Orson Welles was born on May 6, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His father, Richard Head Welles, made money by inventing carbide lamp for bicycles. His mother, Beatrice Ives Welles, was a pianist. He had an elder brother named Richard Ives (Dickie) Wells.
Orson had a very troubled childhood. Although they were quite rich in the beginning, his father’s business began to falter soon after his birth and they moved to Chicago in 1919. His parents separated sometime after this and he was brought up by his mother, who supported him by playing piano.
After his mother’s death in 1924 Orson was put under the custody of his alcoholic father. Initially he was admitted to a public school; but later in 1926 he was enrolled at Todd Seminary for Boys. Here his latent talents were nurtured by his teacher Roger Hill.
In 1927, Welles became a member of the Todd Troupers and began to stage both classical and modern plays. Soon he became the director of productions at Todd and produced around thirty plays in three years.
Welles’ father died in the end of 1930 and Chicago doctor Maurice Bernstein, who was also a family friend, became his guardian. Welles continued his studies at Todd and passed out in 1931.
Although Orson Welles received a scholarship from Harvard he did not join the institute. Instead he travelled to Dublin. Here he claimed to be a Broadway star and walked into Gate Theatre for an audition.
Although the manager did not believe him, he was impressed by his impassionate audition. Thus Wells made his stage debut in 1931 appearing as the Duke of Württemberg in a stage adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel ‘Jew Süss’.
Welles spent a year in Dublin acting both for Gate Theatre and Abbey Theatre. At the same time he wrote newspaper columns, designed sets and directed plays.
In 1932, he went to London, but could not get the required work permit. Therefore, he travelled to Morocco and Spain before reaching United States in 1933. He used the time to write books on Shakespeare, which remained in print for several decades.
In New York, he met Katherine Cornell, who hired put him for her repertory theatre. Beginning November 1933, Welles toured with them enacting ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ and ‘Candida’.
Finally in December 1936, he made his New York debut as Tybalt in Katherine Cornell’s revised production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. His acting impressed theatrical producer John Houseman, who cast nineteen year old Welles in the lead role in ‘Panic’, a verse play by Archibald MacLeish.
Simultaneously, Welles began supplementing his income by acting over the radio in Manhattan. As the WPA Federal Theatre Project began in the middle of 1930s Welles joined Houseman to produce a number of innovative productions like ‘Voodoo Macbeth’, ‘Horse Eats Hat’, ‘Doctor Faustus’ etc.
Simultaneously, he also produced plays like ‘The Second Hurricane’ and ’The Cradle Will Rock’ outside WPA. Later in November 1937, he broke with the organization to establish Mercury Theatre. They began with a modern adaption of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ and then went on to produce ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday’, ‘Heart Break House’, ‘Danton’s Death’ etc.
Side by side, he worked extensively in radio. He was not only the actor, but also writer, director and producer of these programs. ‘The March of Time’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘The Fall of The City’, ‘Les Misérables’, and ‘The Shadow’ were some his important radio works of this period.
While each of these programs became highly popular it was ‘The War of The World’, which made him famous as dramatist. Soon offers from Hollywood began to pour in and after some hesitation he signed a contract with RKO Pictures in August, 1939.
After rejecting the two initial proposals, Welles ultimately made his Hollywood debut in 1941 with ‘Citizen Kane’. He was co-author, producer, director and the star of the film. It opened to rave reviews and received nine Oscar nominations.
His second feature film, which he wrote, directed and starred, was ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’. Along with shooting this film, Welles also produced a CBS Radio series called ‘The Orson Welles Show’.
However, while ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ was on the editing table, Welles started working on ‘Journey into Fear’. But, before he made much progress he had to make a trip to Rio de Janeiro to do a documentary, titled ‘It’s All True’.
When he returned he discovered that RKO had started meddling with both the productions. Ultimately, he disowned ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’. He requested for funds to complete ‘It’s All True’; but apart from a few roles of black and white film and a silent camera he did not get much help and so had to quit.
On top of that RKO Studio began to circulate that Welles was difficult to work with and did not have any notion about budget. It more or less killed all prospects for Welles in Hollywood and so he went back to his radio show.
