Orson Welles (1915 - 1985)

orson welles
Orson Welles

Orson Welles is one of the most instantly recognisable names amongst the great directors of Hollywood. He was many things during his lifetime; starting as a child prodigy, he became a magician, a radio and stage actor, a television personality, a movie actor and above all, a great film producer and director. He was in many ways ahead of his time and he got little appreciation from his contemporaries. He has often been hailed as a genius but he seemed to spend a great part of his life in squandering his gifts on projects which were unfinished or ill-prepared or just underfunded.

Welles possessed a formidably strong personality and often went his own stubborn way which did not endear him to the Hollywood studio bosses, who, after initially granting his every wish, eventually turned against him, deciding he was not worth the effort. His influence on film makers and film making has been immense but he has only been really appreciated as a true cinematic visionary from the mid 1950's onwards. Of all his major works, his first, 'Citizen Kane', made when he was just 25 years old, has had most resonance, and it is still hailed today, as a masterwork.


He was born George Orson Welles on May 6th, 1915, into an affluent family, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His father, Richard, was an inventor who had made a fortune inventing a carbide bicycle lamp, and his mother, Beatrice, was a concert pianist. Orson had a natural gift for music and painting and was recognised as a prodigy when very young.

His parents separated when he was four and the young boy was brought up initially by his mother who taught him the violin and piano. When she died of hepatitis in 1924 when Orson was nine, he returned to the care of his father. Welles's young life became even more difficult over the next few years. His father's business hit difficulties and Richard Welles became an alcoholic, eventually committing suicide in 1928 when Orson was 15.

He was placed in the care of Dr Maurice Bernstein a physician in Chicago, who recognised that the young boy was exceptionally gifted. Bernstein placed his charge in the independent Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, a forward-thinking establishment which gave Welles the freedom to identify, nurture and extend his artistic gifts. It was here that Welles first began develop a love for acting and the theater, and where he both staged and performed in school productions.

After graduating in 1931, Welles used a small inheritance from his father to travel through Europe. Still only 16 he made a much praised professional acting debut at the Gate Theatre Dublin in 'Jew Suss'.

After a year in Ireland Welles went on a tour of Spain and Morocco, returning to Chicago in 1933. Still intent on a stage career he joined Katharine Cornell's touring company in 1933-34, playing several roles including Octavius Barrett in 'The Barretts of Wimpole Street' and Mercutio in 'Romeo and Juliet'.

Welles had a sharp, enquiring mind and he discovered and in 1934 he began working in the fast-growing new medium of radio for which his deep gravelly voice proved to be ideally suited. He began in an adaptation of the verse play 'Panic' and in 1934-35 he narrated the news series, 'The March of Time'.

The Mercury Theatre

Welles made his New York debut in 1934 as Tybalt in 'Romeo and Juliet'. His performance attracted the attention of actor and producer, John Houseman, who recruited him into his Federal Theater project. It was beginning of an important partnership and learning experience for the self-confident and ambitious young man. In 1936 Welles directed a so-called 'voodoo' version of 'Macbeth', which featured an all-black cast. It was highly praised by the critics and went on tour around America. Welles was still only 21 years old and was hailed as a theatrical prodigy.

In 1937 Welles formed the Mercury Theater Group with John Houseman and they started to make a name for themselves with experimental but highly professional productions such as a modern-dress version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, set in 20th Century fascist Italy.

The Houseman-Welles partnership moved Mercury into radio broadcasting with the weekly "Mercury Theatre of the Air" which broadcast plays based on classic literary works. One of the works was by H.G. Wells and it would catapult Orson to national fame.

'The War of the Worlds' 1938

Their fame dramatically increased in October, 1938 with their broadcast in documentary style of HG Wells's 'The War of the Worlds' which was so realistic that many listeners panicked, thinking they were listening to the description of an actual invasion from Mars. Welles was the narrator who gave a realistically detailed account of the alien attack on New Jersey. When the truth came out, the public were outraged and Welles became notorious throughout America.


Welles was now very well known and it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. This they did in 1939 when RKO, seeking to capitalise on his fame, offered him an incredible contract to direct and act in two movies and to have complete artistic control over the output. This would have been considered generous for an established director but for a 25 year old novice it was amazing and a sign of the reputation he had built up for himself. Welles and most of the Mercury actors removed to Hollywood. The result was 'Citizen Kane' in 1941.

'Citizen Kane' 1941

Initially titled 'American', 'Citizen Kane' was directed by Welles and co-written by him with Herman J. Mankiewicz. He also starred in the movie as Charles Foster. The film was an inspired masterpiece which tells its story from several different perspectives, recounting the rise and ultimate fall of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, quite obviously modelled on real-life publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

Welles received Academy Award nominations as producer, director, actor and writer but won only for Best Original Screenplay, which he shared with Mankiewicz. Although it was largely ignored by the Academy, the film is a mighty, almost superhuman, effort and it is now regarded as one of the best movies ever made and certainly the best debut movie by far. However, on release it was not a commercial success, mainly because of the opposition from the William Randolph Hearst organisation who did not like the way that Hearst and Marion Davies were portrayed. RKO withdrew the film and did not re-release it until 1956 when it assumed its rightful place as an artistic tour-de-force.

'The Magnificent Ambersons' was Welles's second film for RKO and again the movie was not well received by the moviegoing public although it received four Academy nominations including Best Picture. The studio reneged on its contract, and to Welles's immense frustration, began to interfere, shooting new footage and re-editing against Welles's wishes. The ensuing dispute between director and studio was a harbinger of things to come. As with 'Kane' the movie has with the passage of time, come to be regarded as a masterpiece.

