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Orson Welles

Orson Welles
WHI 3760

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 papers.

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.

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