had an uncle named Gideon Wells), son of William Hill Wells, son of Richard Wells (1734–1801).[9]

Physical characteristics[edit]

In his 1956 biography, Peter Noble describes Welles as "a magnificent figure of a man, over six feet tall, handsome, with flashing eyes and a gloriously resonant speaking-voice".[140]:19 Welles said that a voice specialist once told him he was born to be a heldentenor, a heroic tenor, but that when he was young and working at the Gate Theatre he forced his voice down into a bass-baritone.[18]:144

Even as a baby Welles was prone to illness, including diphtheria, measles, whooping cough and malaria. From infancy he suffered from asthma, sinus headaches, and backache[17]:8 that was later found to be caused by congenital anomalies of the spine. Foot and ankle trouble throughout his life was the result of flat feet.[141]:560 "As he grew older," Brady wrote, "his ill health was exacerbated by the late hours he was allowed to keep [and] an early penchant for alcohol and tobacco".[17]:8

In 1928, at age 13, Welles was already more than six feet tall and weighed over 180 pounds.[9]:50 His passport recorded his height as six feet three inches, with brown hair and green eyes.[21]:229

"Crash diets, drugs, and corsets had slimmed him for his early film roles," wrote biographer Barton Whaley. "Then always back to gargantuan consumption of high-caloric food and booze. By summer 1949, when he was 34, his weight had crept up to a stout 230 pounds. In 1953 he ballooned from 250 to 275 pounds. After 1960 he remained permanently obese."[142]:329

Religious beliefs[edit]

When Peter Bogdanovich once asked him about his religion, Orson Welles gruffly replied that it was none of his business, then misinformed him that he was raised Catholic.[14]:xxx[142]:12

Although the Welles family was no longer devout, it was fourth-generation Protestant Episcopalian and, before that, Quaker and Puritan.[142]:12 Welles's earliest paternal forebear in America, Richard Wells, was a leader of the Quaker community in Pennsylvania. His earliest maternal ancestor in America was John Alden, a crew member on the Pilgrim ship Mayflower.[9]:5

The funeral of Welles's father Richard H. Welles was Episcopalian.[142]:12[143]

In April 1982, when interviewer Merv Griffin asked him about his religious beliefs, Welles replied, "I try to be a Christian. I don't pray really, because I don't want to bore God."[17]:576 Near the end of his life Welles was dining at Ma Maison, his favorite restaurant in Los Angeles, when proprietor Patrick Terrail conveyed an invitation from the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, who asked Welles to be his guest of honor at divine liturgy at Saint Sophia Cathedral. Welles replied, "Please tell him I really appreciate that offer, but I am an atheist."[144]:104–105

"Orson never joked or teased about the religious beliefs of others," wrote biographer Barton Whaley. "He accepted it as a cultural artifact, suitable for the births, deaths, and marriages of strangers and even some friends — but without emotional or intellectual meaning for himself."[142]:12


Welles was politically active from the beginning of his career. He remained aligned with the left throughout his life,[145] and always defined his political orientation as "progressive". He was a strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and often spoke out on radio in support of progressive politics.[145] He campaigned heavily for Roosevelt in the 1944 election.[145]

"During a White House dinner," Welles recalled in a 1983 conversation with his friend Roger Hill, "when I was campaigning for Roosevelt, in a toast, with considerable tongue in cheek, he said, 'Orson, you and I are the two greatest actors alive today'. In private that evening, and on several other occasions, he urged me to run for a Senate seat either in California or Wisconsin. He wasn't alone."[18]:115

For several years, he wrote a newspaper column on political issues and considered running for the U.S. Senate in 1946, representing his home state of Wisconsin (a seat that was ultimately won by Joseph McCarthy).[145]

Welles' name and political activities are reported on pages 155-157 of Red Channels, the anti-Communist publication that, in part, fueled the already flourishing Hollywood Blacklist.[146] He was in Europe during the height of the Red Scare, thereby nullifying more reasons for the Hollywood establishment to ostracize him.

In 1970, Welles narrated (but did not write) a satirical political record on the administration of President Richard Nixon titled The Begatting of the President.

He was also an early and outspoken critic of American racism and the practice of segregation.