In early 1942 whilst his directorial star was still in the ascendant, Welles was asked by the US government to create a propoganda documentary film about South America. The film's budget and overall scope were expanded by Welles who, once in South America, was infuriatingly difficult to contact. RKO refused to support any further production on the film and withdrew their crew. It was the final straw for the studio who claimed that Welles had wasted one million dollars on the project.

When he returned to America Welles found the studios now eying him with suspicion and movie offers stopped coming in. He was able to get work on radio but two series with CBS were both abandoned quickly and the Welles pattern of not completing projects was well and truly set. The same thing happened with a radio series sponsored by Mobil Oil, started in 1944 but abandoned within a year.

Welles continued to be in demand as an actor and he received good reviews for his appearances in 'Journey Into Fear' in 1942, 'Jane Eyre' in 1944, and 'Tomorrow Is Forever' in 1946. He was then given two more movies to direct, 'The Stranger', in 1946 with Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson, and then in 1948, 'The Lady from Shanghai' with his second wife, Rita Hayworth.

In 1948, bowing to the inevitable, Welles moved into exile in Europe where he began what was to be a lifelong pattern of acting in other directors' films in order to raise finance for his own projects. In 1949 he starred as Harry Lime in the smash hit, 'The Third Man', one of his most notable roles as an actor.

Welles continued to direct, and perform in some memorable movies. 'The Tragedy of Othello: the Moor of Venice' in 1952, 'Mr. Arkadin' in 1955, and 'Le Proces' in 1962, Also outstanding were 'Chimes at Midnight' in 1965 and 'F for Fake' in 1974.

Welles settled into a pattern of making guest appearances on both sides of the Atlantic on chat shows and TV shows like 'I Love Lucy'. In 1953 when he made a brief return to America to star in 'King Lear' live on CBS TV, all his earnings went to the IRS to pay back taxes.

Final Years

During the remainder of his life Welles spent much time on uncompleted projects. In 1958 he began his adaptation of the de Cervantes novel, 'Don Quixote', and was still working on it in 1985 but never completed it. It is a sad irony on the director who tilted at windmills. In the 1970's he spent 6 years on the spoof Hollywood movie 'The Other Side of the Wind' but again, never finished it.

In 1971 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made an honorary award to him "For superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures" but Welles did not attend the ceremony due to what he saw as a hypocritical attitude from the board.

During the last years of his life Welles became a familiar figure on talk shows for Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, and Merv Griffin and made many TV advertisements for frozen food and lager. It was a depressing career end for the creator of 'Citizen Kane'.


Welles was a physically imposing and charismatic figure with a strong personality and fierce intellect. He was married three times and had many affairs.

His first wife was actress Virginia Nicholson. They married in 1934 and had one daughter, Christopher Feder, born in 1937. They divorced in 1940.

His second wife was the Hollywood actress and dancer, Rita Hayworth, whom he married in 1943. They divorced in 1947, were briefly reconciled the following year when they made 'The Lady From Shanghai' together, and then separated again. They had one daughter, Rebecca Welles, born in 1944.

His third wife was another actress, Paola Mori. They married in 1954 and the marriage ended with his death although they had separated a year earlier. They had one daughter, Beatrice Welles-Smith, born in 1955.

Welles's long-term companion for the last two decades of his life was Croatian-born actress Oja Kodar with whom he lived from 1966, although he remained married to Paola Mori.

Welles admitted that the love of his life had been the Mexican actress Dolores del Rio, whom he met in 1938. They had a torrid affair which ended in 1943 after they made 'Journey into Fear' together. Their affair ended when he met Rita Hayworth.

Welles died from a heart attack on October 10, 1985, just a short time after giving an interview on The Merv Griffin Show. His ashes are buried on the land of his bullfighter friend, Antonio Ordóñez in Ronda, Spain.


Jean-Luc Godard remarked of Welles's influence: "Everyone will always owe him everything."

He was a unique, remarkable man who achieved much but who did not achieve enough. He made 'Citizen Kane' and 'The Magnificent Ambersons', two of the greatest movies ever made, when he was only in his mid twenties and he has been criticised for not fully launching himself from such a promising start. It is true that he appears in retrospect to have wasted much time and opportunity and caused the Hollywood money men to ostracise him, but he achieved much, even amidst the waste. Apart from the two movies mentioned which he made with studio backing, he directed other masterpieces on a shoestring budget, such as 'Chimes at Midnight' in 1965, and 'F for Fake' in 1974.

We should ignore the wasted years and instead glory in what Orson Welles achieved. There is no point in bemoaning the fact that he never again reached the heights of 'Citizen Kane', we should rejoice in the fact that he reached those heights at all.

Alfred Hitchcock Academy Awards

One Win
Best Writing, Original Screenplay ... Citizen Kane (1941) (Shared with Herman J. Mankiewicz)

Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... Citizen Kane (1941)
Best Actor ... Citizen Kane (1941)

Honorary Award (1971):
"For superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures."

Orson Welles Filmography (as actor)

The Hearts of Age (short)
Too Much Johnson (short)
The Green Goddess (short)
Swiss Family Robinson (uncredited)
Journey Into Fear
Jane Eyre
Tomorrow Is Forever
The Stranger
Duel in the Sun (voice) (uncredited)
The Lady from Shanghai
Black Magic
The Third Man
Prince of Foxes
The Black Rose
Trent's Last Case
Return to Glennascaul (short)
L'uomo, la bestia e la virtù
Si Versailles m'était conté
Trouble in the Glen
Three Cases of Murder
Confidential Report
Moby Dick
Pay the Devil
The Long, Hot Summer
Touch of Evil
The Vikings (voice) (uncredited)
South Seas Adventure(voice)
The Roots of Heaven
High Journey (short)Narrator
Ferry to Hong Kong