George Orson Welles was an American actor, director, screenwriter and producer who is remembered for his innovative work in film, radio and theatre. He is considered to be among the greatest and most influential filmmakers of all time.
At age 21, Welles was directing high-profile stage productions for the Federal Theatre Project in New York City—starting with a celebrated 1936 adaptation of Macbeth with an African-American cast and ending with the controversial labor opera The Cradle Will Rock in 1937. He and John Houseman then founded the Mercury Theatre, an independent repertory theatre company that presented a series of productions on Broadway through 1941, including a modern, politically charged Caesar (1937). In 1938, his radio anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air gave Welles the platform to find international fame as the director and narrator of a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds, which caused some listeners to believe that a Martian invasion was in fact occurring.
His first film was Citizen Kane (1941), which he co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in as the title character, Charles Foster Kane. It has been consistently ranked as one of the greatest films ever made. He also directed twelve other features, the most acclaimed of which include The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962), Chimes at Midnight (1966) and F for Fake (1973). Welles also starred in films such as Jane Eyre (1943), The Third Man (1949) and A Man for All Seasons (1966).
His distinctive directorial style featured layered and nonlinear narrative forms, dramatic lighting, unusual camera angles, sound techniques borrowed from radio, deep focus shots and long takes. He has been praised as “the ultimate auteur.” Welles was an outsider to the studio system and struggled for creative control on his projects early on with the major film studios in Hollywood and later in life with a variety of independent financiers across Europe, where he spent most of his career. Many of his films were either heavily edited or remained unreleased.
Welles received an Academy Award and three Grammy Awards among other numerous honors such as Academy Honorary Award in 1970, the Golden Lion in 1970, the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1975 and the British Film Institute Fellowship in 1983. In 2002, he was voted the greatest film director of all time in two British Film Institute polls among directors and critics. In 2018, he was included in the list of the 50 greatest Hollywood actors of all time by The Daily Telegraph.
George Orson Welles was born May 6, 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a son of Richard Head Welles (1872–1930) and Beatrice Ives Welles (née Beatrice Lucy Ives; 1883–1924). He was named after one of his great-grandfathers, influential Kenosha attorney Orson S. Head and his brother George Head.
Despite his family’s affluence, Welles encountered hardship in childhood. His parents separated and moved approximately 55 miles south to Chicago in 1919. His father, who made a fortune as the inventor of a popular bicycle lamp, became an alcoholic and stopped working. Welles’s mother was a pianist. She played during lectures by Dudley Crafts Watson at the Art Institute of Chicago to support her son and herself. Beatrice died of hepatitis in a Chicago hospital on May 10, 1924, just after Welles’ ninth birthday.
After his mother’s death, Welles ceased pursuing his interest in music. Then, in what Welles later described as “a hectic period” in his life, he lived in a Chicago apartment with his father for three years.
Even as a baby, Welles was prone to illness, including diphtheria, measles, whooping cough and malaria. From infancy he suffered from asthma, sinus headaches, and backache that was later found to be caused by congenital anomalies of the spine. Foot and ankle trouble throughout his life was the result of flat feet. As he grew older, his ill health was exacerbated by the late hours he was allowed to keep [and] an early penchant for alcohol and tobacco.
In 1928, at age 13, Welles was already more than six feet tall and weighed over 180 pounds. His passport recorded his height as six feet three inches, with brown hair and green eyes.
“Crash diets, [pharmaceutical] drugs, and corsets had slimmed him for his early film roles,” wrote biographer Barton Whaley. “Then always back to gargantuan consumption of high-caloric food and booze.”
Welles briefly attended public school in Madison, Wisconsin, enrolled in the fourth grade. On September 15, 1926, he entered the Todd Seminary for Boys, an expensive independent school in Woodstock, Illinois, that his older brother, Richard Ives Welles, had attended ten years before until he was expelled for misbehavior.
Welles performed and staged theatrical experiments and productions there. “Todd provided Welles with many valuable experiences,” wrote critic Richard France. “He was able to explore and experiment in an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement. In addition to a theatre, the school’s own radio station was at his disposal.” Welles’ first radio experience was on the Todd station, where he performed an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes that was written by him.
On December 28, 1930, when Welles was 15, his father died of heart and kidney failure at the age of 58, alone in a hotel in Chicago. Shortly before this, Welles had announced to his father that he would stop seeing him, believing it would prompt his father to refrain from drinking. As a result, Orson felt guilty because he believed his father had drunk himself to death because of him.
Following his graduation from Todd in May 1931, Welles was awarded a scholarship to Harvard College. Rather than enrolling, he chose to travel.
