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 over-budget, 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 box-office 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 re-edits, 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 high-profile 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.

Study Guides on Works by Orson Welles

Citizen Kane has widely been praised as the greatest film ever made, particularly for its innovative narrative structure, its cinematography, editing, and Orson Welles' tour de force performance. Pauline Kael called it "the one American talking...

F for Fake holds the somewhat dubious distinction of being the last completed project directed by Orson Welles. In fact, the project was stimulated as a response to a debt the renowned film director owed to the Internet Revenue Service and much of...

Orson Welles began making his film version of Shakespeare’s tragedy of Othello in 1948—literally began filming in that year—and the film would not be seen by the public until 1952. The story behind the financial and artistic struggle to get the...