Death and tributes[edit]

On the evening of October 9, 1985, Welles recorded his final interview on the syndicated TV program, The Merv Griffin Show, appearing with biographer Barbara Leaming. "Both Welles and Leaming talked of Welles's life and the segment was a nostalgic interlude," wrote biographer Frank Brady.[17]:590–591 Welles returned to his house in Hollywood and worked into the early hours typing stage directions for the project he and Gary Graver were planning to shoot at UCLA the following day. Welles died sometime on the morning of October 10, following a heart attack.[14]:453 He was found by his chauffeur at around 10 a.m.; the first of Welles's friends to arrive was Paul Stewart.[59]:295–297

Welles was cremated by prior agreement with the executor of his estate, Greg Garrison.[17]:592 A successful television producer, Garrison had encouraged Welles to make guest appearances on TV in the 1970s, which proved so lucrative that Welles was able to pay off a portion of the taxes he owed the IRS.[17]:549–550 Garrison and Welles were first acquainted in 1946, during the Broadway production of Around the World, for which Garrison was a stagehand.[19]:470–471

A brief private funeral took place at Cunningham and O'Connor in Hollywood, the mortuary where the visitation for John Ford had taken place. The service was attended by Paola Mori and Welles's three daughters — the first time they had ever been together. Only a few close friends were invited: Garrison, Graver, Roger Hill[59]:298 and Prince Alessandro Tasca di Cuto. Chris Welles Feder later described the funeral as an awful experience.[21]:1–9

Within days of Welles's death Richard Wilson and other friends began to organize a public memorial tribute[17]:593 which took place November 2, 1985, at the Directors Guild of America Theater in Los Angeles. Host Peter Bogdanovich introduced speakers including Charles Champlin, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Greg Garrison, Charlton Heston, Roger Hill, Henry Jaglom, Arthur Knight, Oja Kodar, Barbara Leaming, Janet Leigh, Norman Lloyd, Dan O'Herlihy, Patrick Terrail and Robert Wise.[17]:594[59]:299–300

"I know what his feelings were regarding his death," Joseph Cotten later wrote. "He did not want a funeral; he wanted to be buried quietly in a little place in Spain. He wanted no memorial services …" Cotten declined to attend the memorial program; instead he sent a short message, ending with the last two lines of a Shakespeare sonnet that Welles had sent him on his most recent birthday:[37]:216

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.[37]:217

In 1987 the cremated remains of Welles and Mori (killed in a 1986 car crash[147]) were taken to Ronda, Spain, and buried in an old well covered by flowers on the rural estate of a longtime friend, retired bullfighter Antonio Ordóñez.[59]:298–299[148][g][h]

Unfinished projects[edit]

Welles's reliance on self-production meant that many of his later projects were filmed piecemeal or were not completed. Welles financed his later projects through his own fundraising activities. He often also took on other work to obtain money to fund his own films.

Don Quixote[edit]

In the mid-1950s, Welles began work on 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. Filming stopped with the death of Francisco Reiguera, the actor playing Quixote, in 1969. Orson Welles continued editing the film into the early 1970s. At the time of his death, the film remained largely a collection of footage in various states of editing. The project and more importantly Welles's conception of the project changed radically over time. A version of the film was created from available fragments in 1992 and released to a very negative reception. A version Oja Kodar supervised, with help from Jess Franco, assistant director during production, was released in 2008 to mixed reactions. Frederick Muller - the film editor for The Trial, Chimes at Midnight and the CBS Special "Orson Bag" was fortunate to work on editing three reels of the original, unadulterated version - was asked for his opinion in 2013 from a journalist of Time Out, his reply was he felt that if released without image re-editing but with the addition of ad hoc sound and music it probably would have been rather successful.

The Merchant of Venice[edit]

In 1969, Welles was given another TV commission to film a condensed adaptation of The Merchant of Venice.[64]:XXXIV Although Welles had actually completed the film by 1970 the finished negative was later mysteriously stolen from his Rome production office.[59]:234 A restored and reconstructed version of the film, made by using the original script and composer's notes, premiered at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival alongside Othello as part of the pre-opening ceremonies.[150]

The Other Side of the Wind[edit]

In 1970, Welles began shooting The Other Side of the Wind. The film relates the efforts of a film director (played by John Huston) to complete his last Hollywood picture and is largely set at a lavish party. By 1972 the filming was reported by Welles as being "96% complete",[17]:546 though it is likely that Welles had only edited about 40 minutes of the film by 1979.[2]:320 In that year, legal complications over the ownership of the film forced the negative into a Paris vault. In 2004 director Peter Bogdanovich, who acted in the film, announced his intention to complete the production. As of 2009, legal complications over the Welles estate had kept the film from being finished or released.