After his father’s death, Welles traveled to Europe using a small portion of his inheritance. Welles said that while on a walking and painting trip through Ireland, he strode into the Gate Theatre in Dublin and claimed he was a Broadway star. The manager of the Gate, Hilton Edwards, later said he had not believed him but was impressed by his brashness and an impassioned audition he gave. Welles made his stage debut at the Gate Theatre on October 13, 1931, appearing in Ashley Dukes’s adaptation of Jud Süß as Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg.
Welles found his fame ephemeral and turned to a writing project at Todd School that became immensely successful, first entitled Everybody’s Shakespeare and subsequently, The Mercury Shakespeare. Welles traveled to North Africa while working on thousands of illustrations for the Everybody’s Shakespeare series of educational books, a series that remained in print for decades.
In 1934, Welles got his first job on radio. That summer, Welles staged a drama festival with the Todd School at the Opera House in Woodstock, Illinois. At the old firehouse in Woodstock, he also shot his first film, an eight-minute short titled, The Hearts of Age. On March 22, 1935, Welles made his debut on the CBS Radio series The March of Time.
Welles had three marriages, including one with Rita Hayworth and three children:
On November 14, 1934, Welles married Chicago socialite and actress Virginia Nicolson in a civil ceremony in New York. To appease the Nicolsons, who were furious at the couple’s elopement, a formal ceremony took place December 23, 1934, at the New Jersey mansion of the bride’s godmother.
Welles married Rita Hayworth on September 7, 1943. They were divorced on November 10, 1947. During his last interview, recorded for The Merv Griffin Show on the evening before his death, Welles called Hayworth “one of the dearest and sweetest women that ever lived … and we were a long time together—I was lucky enough to have been with her longer than any of the other men in her life.”
In 1955, Welles married actress Paola Mori (née Countess Paola di Gerfalco), an Italian aristocrat who starred as Raina Arkadin in his 1955 film, Mr. Arkadin. The couple began a passionate affair, and they were married at her parents’ insistence. They were wed in London May 8, 1955 and never divorced.
Croatian-born artist and actress Oja Kodar became Welles’s long-time companion both personally and professionally from 1966 onward, and they lived together for some of the last twenty years of his life.
Part of the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Theatre Project (1935–39) was a New Deal program to fund theatre and other live artistic performances and entertainment programs in the United States during the Great Depression. It was created as a relief measure to employ artists, writers, directors and theatre workers.
The Federal Theatre Project was the ideal environment in which Welles could develop his art. Its purpose was employment, so he was able to hire any number of artists, craftsmen and technicians, and he filled the stage with performers. The company for the first production, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth with an entirely African-American cast, numbered 150.
The play opened April 14, 1936, at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem and was received rapturously. At 20, Welles was hailed as a prodigy. The production then made a 4,000-mile national tour that included two weeks at the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas.
Breaking with the Federal Theatre Project in 1937, Welles and fellow actor John Houseman founded their own repertory company, which they called the Mercury Theatre. The name was inspired by the title of the iconoclastic magazine The American Mercury.
The Mercury Theatre opened November 11, 1937, with Caesar, Welles’s modern-dress adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar—streamlined into an anti-fascist tour de force that Joseph Cotten later described as “so vigorous, so contemporary that it set Broadway on its ear.”
On April 6, 1938, during a production of Caesar, Orson Welles accidentally stabbed Joseph Holland with a steel knife during Act 3 Scene 1 where Brutus betrays Caesar, a real knife being used for the way it dramatically caught light during the scene. Holland took a month to recover from the injury, and this incident permanently damaged relations between the two.
Simultaneously with his work in the theatre, Welles worked extensively in radio as an actor, writer, director and producer, often without credit.
The Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells October 30, 1938, brought Welles instant fame. The combination of the news bulletin form of the performance with the between-breaks dial spinning habits of listeners was later reported to have created widespread confusion among listeners who failed to hear the introduction. Panic was reportedly spread among listeners who believed the fictional news reports of a Martian invasion.
RKO Radio Pictures president George Schaefer eventually offered Welles what generally is considered the greatest contract offered to a filmmaker, much less to one who was untried. Engaging him to write, produce, direct and perform in two motion pictures, the contract subordinated the studio’s financial interests to Welles’s creative control, and broke all precedent by granting Welles the right of final cut. The agreement was bitterly resented by the Hollywood studios and persistently mocked in the trade press.
RKO rejected Welles’ first two movie proposals, but agreed on the third offer: Citizen Kane. Welles co-wrote, produced and directed the film, and he performed the lead role. Welles’ Kane project attracted some of Hollywood’s best technicians, including cinematographer Gregg Toland. For the cast, Welles primarily used actors from his Mercury Theatre. Filming Citizen Kane took ten weeks.
