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Orson Welles, Hollywood Genius

Updated on July 20, 2014

Orson Welles, Genius Without Compromise

Orson Welles was a great film director, as well as an actor, author and broadcaster, often described as a genius, but little appreciated in his own time. The flowering of that genius came early in his career, possibly too early, and he spent the larger part of his life seemingly wasting his immense talents on unworthy, and often incomplete, aborted, tangential, badly edited or cancelled projects.

Welles never bothered to play by the Hollywood rules and Hollywood turned its back on him early and decided he was not worth the effort. It is only in the last few decades that his true worth as one of the cinema's true visionaries has been recognised. It is beyond question that 'Citizen Kane', his first attempt at filmaking, which was not appreciated on release, is a colossal masterpiece. It is the film that has had a gigantic influence on filmmakers from the mid 1950s onwards to the present day.

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Early Days

Orson Welles was born George Orson Welles in May, 1915 in Wisconsin, USA. Even when he was very young he was recognised as having an extraordinary gift for music and painting. When he was nine, his mother died of jaundice and his father, an alchoholic, died when Welles was fifteen. He was placed under the guardianship of a Chicago doctor, Maurice Bernstein.

In 1931 he graduated from the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois and with the aid of a small inheritance left by his father he travelled to Ireland. He tried unsuccessfully to become an actor in Ireland and then London, and he continued his travelling first in Morocco and then Spain before returning to New York.

He made his New York debut as Tybalt in 'Romeo and Juliet' in 1934, and in the same year made his first radio broadcast. With his distinctive, deep voice he proved a natural on radio and he began a fruitful partnership with the actor, John Houseman, with whom he formed the Mercury Theater Group in 1937. They became widely acclaimed with their first production which was a contemporary version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, set in 20th Century fascist Italy and in which Welles played Brutus.

Welles became nationally and internationally famous in 1938 with his 'The War of the Worlds' Halloween broadcast which caused panic among listeners who thought they were listening to a description of an actual Martian invasion.

War of the Worlds Radio Spoof by Welles - Just Brilliant

Young Hollywood Director - and Star

Citizen Kane

By 1939 Welles's fame had travelled to Hollywood and, although not naturally a 'studio man', he was won over by a two movie contract from RKO which included complete artistic control over the final picture. After toying with various ideas for his first feature film, in 1941 Welles finally came up with what was to be his most famous film, 'Citizen Kane'. For a novice director to come up with a work like 'Kane' is quite astonishing. Of course he had expert help in screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland, but the unifying and driving force was Welles, and, besides directing the picture, he co-wrote it and also starred in it. It is difficult to imagine a more fruitful and impressive debut in any form of artistic endeavour.

The move received nine Academy Award nominations and Welles won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay but the movie was not commercially successful on release, mainly because of antagonism from the Hearst newspaper empire. It was withdrawn by RKO and not re-released until 1956. Since then it has grown in stature until today it is regarded as a cinematic masterpiece and a master class for film-makers.

Books about 'Citizen Kane'

Citizen Kane (Two-Disc Special Edition)
Citizen Kane (Two-Disc Special Edition)
The incredible masterpiece directed by, co-written by and starring Orson Welles, aged 25.

Welles as Kane

Welles's second film under his RKO contract was 'The Magnificent Ambersons' in 1942, which he had already adapted for The Mercury Theater. RKO again gave him great freedom but, as the film started going over budget and behind schedule the studio decided to shoot new footage and re-edit it without Welles' participation and then released it. Not surprisingly the movie was disappointing at the Box Office although it received four Academy nominations including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Agnes Moorehead.

In 1942, whilst filming 'Ambersons', Welles was approached by the US Government and asked to produce a documentary propaganda film about South America entitled 'It's All True'. The original budget of one million dollars increased during filming as Welles expanded the scope of the movie. The project was eventually abandoned with RKO denouncing Welles as a wastrel.

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Welles was now offered two radio series by CBS but both were abandoned within a few months. An unfortunate pattern on incomplete works was beginning to emerge. In 1944, he was offered a new radio show, sponsored by Mobil Oil, but the quality of the scripts was patchy and the series was cancelled within a year.