On October 28, 2014, the Los Angeles-based production company Royal Road Entertainment announced that it had negotiated an agreement, with the assistance of producer Frank Marshall, and would purchase the rights to complete and release The Other Side of the Wind. Bogdanovich and Marshall will complete Welles's nearly finished film in Los Angeles, aiming to have it ready for screening May 6, 2015 — the 100th anniversary of Welles's birth.[151] Royal Road Entertainment and German producer Jens Koethner Kaul acquired the rights held by Les Films de l'Astrophore and the late Mehdi Boushehri. They reached an agreement with Oja Kodar, who inherited Welles's ownership of the film, and Beatrice Welles, manager of the Welles estate.[152]

Some footage is included in the documentaries Working with Orson Welles (1993) and Orson Welles: One Man Band (1995).

Other unfinished films and unfilmed screenplays[edit]

  • Too Much Johnson, a 1938 comedy film written and directed by Welles. Designed as the cinematic aspect of Welles's Mercury Theatre stage presentation of William Gillette's 1894 comedy, the film was not completely edited or publicly screened. Too Much Johnson was considered a lost film until August 2013 news reports that a pristine print was discovered in Italy in 2008. A copy restored by the George Eastman House museum was scheduled to premiere October 9, 2013, at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, with a U.S. premiere to follow.[153] A single performance of Too Much Johnson, on 2/2/15, at the Film Forum in NYC, was a great success. Produced by Bruce Goldstein and adapted and directed by Allen Lewis Rickman, it featured the Film Forum Players with live piano.
  • Heart of Darkness: Welles's projected first film in 1940, planned in extreme detail and with some test shots filmed. (The footage is now lost.) It was planned to be entirely shot in long takes from the point of view of the narrator, Marlow, who would be played by Welles; his reflection would occasionally be seen in the window as his boat sailed down river. The project was abandoned because it could not be delivered on budget, and Citizen Kane was made instead.[14]:30–33, 355–356
  • Santa: In 1941, Welles planned a film to his then partner, the Mexican actress Dolores del Río. The film was adapted from the novel by Mexican writer Federico Gamboa. The film which marked the debut of Dolores del Río in the Mexican Cinema. Welles made a correction of the script in thirteen extraordinary sequences. Unfortunately, the high salary demanded by Del Río threw overboard the project. In 1943, the film finally done with the settings of Welles, led by Norman Foster and starring Mexican actress Esther Fernández.[154]
  • The Way to Santiago: In 1941 Welles also planned a Mexican drama with Dolores del Río, which he gave to RKO to be budgeted. The film would a movie version of the same name novel by Calder Marshall. In the story, Dolores del Río would play Elena Medina, "the most beautiful girl in the world", with Welles playing an American who becomes entangled in a mission to disrupt a Nazi plot to overthrow the Mexican government. Welles planned to shoot in Mexico, but the Mexican government had to approve the story, and this never occurred.[154]
  • The Life of Christ: In 1941, Welles received the support of Bishop Fulton Sheen for a retelling of the life of Christ to be set in the American West in the 1890s. After filming of Citizen Kane was complete,[155] Welles, Perry Ferguson and Gregg Toland scouted locations in Baja California and Mexico. Welles wrote a screenplay with dialogue from the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. "Every word in the film was to be from the Bible — no original dialogue, but done as a sort of American primitive," Welles said, "set in the frontier country in the last century." The unrealized project was revisited by Welles in the 1950s when he wrote a second unfilmed screenplay, to be shot in Egypt.[14]:361–362
  • It's All True: Welles did not originally want to direct this 1942 documentary on South America, but after its abandonment by RKO, he spent much of the 1940s attempting to buy the negative of his material from RKO, so that he could edit and release it in some form. The footage remained unseen in vaults for decades, and was assumed lost. Over 50 years later, some (but not all) of the surviving material saw release in the 1993 documentary It's All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles.
  • Monsieur Verdoux: In 1944, Welles wrote the first-draft script of this film, which he also intended to direct. Charlie Chaplin initially agreed to star in it, but later changed his mind, citing never having been directed by someone else in a feature before. Chaplin bought the film rights and made the film himself in 1947, with some changes (Welles said the gallows scenes were written by Chaplin, but that much of the film was unchanged from his own script). The final film credits Chaplin with the script, "based on an idea by Orson Welles".
  • Cyrano de Bergerac: Welles spent around nine months c. 1947-8 co-writing the screenplay for this along with Ben Hecht, a project Welles was assigned to direct for Alexander Korda. He began scouting for locations in Europe whilst filming Black Magic, but Korda was short of money, so sold the rights to Columbia pictures, who eventually dismissed Welles from the project, and then sold the rights on to United Artists, who in turn made a film version in 1950, which was not based on Welles's script.[14]:106–108
  • Around the World in Eighty Days: After Welles's elaborate musical stageshow of this Jules Verne novel, encompassing 38 different sets, he began shooting some test footage in Morocco for a film version in 1947. The footage was never edited, funding never came through, and Welles abandoned the project. Nine years later, the stage show's producer Mike Todd made his own award-winning film version of the book.[14]:402
