Cheat Sheet: Orson Welles


Orson Welles


May 6th, 1915 – October 10, 1985

Place of birth:

Kenosha, Wisconsin, U.S.

Special move:

Directing (stage and screen), producing (stage and screen), acting (stage and screen), writing (stage and screen), bullfighting, magic, being Orson Welles

Films include:

The Third Man, Citizen Kane, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil

Orson Welles

What you probably already know:

Welles began his career in theatre, directing, producing and starring in many acclaimed productions before founding his own company, The Mercury Theatre, with John Houseman in 1937. It wasn’t until 1941 that he was to make it onto the big screen when, at the ripe old age of 26, he directed, produced, co-wrote and played the lead in Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane, although not commercially successful at the time, met with largely positive reviews and garnered 9 Academy award nominations. Since then it has gone on to be recognised a towering achievement of cinema and is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.

Following the incredible success of Citizen Kane, Welles was involved with several less successful projects, and eventually left American for Europe where he was to star as the enigmatic Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s film noir masterpiece The Third Man. Welles was briefly to return to America in the 50s to direct and co-star in Touch of Evil before again returning to Europe, most notably to feature in and write the screenplay for the 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The autumn of Welles’ career was spent back in America, mainly lending his distinctive voice to various documentaries, commercials and movies.

Despite his numerous theatrical and cinematic achievements Welles’ name is most often linked to the notorious 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion epic The War of the Worlds. This broadcast took the form of simulated news bulletins structured around the fantastic events described the book. Welles’ earnest portrayal of a newsreader covering an ensuing alien invasion was reportedly mistaken for a genuine newscast by members of the American public, plunging them into doomsday hysteria.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

What you might not know:

Welles, at an early stage in his life, was an aspiring matador. Throughout his life he maintained a keen interest in bullfighting and was a close personal friend of legendary Matador Antonio Ordoñez.

Ever the enigma Welles was also an accomplished magician and a member of both the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians. During the Second World War Welles enlisted several of his Mercury Theatre colleagues to form The Mercury Wonder Show, a variety show included elements of humour, magic and carnival. Originally based in Los Angeles, The Mercury Wonder Show was eventually to tour the various military facilities in the US performing magic and cabaret for troops.

These oddball activities along with his other more mundane theatrical pursuits surely make Welles a frontrunner for the title of ‘World’s most unconventional polymath’.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man

Orson Welles quote:

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

What to say at a dinner party:

“Of his multifarious voice-over roles the authoritarian baritone he became so famous for is perhaps most effecting in the television adaptation of Alvin Toffler’s paranoid exposition on modern society Future Shock.’”

What not to say at a dinner party:

“Ah yes, Orson Welles. Most famous, of course, for voicing Unicron in Transformers The Movie (1986)…”

Final thought:

Orson Welles. Let us remember him not as the shambling, drunken giant he was to become in later life, but rather a giant of cinema; one of Hollywood’s original auteurs, a maverick genius and inspiration for film makers and theorist alike.

So long Holly…

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