Orson Welles, in full George Orson Welles, (born May 6, 1915, Kenosha, Wisconsin, U.S.—died October 10, 1985, Los Angeles, California), American motion-picture actor, director, producer, and writer. His innovative narrative techniques and use of photography, dramatic lighting, and music to further the dramatic line and to create mood made his Citizen Kane (1941)—which he wrote, directed, produced, and acted in—one of the most-influential films in the history of the art.
Welles was born to a mother, Beatrice Ives, who was a concert pianist and a crack rifle shot, and a father, Richard Welles, who was an inventor and a businessman. Welles was a child prodigy, adept at the piano and violin, acting, drawing, painting, and writing verse; he also entertained his friends by performing magic tricks and staging mini productions of William Shakespeare’s plays.
Welles’s parents separated when he was four years old, and his mother died when he was nine. In 1926 Welles entered the exclusive Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois. There his gifts found fertile ground, and he dazzled the teachers and students with stagings of both modern and classical plays. His father died in 1930, and Welles became the ward of a family friend, Chicago doctor Maurice Bernstein. In 1931 he graduated from Todd, but, instead of attending college, he studied briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago before traveling to Dublin, where he successfully auditioned at the Gate Theatre for the part of the Duke of Württemberg in a stage adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel Jew Süss.
Welles remained in Ireland for a year, acting with the company at the Abbey Theatre as well as at the Gate; he also designed sets, wrote a newspaper column, and began directing plays. In 1932 Welles left Dublin and tried to get work on the stages of London and New York; unsuccessful, he instead traveled for a year in Morocco and Spain. In 1933 in the United States, he was introduced to actress Katharine Cornell by author Thornton Wilder and was hired to act in Cornell’s road company, playing Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Marchbanks in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, and Octavius Barrett in Rudolf Besier’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street. In 1934 Welles organized a summer drama festival at the Todd School, where he played Svengali in an adaptation of George du Maurier’s Trilby and Claudius in Hamlet. At the end of the festival, he made his first film, the short The Hearts of Age. With Todd School headmaster Roger Hill, he prepared Everybody’s Shakespeare (1934), editions for performance of Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and Julius Caesar, with introductions by Hill and Welles and illustrations by Welles. He made his New York debut as Tybalt in Cornell’s production of Romeo and Juliet in December 1934.
Theatre and radio in the 1930s
When Welles was performing in Romeo and Juliet, he met producer John Houseman, who immediately cast him as the lead in Archibald MacLeish’s verse play Panic, which premiered in 1935 for Houseman’s Phoenix Theatre Group. They then moved on in 1936 to mounting productions for the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA’s) Federal Theatre Project. Their first effort, for the Federal Theatre’s Negro Division, was Macbeth, with an all African American cast and the setting changed from Scotland to Haiti. They began 1937 with Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragicall History of Doctor Faustus (starring Welles). Their most (in)famous effort was Marc Blitzstein’s proletarian musical play The Cradle Will Rock. WPA guards shut down the theatre the night before its opening. (The shutdown was ostensibly for budgetary reasons; however, the political nature of the play was considered too radical.) Welles and Houseman quickly rented another theatre, and on opening night the play was presented with the actors performing their roles from seats in the audience. That same year they formed the Mercury Theatre, which presented a renowned modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In 1938 the Mercury Theatre presented William Gillette’s comedy Too Much Johnson. Welles shot three short silent films to precede each act of the play; however, the films were never finished. (The Too Much Johnson footage was believed to have been destroyed by fire in 1970; however, it was rediscovered, restored, and premiered in 2013.)
At the same time, Welles was making inroads in radio. His radio career began early in 1934 with an excerpt from Panic. In 1935 he began appearing regularly on The March of Time news series, and subsequent radio roles included the part of Lamont Cranston in the mystery series The Shadow. In 1938 the Mercury players undertook a series of radio dramas adapted from famous novels. They attained national notoriety with a program based on H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds; the performance on October 30, using the format of a simulated news broadcast narrated by Welles, announced an attack on New Jersey by invaders from Mars. (However, contemporary reports that the program caused a nationwide panic were exaggerated.)
The national coverage that resulted from his theatre and radio work brought Welles’s name before Hollywood. In 1939 he signed an extraordinary contract with RKO that guaranteed him near-total autonomy and final cut on any film he made. For his first film, Welles chose Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which was to be filmed entirely from the point of view of the narrator Marlow. However, despite months of preparation, the film never got off the ground. Welles narrated Swiss Family Robinson (1940) while waiting for another project to evolve.