  • Moby Dick—Rehearsed: a film version of Welles's 1955 London meta-play, starring Gordon Jackson, Christopher Lee, Patrick McGoohan, and with Welles as Ahab. Using bare, minimalist sets, Welles alternated between a cast of nineteenth-century actors rehearsing a production of Moby Dick, with scenes from Moby Dick itself. Kenneth Williams, a cast member who was apprehensive about the entire project, recorded in his autobiography that Welles's dim, atmospheric stage lighting made some of the footage so dark as to be unwatchable. The entire play was filmed, but is now presumed lost. This was made during one weekend at the Hackney Empire theatre.[156]
  • Histoires extraordinaires: The producers of this 1968 anthology film, based on short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, announced in June 1967 that Welles would direct one segment based on both "Masque of the Red Death" and "The Cask of Amontillado" for the omnibus film. Welles withdrew in September 1967 and was replaced. The script, written in English by Welles and Oja Kodar, is in the Filmmuseum Munchen collection.[157]
  • One-Man Band: This Monty Python-esque spoof in which Welles plays all but one of the characters (including two characters in drag), was made around 1968-9. Welles intended this completed sketch to be one of several items in a television special on London. Other items filmed for this special – all included in the "One Man Band" documentary by his partner Oja Kodar – comprised a sketch on Winston Churchill (played in silhouette by Welles), a sketch on peers in a stately home, a feature on London gentlemen's clubs, and a sketch featuring Welles being mocked by his snide Savile Row tailor (played by Charles Gray).[158]
  • Treasure Island: Welles wrote two screenplays for this in the 1960s, and was eager to seek financial backing to direct it. Eventually, his own screenplay (under the pseudonym of O.W. Jeeves) was further rewritten, and formed the basis of the 1972 film version directed by John Hough, in which Welles played Long John Silver.
  • The Deep: An adaptation of Charles Williams' Dead Calm. The picture was entirely set on two boats and shot mostly in close-ups, and was filmed off the coasts of Yugoslavia and the Bahamas, between 1966 and 1969, with all but one scene completed. Originally planned as commercially viable thriller, to show that Welles could make a popular, successful film. It was put on hold in 1970 when Welles worried that critics would not respond favourably to this film as his theatrical follow-up to the much-lauded Chimes at Midnight, and Welles focused instead on F for Fake. It was abandoned altogether in 1973 due to the death of its star Laurence Harvey.
  • Dune: An early attempt at adapting Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel Dune by Chilean film director Alejandro Jodorowsky was to star Welles as the evil Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, whom Jodorowsky had personally chosen for the role. However, the planned film never advanced past pre-production.
  • Saint Jack. In 1978 Welles was lined up by his long-time protégé Peter Bogdanovich (who was then acting as Welles's de facto agent) to direct this adaptation of the 1973 Paul Theroux novel about an American pimp in Singapore. Hugh Hefner and Bogdnovich's then-partner Cybill Shepherd were both attached to the project as producers, with Hefner providing finance through his Playboy productions. However, both Hefner and Shepherd became convinced that Bogdanovich himself would be a more commercially viable director than Welles, and insisted that Bogdanovich take over. Since Bogdanovich was also in need of work after a series of box office flops, he agreed. When the film was finally made in 1979 by Bogdanovich and Hefner (but without Welles or Shepherd's participation), Welles felt betrayed and according to Bogdanovich the two "drifted apart a bit".[159]
  • Filming The Trial: After the success of his 1978 film Filming Othello made for West German television, and mostly consisting of a monologue to the camera, Welles began shooting scenes for this follow-up film, but never completed it.[59]:253 What Welles did film was an 80-minute question-and-answer session in 1981 with film students asking about the film. The footage was kept by Welles's cinematographer Gary Graver, who donated it to the Munich Film Museum, which then pieced it together with Welles's trailer for the film, into an 83-minute film which is occasionally screened at film festivals.
  • The Big Brass Ring: This 1982 screenplay, written by Welles with Oja Kodar was adapted and filmed by director George Hickenlooper in partnership with writer F.X. Feeney. Both the Welles script and the 1999 film center on a U.S. Presidential hopeful in his 40s, his elderly mentor—a former candidate for the Presidency, brought low by homosexual scandal—and the Italian journalist probing for the truth of the relationship between these men. During the last years of his life, Welles struggled to get financing for the planned film; however, his efforts at casting Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds and Paul Newman as the main character were unsuccessful. All of the actors turned down the role for various reasons.
  • Cradle Will Rock: Welles planned on writing and directing a film about the 1937 staging of The Cradle Will Rock. Rupert Everett was slated to play the young Welles. However, Welles was unable to acquire funding. Tim Robbins later directed a similar film, but it was not based on Welles's script.
  • King Lear: At the time of his death, Welles was in talks with a French production company to direct a film version of the Shakespeare play, in which he would also play the title role.
  • An adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Ada for which Welles flew to Paris to discuss the project personally with the Russian author.

