George Orson Welles was born May 6, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the son of an artist and an inventor. It is interesting to see how Welles patterned his own career after both parental figures backgrounds, and how being orphaned by the age of 15 might have shaped the groundwork for his most popular film character, Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane; 1941). Welles made his stage debut in 1931 in Jew Suss, while in Dublin, Ireland. From there, he performed off-Broadway before landing his first radio job – on The American School of the Air – in 1934, as well as shooting his first short film, The Hearts of Age, the same year.

He worked in theatre and radio from 1936-1940, where Welles – along with John Houseman – formed the Mercury Theatre company, where he worked as a producer and hired actors that would go on to work with him for years, some that would even make the jump with him from stage to film (including Joseph Cotton, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, and Erskine Sanford). From stage, Welles’ interest turned to radio, working as actor, director, and producer. He anonymously performed the voice of The Shadow, which in turn earned him and the Mercury Theatre company a weekly hour-long time slot to broadcast radio plays. One such broadcast earned him notoriety and immediate fame. On October 30, 1938, Welles’ radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was broadcast to thousands of listeners who – after missing the introduction – thought the reports of an alien invasion were true, resulting in widespread panic. After this, it didn’t take long for Hollywood to come knocking.

RKO Pictures president, George Schaefer, offered Welles a contract that has since been considered the greatest ever offered towellespost
an untested director, giving him complete artistic control. It was a two-picture deal that essentially gave Welles the power to determine final cut. Upon accepting the deal, Welles and most of the Mercury Theatre troupe made the move to Hollywood. After rejecting Welles’ first two movie proposals (including an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), RKO approved filming for Citizen Kane (1941), for which Welles co-wrote, produced, directed, and performed the lead role. The film was based loosely on the life of newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, though there were denials of this being true at the time of the film’s release. While parts of the film are undeniably based on Hearst, there are portions of the film that seem to have been autobiographical as well, including, perhaps, Welles’ childhood. Citizen Kane was filmed in ten weeks and, despite Hearst’s attempts to derail the film (exceptionally chronicled in the 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane), has since been widely heralded by film critics and historians (including the American Film Institute) as the greatest movie ever made. Hearst’s power to blackmail, boycott, and bribe Hollywood insiders has been widely credited with the film losing the Best Picture Academy Award for 1941. Despite receiving nine total nominations, Citizen Kane walked with only one Oscar – Best Original Screenplay, shared by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Welles’ sophomore effort also has a controversial history to it. Welles chose to adapt Pulitzer Prize-winning author Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons. The film unfortunately ran behind schedule and over budget, forcing RKO to renegotiate Welles’ contract, which cost Welles the right of final cut. As RKO suffered financial strain, the company began making changes in leadership which in turn resulted in over 50 minutes of film being cut from The Magnificent Ambersons to make it more commercial, and included a happier ending than the one Welles had shot. The film flopped at the box office, but still managed to receive four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.

He next adapted the spy thriller Journey Into Fear with Joseph Cotton, and had Norman Foster direct while Welles starred and produced. Welles also produced It’s All True – a documentary about South America – at this time in an attempt to help with the war effort. Following the box office disasters of Ambersons and It’s All True, no studio was willing to hire Welles as a director. So he turned back to radio, married Rita Hayworth, and became more involved with international politics. He began working as an actor in other directors films, including the adaptation of Jane Eyre (1944). In 1946, Welles got another shot at directing, helming The Stranger, which did well enough financially that other studios began to be more willing to work with Welles as a director again.

Another of Welles more memorable films was The Lady From Shanghai (1947), which is another example of how ahead of his time Welles was. The film was considered a disaster then and yet now, a classic. In 1949, Welles starred in one of my favorite films of all time: Carol Reed’s The Third Man. The brilliant script by Graham Greene allowed Welles to give his finest performance, starring as the unforgettable Harry Lime. Welles directed and co-starred opposite Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil (1958), a classic noir that unfortunately had studio execs once again re-editing and re-shooting scenes in order to make the film more accessible to audiences. He received praise for his performances in The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and Compulsion (1959), and starred in A Man for All Seasons, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture 1966.

Welles continued to work in film, television, and radio until his death on October 10, 1985. Welles suffered a heart attack just hours after appearing in an interview on The Merv Griffin Show. His body was found slumped over his typewriter, where he was working on a new film script.

My Circuit 3 for films starring Orson Welles:

  1. Citizen Kane (1941)
  2. The Third Man (1949)
  3. Touch of Evil (1958)

My Circuit 3 for Orson Welles performances:

  1. The Third Man (1949)
  2. Citizen Kane (1941)
  3. Touch of Evil (1958)

What are your three favorite/best Orson Welles films and performances? You can view his entire filmography here.