You are on page 1of 4

Biography of Orson Welles

Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin on May 6, 1915. Though he


rarely spoke about his childhood or his family, it is known that his parents
separated when he was 6 years old, his mother died when he was 9, and six
years later, Welles's father, an alcoholic, also died, leaving Orson Welles an
orphan by the age of 15. By 16, he had left school to pursue an acting career.
As a result, Welles "essentially didn't have a childhood" (Lennon et al). His
creative skills were constantly praised from an early age. Welles said, "I was
spoiled in a very strange way as a child, because everybody told me, from
the moment I was able to hear, that I was absolutely marvelous, and I never
heard a discouraging word for years..." (Lennon et al).

As a teenager, Welles moved to New York City with the lofty goal of
revolutionizing theater and making it accessible to the everyman. At the age
of 20, with funding from a Depression era jobs program, Welles mounted a
production of Shakespeare's Macbeth - called "Voodoo Macbeth" - in Harlem
using 137 unemployed African-American actors and stagehands. In a 1982
interview, Welles called the production "magical" and labeled it "the great
success of my life." Two years later, in 1937, Welles and John Houseman
formed the Mercury Theater Company. By this time, Orson Welles was a force
to be reckoned with. He drank and ate to excess, courted a different girl
every night, and oozed with self-hatred.

The Mercury Theater Company's first production was an adaptation of Julius


Caesar set in fascist Italy, starring Orson Welles as Brutus. The play had its
highs and lows, but some critics still call it the most important Shakespearean
production to ever grace an American stage. George J. Schaefer, the head of
RKO (a movie studio), took notice of Welles's ambitious work in the theater as
well as his popular radio adaptation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds and
offered him a contract to produce, direct, write and act in two feature films.
So, Welles, along with the Mercury Theater Company, came to Los Angeles in
1939. It was a great year in Hollywood, during which both The Wizard of Oz
and Gone with the Wind were released.

Welles's contract with RKO was unprecedented in that it allowed him


complete creative control over his films, even though he had never directed a
motion picture before. Soon, Orson Welles, who was merely 24 at the time,
became known around Hollywood as "the boy genius from New York". By all
accounts, Welles developed a tremendous ego, stroked by the publicity that
accompanied his arrival in Hollywood. Many of his colleagues respected him,
but nobody liked him. He built his entire career on controversy.

Unfortunately for Welles, despite the publicity surrounding his RKO deal, his
first two film projects fell through. His directorial debut was supposed to be
an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which he worked on for
several months. However, the budget for the film came out to nearly twice
Schaefer's maximum limit. Due to the war in Europe, Hollywood was
tightening its belt, and there was no leeway on the budgetary restrictions.
Welles put Heart of Darkness aside temporarily and tried to start work on a
smaller-budget film called Smiler with a Knife, which fell apart as well.

By this time, the Mercury Theater Company was doing weekly radio shows,
but the money was not rolling in as they had expected. Houseman confronted
Welles with the idea of taking the struggling theater company back to New
York, and Welles threw a massive, violent tantrum (which would later provide
the inspiration for Kane destroying Susan's room in Citizen Kane). Welles
found himself in a difficult situation - 5 months after his heralded arrival in
Hollywood, he had not yet made a film. "It was in this atmosphere of extreme
urgency that the idea for Citizen Kane came into being" (Carringer 15).

According to Pauline Kael, erratic and acclaimed Hollywood screenwriter


Herman Mankiewicz heard about Welles's notorious tantrum and mentioned a
film idea to the young director - a kernel that would eventually become
Citizen Kane, which today is frequently referred to as one of the greatest films
of all time.

In its day, however, Citizen Kane's release was plagued by controversy.


Mankiewicz and Welles battled over the writing credit. More importantly,
William Randolph Hearst, whom the film was clearly based on (despite
Welles's claims to the contrary) did everything in his power to stop the film
from being released, including having all his media outlets boycott the film.
Had it not been for Schaefer's courage in defying Hearst, Citizen Kane would

have never seen the light of a projector. Despite the film's widespread
acclaim, the battle that almost prevented Citizen Kane from ever being
released marked the beginning of the end of Welles' career in Hollywood. He
was only 25 years old.

Welles made only 13 feature films in his lifetime. His second project for RKO
was The Magnificent Ambersons, which went over schedule and budget.
Welles lost final cut of his films, and Ambersons, though acclaimed, was a
financial disaster, as was the film he tried to make afterwards, It's All True.
After these two commercial failures, Welles had a hard time getting work as a
director in Hollywood. He continued to act, though, on radio as well as on
television. He married actress Rita Hayworth in 1943, with whom he had one
child. Gore Vidal describes meeting a lean Orson Welles during this time, at
the Beverly Hills Hotel with Rita Hayworth on his arm, "He has it all, I
remember thinking in a state of perfect awe untouched by pity. Little did I
know-- did he know?-- that just as I was observing him in triumph, the great
career was already going off the rails..." (Vidal).

After World War II, Orson Welles tried to mount a stage adaptation of Around
the World in Eighty Days, but it was overly lavish and went massively overbudget, leaving Welles to pay the difference out of his own pocket.
Unfortunately for him, the ticket sales were dismal, and the show failed. He
made the film The Lady from Shanghai for Columbia Pictures in 1947, starring
his wife Rita Hayworth (from whom he was estranged by this point). The
studio, led by Harry Cohn, heavily edited Welles' version of the film, which
obviously caused a great deal of friction. Even though the film was a boxoffice failure at the time, it has since become a famous example of film noir.

In the late 1940s-1950s, Welles continued to work as an actor, famously


starring in Carol Reed's The Third Man. He kept directing projects, like Othello,
Mr. Arkadin, and Portrait of Gina, none of which were successful commercially.
"Everything Welles touched as a director had a degree of brilliance, here and
there, but he was always running out of money not to mention leading
ladies..." (Vidal).

In 1958, Welles directed Touch of Evil for Universal, which he also co-starred
in, along with Charlton Heston. This experience was more positive than his
last few outings in Hollywood, as Welles delivered the picture under budget

and on time. However, Welles was displeased with the studio's cuts and reedits, although the film did well in Europe and won the top prize at the
Brussels World Fair. It is considered one of Welles's classics.

Orson Welles continued working as an actor and director of films and


television, but none of his projects would ever come close to the iconic
stature of Citizen Kane. He married three times and had a number of highprofile affairs, and had 4 children. He continued to eat and drink heavily
throughout his life, potentially fueled by his career frustrations, and at one
point weighed nearly 400 lbs. He died of a heart attack in 1985 at his home in
Hollywood.