Welles was beginning to be viewed as a risky investment but he was entrusted with 2 more movies, "The Stranger," in 1946 with Welles himself, Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson, and then in 1948, he directed his new wife, Rita Hayworth, in "The Lady From Shanghai" for Columbia Pictures. During this period Welles was more in demand as an actor than director and he continued to appear in films purely as an actor, such as 'Journey Into Fear' in 1942, 'Jane Eyre' in 1944, and 'Tomorrow Is Forever' in 1946.

From the late 1940s onward Welles was effectively an industry outsider as far as Hollywood ws concerned, and he spent most of his time in Europe, working on other people's films so that he could finance his personal projects, beginning with Macbeth in 1948. He appeared in "The Third Man" in 1949, generally considered to be one of his best acting roles.

Some of his work, post-Hollywood, was memorable. 'The Tragedy of Othello: the Moor of Venice' in 1952, 'Mr. Arkadin' in 1955, and 'Le Proces' in 1962, and particularly good were 'Chimes at Midnight' in 1965 and 'F for Fake' in 1974.

Welles faced tax problems in America and in 1953 when he briefly returned to star in a live CBS TV presentation of King Lear, all his earnings went directly to the IRS. In 1956 he returned to Hollywood and made numerous guest appearances on TV shows like 'I Love Lucy', and he continued to appear regularly on television on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1958 Welles went to Mexico to begin filming his adaptation of the Miguel de Cervantes novel Don Quixote, with Mischa Auer as Quixote and Akim Tamiroff as Sancho Panza. The project would continue to occupy much of his time for many years but would never be completed.

For the rest of his career, Welles continued taking what work he could find acting, narrating or hosting other people's work. He eventually returned to live in Hollywood in 1970, where he continued to self-finance his own projects for film and television. He made frequent appearances on talk shows for Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, and Merv Griffin and became a familiar face and voice on TV adverts. His personal, depressing saga of unfinished projects continued with 'The Other Side of the Wind', a project that took six years to film but was never finished.

In 1971 he was given and honorary award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "For superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures". Welles never personally accepted the Award due to what he saw as hypocrisy and double standards by the Board who still did not give him work.

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

Summary - A Remarkable Man

There is no doubt that Orson Welles possessed a unique gift for artistic creativity. He showed it very early in his career and carved out a directorial freedom for himself which enabled him to make 'Citizen Kane' and 'The Magnificent Ambersons', which are widely considered to be two of the greatest movies ever made. He then seemed to fritter away and waste his freedom, causing him to be damned and mistrusted in Hollywood. He was certainly his own man and his refusal to compromise would hinder his film-making career for the rest of his life.

His is a sad story in many ways. Wasted genius. It is interesting to speculate on what he could have achieved if he and the studios had compromised more. As it is, his epitaph is that after making 'Kane' and 'Ambersons' with almost unlimited studio backing, he also later made 'The Tragedy of Othello: the Moor of Venice' in 1952, 'Chimes at Midnight' in 1965, and 'F for Fake' in 1974 all of which are also regarded as movie masterpieces, and all of which were made with very little in the way of sets and practically no money .

Welles said of himself: "I started at the top and worked down." The originality and brilliance of Citizen Kane' has tended to overshadow everything else in his remarkable career. He has been cricitised for never making anything like Kane again. That is grossly unfair, because no-one else has ever made anything as good.

  Welles and first wife, 1938

He married actress and socialite Virginia Nicholson in 1934. They had one daughter, Christopher, who became known as Chris Welles Feder, an author of educational materials for children.

In 1932, aged 17, Welles had fallen in love with the Mexican actress many years his senior, Dolores del Río. They lived a passionate affair during the late 1930s and collaborated together in the movie 'Journey into Fear' but the affair ended soon afterward. Del Río returned to Mexico and in 1943, Welles married Rita Hayworth.

Welles Rita and baby, 1944

They had one child, Rebecca Welles Manning (born in 1944), and divorced five years later, in 1948.