In 1943, Welles made two radio series for entertainment of the American soldiers fighting in the World War II. In addition, he also starred in an adaption of ‘Jane Eyre’ and in ‘Tomorrow is Forever’. But it was not until 1946, he was given a chance to direct any movie.
In 1946, Welles completed ‘The Stranger’ within record time and within budget. The cost of the film was $1.034 million and it grossed $3.216 million within fifteen months. Although it was a box office success, he did not get anymore offer.
He returned to New York to direct a Broadway musical titled ‘Around the World’ a stage adaption of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. However, to run the show he had to borrow money, which he could never recoup
To make up the loan he began shooting ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ for Color Pictures free of cost. Although the film (released in 1947) was appreciated in Europe and later was considered a classic, it did not run in the USA then.
His next film ‘Macbeth’ (1948) too failed at the box office. Welles now left for Europe and remained there till 1956 sustaining himself through acting. He soon saved enough money and in 1948 started filming ‘Othello’, stopping to act when the funds ran low.
Ultimately it was completed in 1952 and shown at Canes, where it received top billing. ‘Black Rose’ (1950) and ‘Mr. Arkadin’ (1955) are two more important works of this period. Besides, he also created two television series for BBC in this period. They are ‘Orson Welles Sketch Book’ and ‘Around the World with Orson Welles’.
Welles returned to Hollywood in 1956 and in the same year directed a television pilot called ‘The Fountain of Youth’. In 1957, he co-starred in ‘Man in the Shadow’, a crime film directed by Jack Arnold. Then in 1958, he wrote, directed and co-starred another crime thriller titled ‘Touch of Evil’.
He returned to Europe in 1959 to co-star in British adventure film ‘Ferry to Hong Kong’. This was followed by ‘Crack in the Mirror’ (1960) and ‘The Tartars’. At the same time, he started working on Don Quixote.
In 1962, Welles wrote, directed and starred ‘The Trial’, which according to him was the best film he had ever made. His ‘Chimes in Midnight’ (1966) was another significant work in this period, which he wrote, directed and starred.
In addition, he acted in number of well-known films like ‘Is Paris Burning?’(1966), ‘A Man for All Seasons’ (1966), ‘Casino Royale’ (1967), ‘Battle of Neretva’ (1969), ’The Kremlin Letter’ (1970), ‘Catch-22’ (1970), ‘Get to Know Your Rabbit’ (1972), ‘F for Fake’ (1973) etc.
Incidentally, ‘F for Fake’ was the last major film that he had co-written, directed and starred. Also from 1970 to 1976 he worked to finish his unfinished project, ‘The Other Side of the Wind’, but could not succeed.
In 1975, Welles went back to Hollywood. This time he got plenty of work and remained busy till his death. His last film appearance was in ‘Someone to Love’ and his last television appearance was in ‘Moonlighting’.
The last project that he had been working on was an American animated feature film titled, ‘The Transformers: The Movie’. In this film, he gave the voiceover for a planet eating robot called Unicorn.
ACHIEVEMENTS AND AWARDS
According to Welles, ‘The Trial’, made in 1962, was his best film. However, critics consider ‘Citizen Kane’, based on the life of American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, to be the greatest film of all time. It has been ranked No. 1 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list twice; first in 1998 and then in 2007.
‘Citizen Kane’, coauthored, directed and starred by Welles, received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Picture in 1941. The film also received nine Academy nominations; but only won in the Original Screenplay category. It is believed that the film would have won more awards, but for the block voting by screen extras.
In 1942, The National Board of Review voted ‘Citizen Kane’ to be the Best Film of 1941 and recognized Welles for his performance.
He also won the Palme d’Or for ‘Othello’ at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival.
In 1966, ‘Chimes at Midnight’ won the 20th Anniversary Prize, the Technical Grand Prize and the Citizens Writers Circle Award for Best Film (Spain).
In 1984, he was presented with the D. W. Griffith Award by the Directors Guild of America and in 1985 he received the Career Achievement Award from the National Board of Review.