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One of the greatest creative geniuses of film

  • Aug 21, 2010
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George Orson Welles was born 6 May 1915, Kenosha, Wisconsin, USA , died 10 October 1985, Hollywood, California, USA (heart attack, two hours after doing an interview for the “Merv Griffith show).

Virginia Nicholson(14 November 1934 - 1 February 1940) (divorced) 1 child, Rita Hayworth(7 September 1943 - 1 December 1948) (divorced) 1 child, Paola Mori(8 May 1955 - 10 October 1985) (his death) 1 child.

His father was a well-to-do inventor, his mother a beautiful concert pianist; Orson was gifted in many arts (magic, piano, and painting) as a child. When his mother died (he was seven) he traveled the world with his father. When his father died (he was fifteen) he became the ward of Chicago's Dr. Maurice Bernstein. In 1931 he graduated from the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois; he turned down college offers for a sketching tour of Ireland. He tried unsuccessfully to enter the London and Broadway stages, traveling some more in Morocco and Spain (where he fought in the bullring). Recommendations by Thornton Wilder and Alexander Woollcott got him into Katherine Cornell's road company, with which he made his New York debut as Tybalt in 1934. The same year he married, directed his first short, and appeared on radio for the first time. He began working with John Houseman, who remained a life long friend and formed the Mercury Theatre with him in 1937. On 30 October 1938, he directed the Mercury Theatre On the Air in a dramatization of "War of the Worlds", based on H.G. Wells' novel. Setting the events in then-contemporary locations (The "landing spot" for the Martian invasion, Grover's Mill, New Jersey, was chosen at random with a New Jersey road map) and dramatizing it in the style of a musical program interrupted by news bulletins, complete with eye-witness accounts, it caused a nationwide panic, with many listeners fully convinced that the Earth was being invaded by Mars. The next day, Welles publicly apologized. While many lawsuits were filed against both Welles and the CBS radio network, all were dismissed. The incident is mentioned in textbook accounts of mass hysteria and the delusions of crowds. 

His first film to be seen by the public was Citizen Kane (1941), a commercial failure losing RKO $150,000.  He directed, starred and co-wrote the screenplay with Herman Mankiewicz, it was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won for Best Screenplay.  Still considered by the American Film Institute (AFI) as the greatest movie ever made!!!  I do not disagree.  His unique eye for cinematography in “Kane” made him forever known for his use of low camera angles, tracking shots, deep focus and elaborate crane shots in his films.

Many of his next films were commercial failures and he exiled himself to Europe in 1948. In 1956 he directed, co-starred (with Charlton Heston and Marlene Dietrich), and wrote scenes for “Touch of Evil” (1958); an American crime drama that failed in the U.S. but won a prize at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair (today it is a critically acclaimed movie).

The third great movie of his life, (one of my all time favorites) and considered by the British Film Institute as the greatest British film ever made (#57 on AFI’s top 100) is “The Third Man” a 1949 British film noir directed by Carol Reed and starring Joseph Cotton (another life long friend of Orson’s from his Mercury theatre days, “Citizen Kane”, and “The Magnificent Ambersons”), Alida Valli, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard. The screenplay was written by novelist Graham Greene, later becoming his novella of the same name. Anton Karas wrote the score, which used only the zither; its title cut topped the international music charts in 1950.  Orson plays the villain in this film, he doesn’t even appear until half way through the movie; however, his screen presence is captivating, he steals the show!!!  Soon after he is introduced in the movie with one of the all time greatest cinematic scenes cleverly using a chiaroscuro effect reminiscent of Caravaggio’s Renaissance era paintings, Wells delivers one of his greatest film soliloquies that he wrote for his character to deliver in the film.  Looking down on the people below from his vantage point of being on a Ferris wheel, Harry Lime (Welles) compares them to dots. Back on the ground, he notes:

"You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

In 1975, in spite of all his box-office failures, he received the American Film Institute's 3rd Lifetime Achievement Award in 1975 from its Chairman Charlton Heston, who said of Welles in his remarks; “The first AFI award went to a director (John Ford), the second to an actor, (James Cagney). In Orson Welles, we honor both crafts.” In 1984 the Directors Guild of America awarded him its highest honor, the D.W. Griffith Award. His reputation as a film maker has climbed steadily ever since.

Orson Welles distinctive trade marks

One of the most recognizable deep voices in all of film, radio or television.
Frequently cast Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, and Oja Kodar.
Low camera angles.

Fun facts

Dated Eartha Kitt. He called her "the most exciting woman in the world."
Once ate 18 hot dogs in one sitting at Pink's, a Los Angeles hot dog stand.
On radio, Orson Welles provided the voice for Lamont Cranston, aka The Shadow.
One of only six actors to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his first screen appearance. The other five actors are: Paul Muni, Lawrence Tibbett, Alan Arkin, James Dean and Montgomery Clift.