Beatrice Welles (born November 1955) was his third child, with his third wife, the actress Paola Mori. Welles lived with Croatian-born actress Oja Kodar for the last twenty years of his life.

Orson Welles Trivia

Dated Eartha Kitt. He called her "the most exciting woman in the world."

Once ate 18 hot dogs in one sitting at Pink's, a Los Angeles hot dog stand.

Died the same day as Yul Brynner.

One of only six actors to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his first screen appearance. (The other five actors are: Alan Arkin, James Dean, Paul Muni, Montgomery Clift and Lawrence Tibbett)

Was an accomlished magician

Frank Sinatra was the godfather of one of his daughters.

Provided voice for some songs of heavy metal band Manowar: Dark Avenger and Defender

He became obese in his 40s, weighing over 350 pounds towards the end of his life.

Was voted the 2nd Greatest Film Director of all time by Entertainment Weekly.

Wrote his novel "Mr. Arkadian" during an extended stay with Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh. Welles was appearing at Olivier's St. James Theater in London at the time.

He made The Lady from Shanghai (1947) towards the end of his marriage to Rita Hayworth. They were constantly fighting at the time and (some say as a comeuppance to Hayworth) he made her cut off most of her long, luxurious red hair and dye it bright platinum blonde.

Was named #16 on the 50 Greatest Screen Legends list of the American Film Institute.

Was the narrator for many of the trailers for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

His average dinner famously consisted of two steaks cooked rare, and a pint of scotch - explaining his obesity as he got older, and his subsequent death.

Ranked #9 in Empire (UK) magazine's "The Greatest directors ever!"

His father was an alcoholic.

Considered black and white to be "the actor's best friend", feeling that it focused more on the actor's expressions and feelings than on hair, eye or wardrobe color.

Was a passionate painter

His performance as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949) is ranked #93 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.

His performance as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941) is ranked #12 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.

Was George Lucas' first choice as the voice for Darth Vader, but he thought the voice would be too recognizable.

He was of Scottish, Irish and German heritage.

He was made a Fellow of the British Film Institute in recognition of his outstanding contribution to film culture.

Marlene Dietrich said about him: "You should cross yourself when you say his name."

He was awarded 2 Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Motion Pictures at 1600 Vine Street and for Radio at 6652 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.

He died only two hours after being interviewed on "The Merv Griffin Show" (1962) on October 10, 1985.

In 1952, Welles's Othello won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Welles was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1979.

In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Welles as the 16th Greatest Male Star of All Time.

Orson Welles, Director, Actor, Magician, Genius

Read more about Orson Welles

Love him or loathe him, Orson Welles won't be ignored. - What do you think of him?

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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I only saw Citizen Kane so far, but his others movies are on my huge watchlist :) Greets, Joebeducci

    • Country-Sunshine profile image

      Country Sunshine 

      9 years ago from Texas

      A lot of good information here on Orson Welles. Much of it I did not know, or remember. Great page!

    • tvyps profile image

      Teri Villars 

      9 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I remember hearing about the "War of the Worlds" episode. Many people freaked out because of that. Cool info.

    • KimGiancaterino profile image


      9 years ago

      Very nice job on the lens! In one of Cybill Shepherd's biographies she mentions that while she and director Peter Bogdanovich lived together, Orson Welles stayed in one of their guest rooms for two years. I love "Citizen Kane," and "RKO 281." We've watched them back-to-back a few times.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I recently saw the film Mr. Arkadia and was blown away by every aspect of it. It is so far ahead of its time it seems impossible it was made in the 1940s. All aspects of the film are ahead of their time. One can only imagine how an average movie-goer of the 40's would react upon viewing it. Its frantic pacing, unusual characters and dialogue and use of music and camera angles to add to the story are amazing. Orson Welles to me is a tragic and unknowable figure. This film lets his genious, artistry and originality shine through. If you are one of those who "loathe" Orson Welles, see this film and perhaps you will change your mind.

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 

      10 years ago from Southampton, UK

      I watched his Jane Eyre a few weeks ago, and love the radio spoof of War Of The Worlds. One of the great actors.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Jane Eyre Orson Welles is one of my favorites of his. Classic performance from an outstanding actor.


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