Although never a commercial success, Orson Welles
(1915-1985) is today considered a cinematic visionary,
whose film Citizen Kane (1941) is consistently ranked
by critics as among the best ever made. Besides directing,
Welles was a talented actor, broadcaster, producer
and screenwriter. His 1938 radio production of The
War of the Worlds with John Houseman gained notoriety
for provoking mass panic among some listeners, who
found it realistic enough to believe that an actual
Martian invasion was in progress. Because Welles
tended to play by his own rules, he remained on the
outside of the studio system that dominated Hollywood,
yet he continues to be one of the most important
figures in motion picture history.
Orson Welles was born May 6, 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The son of a concert pianist mother and an inventor
father, Welles showed early promise in a variety
of arts including piano, magic, painting and acting.
After his mother died in 1924, Welles traveled the
world with his father. In 1928 his father died,
leaving Welles an orphan.
Passing up college in 1931, Welles went on a sketching
trip to Ireland and managed to talk his way onto
the stage at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. His first
attempts to break onto the London and Broadway stages
proved unsuccessful, so he traveled further afield,
to Morocco and Spain, where he competed in the bullring.
In 1934 Welles finally made his first New York
appearance. That same year he married Virginia Nicholson,
shot his first short film and made his radio debut.
After forming the Mercury Theatre with John Houseman,
he began producing The Mercury Theatre on the Air,
the weekly broadcast that featured the infamous adaptation
of The War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938.
In 1940 Welles went West, where he directed,
produced, co-wrote and starred in Citizen Kane.
Unfortunately, the movie drew more attention to its
supposed inspiration, newspaper mogul William Randolph
Hearst, than to the movie itself, as Hearst boycotted
all advertising and coverage of the movie in his
Welles' second film, The Magnificent Ambersons,
ran into major budget and production problems that
undermined his relations with RKO Studios. Word spread
quickly about the difficulties of working with Welles,
and his career never fully recovered. In 1948 Welles
exiled himself to Europe in retaliation for studio
interference in his work.
European producers appeared more forgiving of Welles'
eccentricities, and he was able to make a number of
films, including Othello (1952) and Chimes at Midnight (1967). Earlier in his career Welles had discovered
that he could finance his filmmaking through acting,
which resulted in his appearance in movies such as
The Third Man (1949) and Catch-22 (1970). Additionally,
Welles guest starred on television programs, did
voice-overs and recordings, and occasional commercials.
Despite his lack of commercial success, Welles won
some critical acclaim for his work, a lifetime achievement
Oscar in 1971 and the American Film Institute's Lifetime
Achievement Award in 1975. He was also awarded the
D.W. Griffith award, the highest accolade from the
Directors Guild of America.
Spiraling into ill health and obesity in his later years, Welles died of a heart attack on October 10, 1985, in Hollywood, California.