▶️ 3 Minutes 44 Seconds
Citizen Kane was given a limited release and the film received overwhelming critical praise. It was voted the best picture of 1941 by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. The film garnered nine Academy Award nominations but won only for Best Original Screenplay, shared by Mankiewicz and Welles.
Film critic Andrew Sarris described it as “the great American film” and “the work that influenced the cinema more profoundly than any American film since The Birth of a Nation.” Citizen Kane is now widely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made.
Hello Americans, a CBS Radio series broadcast November 15, 1942 – January 31, 1943, was produced, directed and hosted by Welles under the auspices of the Office of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs. The 30-minute weekly program promoted inter-American understanding and friendship. Throughout the war Welles worked on patriotic radio programs including Command Performance, G.I. Journal, Mail Call, Nazi Eyes on Canada, Stage Door Canteen and Treasury Star Parade.
On the recommendation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau asked Welles to lead the Fifth War Loan Drive, which opened June 12 with a one-hour radio show on all four networks, broadcast from Texarkana, Texas. Including a statement by the President, the program defined the causes of the war and encouraged Americans to buy $16 billion in bonds to finance the Normandy landings and the most violent phase of World War II. Welles produced additional war loan drive broadcasts on June 14 from the Hollywood Bowl and June 16 from Soldier Field in Chicago. Americans purchased $20.6 billion in War Bonds during the Fifth War Loan Drive, which ended on July 8, 1944.
Prior to 1948, Welles convinced Republic Pictures to let him direct a low-budget version of Macbeth, which featured highly stylized sets and costumes, and a cast of actors lip-syncing to a pre-recorded soundtrack, one of many innovative cost-cutting techniques Welles deployed in an attempt to make an epic film from B-movie resources. The script, adapted by Welles, is a violent reworking of Shakespeare’s original, freely cutting and pasting lines into new contexts via a collage technique and recasting Macbeth as a clash of pagan and proto-Christian ideologies.
Republic initially trumpeted the film as an important work but decided it did not care for the Scottish accents and held up general release for almost a year after early negative press reaction, including Life Magazine’s comment that Welles’ film “doth foully slaughter Shakespeare.”
Welles made his first appearance on television, starring in the Omnibus presentation of King Lear, broadcast live on CBS October 18, 1953. Welles guest starred on numerous television shows including I Love Lucy. While offers to act, narrate and host continued, Welles also found himself in great demand on television talk shows. He made frequent appearances for Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Dean Martin and Merv Griffin.
In 1975, the American Film Institute presented Welles with its third Lifetime Achievement Award (the first two going to director John Ford and actor James Cagney)
▶️ 1Minute 20 Seconds
Beginning in the late 1970s, Welles participated in a series of famous television commercial advertisements. For two years he was on-camera spokesman for the Paul Masson Vineyards and sales grew by one third during the time Welles intoned what became a popular catchphrase: “We will sell no wine before its time.”
The last film roles before Welles’s death included voice work in the animated films Enchanted Journey (1984) and the animated film The Transformers: The Movie (1986). His last television appearance was on the television show Moonlighting.
Peter Noble’s 1956 biography describes Welles as “a magnificent figure of a man, over six feet tall, handsome, with flashing eyes and a gloriously resonant speaking-voice.”
In April 1982, when interviewer Merv Griffin asked him about his religious beliefs, Welles replied, “I try to be a Christian. I don’t pray really, because I don’t want to bore God.”
Welles was politically active from the beginning of his career. He remained aligned with left-wing politics and the American Left throughout his life and defined his political orientation as “progressive.”
On the evening of October 9, 1985, Welles recorded his final interview on the syndicated TV program The Merv Griffin Show, appearing with biographer Barbara Leaming. “Both Welles and Leaming talked of Welles’ life, and the segment was a nostalgic interlude,” wrote biographer Frank Brady. Welles returned to his house in Hollywood and worked into the early hours typing stage directions for the project he and Gary Graver were planning to shoot at UCLA the following day. Welles died sometime on the morning of October 10, following a heart attack. Welles was 70 years old at the time of his death.
“I know what his feelings were regarding his death,” Joseph Cotten later wrote. “He did not want a funeral; he wanted to be buried quietly in a little place in Spain. He wanted no memorial services …”
In 1987 the ashes of Welles were taken to Ronda, Spain and buried in an old well covered by flowers on the rural estate of a long-time friend, bullfighter Antonio Ordóñez.✪