Theatre credits[edit]

Radio credits[edit]




Cultural references[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Richard H. Welles had changed the spelling of his surname by the time of the 1900 Federal Census, when he was living at Rudolphsheim, the 1888 Kenosha mansion built by his mother Mary Head Wells and her second husband, Frederick Gottfredsen.
  2. ^ Although many sources cite Beatrice Ives Welles's year of birth as 1883, her grave marker reads 1881.
  3. ^ Pre-production materials for Nero Wolfe (1976) are contained in the Orson Welles – Oja Kodar Papers at the University of Michigan.[111]
  4. ^ Paul Masson's spokesman since 1979, Welles parted company with Paul Masson in 1981, and in 1982 he was replaced by John Gielgud.[119]
  5. ^ "On March 27, 1938," biographer Barbara Leaming wrote, "Orson's close friends received a most peculiar telegram: 'Christopher, she is born.' It was no joke'"[19]:148
  6. ^ For example, while bantering with Lucille Ball on a 1944 broadcast of The Orson Welles Almanac before an audience of U.S. Navy service members, Welles says, "My great-granduncle was Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy in Lincoln's cabinet". (Lucille Ball AFRS broadcast, May 3, 1944, 2:42.)[139]
  7. ^ A photograph of the grave site appears opposite the title page of Orson Welles on Shakespeare: The W.P.A. and Mercury Theatre Playscripts, edited by Richard France. France notes the inscription on the plaque: "Ronda. Al Maestro de Maestros."[39]:ii
  8. ^ The gravesite is not accessible to the public but can be seen in Kristian Petri's 2005 documentary, Brunnen (The Well),[59]:298–299 which is about Welles's time in Spain.[149]
  9. ^ "Amateur dramatic groups from all sections of Metropolitan Chicago will compete this summer at Enchanted Island, World's Fair fairyland for children at A Century of Progress, for a silver cup to be awarded by the Chicago Drama League, Miss Anna Agress, director of the Children's Theatre on the Island, has announced. Twenty-four groups, ranging from Thespians of years' experience to child actors, are on the schedule. Although most of the program will be played during July and August, the contest opened several days ago with the Todd School for Boys, of Woodstock, Ill., presenting Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The Todd boys were the 1932 cup winners."[160]


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  196. ^ McCarthy, Todd (September 16, 2014). "'Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles': Telluride Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2015-08-27. 

Further reading[edit]

Further information: Orson Welles bibliography

Archival sources[edit]

External links[edit]