Despite his reputation as an actor and master film-maker, he maintained his memberships in the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians (neither of which are unions, but fraternal organizations), and regularly practiced sleight-of-hand magic in case his career came to an abrupt end. Welles occasionally performed at the annual conventions of each organization, and was considered by fellow magicians to be extremely accomplished.  In fact was well known for doing USO tours for the troops doing magic tricks and having a bevy of beautiful Hollywood starlets as his assistants on stage, the soldiers loved his shows!!!

He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1988.
Frank Sinatra was the godfather of he and Rita Hayworth's daughter, Rebecca Welles.
Has the distinction of appearing in both the American Film Institute and British Film Institute's #1 movie. For AFI it was Citizen Kane (1941). For BFI it was The Third Man (1949). Welles shares this distinction with Joseph Cotten, who also starred in both movies.
He became obese in his 40s, weighing over 350 pounds towards the end of his life.
His average dinner famously consisted of two steaks cooked rare, and a pint of scotch - explaining his obesity as he got older, and his subsequent death.
Was voted the Second Greatest Film Director of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
Wanted to make films of two literary masterpieces, Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" and Joseph Heller's "Catch-22", but had to be satisfied in having supporting roles in the films made of the two books by John Huston and Mike Nichols.
Wrote his novel "Mr. Arkadian" during an extended stay with Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh. Welles was appearing at Olivier's St. James Theater in London at the time.
Lobbied to get the part of Don Vito Corrleone in “The Godfather” (1972). Francis Ford Coppola, a fan of his, had to turn him down because he already had Marlon Brando in mind for the role and felt Welles wouldn't be right for it.
Was named #16 on the 50 Greatest Screen Legends list of the American Film Institute.
Was the narrator for many of the trailers for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979).
Ranked #9 in Empire (UK) magazine's "The Greatest directors ever!" [2005]
Considered black and white film to be "the actor's best friend", feeling that it focused more on the actor's expressions and feelings than on hair, eye or wardrobe color.
Was very good friends with Peter Bogdanovich, in whose house he lived for several years during Bogdanovich's affair with Cybill Shepherd. Welles even gave Bogdanovich written instructions to finish his last film, The Other Side of the Wind (1972), before his death.
Was a passionate painter
In the 1930s he worked at various radio stations in New York City, at different times of the day. He found it difficult to be on time for his live shows because he had to use taxicabs and the heavy New York City traffic meant that he was often late. He soon found a loophole in the law that said you didn't have to be sick to hire an ambulance, so he did just that and had the drivers blast their sirens as he traveled from one station to the next, and that way he was on time.
CBS wanted him to host "Twilight Zone" (1959) but the producers felt that he requested too much money. He was ultimately ruled out in favor of the show's creator, Rod Serling.
Was George Lucas' first choice as the voice for Darth Vader, but he thought the voice would be too recognizable.
Marlene Dietrich said about him: "You should cross yourself when you say his name!".
He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: for motion pictures at 1600 Vine Street and for radio at 6652 Hollywood Boulevard.
He was a friend with Josip 'Broz' Tito, a partisan leader and a president of a former country of Yugoslavia.

Personal Quotes

Even if the good old days never existed, the fact that we can conceive such a world is, in fact, an affirmation of the human spirit.
I'm not very fond of movies. I don't go to them much.
I started at the top and worked down.
I'm not bitter about Hollywood's treatment of me, but over its treatment of D.W. Griffith, Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, Buster Keaton and a hundred others.
Movie directing is the perfect refuge for the mediocre.
I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts.
I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won't contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That's what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.
On “Citizen Kane” (1941) being colorized] Keep Ted Turner and his goddamned Crayolas away from my movie.
My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people.
A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.
I have the terrible feeling that, because I am wearing a white beard and am sitting in the back of the theater, you expect me to tell you the truth about something. These are the cheap seats, not Mount Sinai.
 [on his favorite directors] I prefer the old masters; by which I mean: John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.
A movie studio is the best toy a boy ever had.
On Stanley Kubrick: Among the young generation, Kubrick strikes me as a giant.

One of the greatest creative geniuses of film One of the greatest creative geniuses of film

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September 05, 2010
Fascinating review. You cite an awful lot of facts about Welles that I had not seen before. An enormous talent who was way ahead of his time.
September 05, 2010
Thank you for the compliment. I love this man's body of work. Have you ever seen the movies "The Third Man, or Touch of Evil"? If not, they are much see movies. Check my reviews on them at : http://www.lunch.com/Reviews/movie/The_Third_Man-1018301.html?cid=428 http://www.lunch.com/Reviews/movie/Touch_of_Evil-1023865.html?cid=428
More Orson Welles reviews
Quick Tip by . November 03, 2010
His Citizen Kane role is supposed to be the greatest of all time. I have to give it a second look but wasn't so impressed by his search for his Rosebud sled. May have to give it a second look. I remember him most from his "no beer before its time" commercials.
Quick Tip by . October 14, 2010
Welles was perhaps the greatest actor/director/writer/producer who ever worked in Hollywood. Watch his films and you'll learn more than film school can teach.
Quick Tip by . August 26, 2010
I think Orson Welles was the greatest creative genius in film who never really reached his full potential. Having said that, he remains one of the greatest creative figures in American cinema and radio!!! Welles has the unique distinction of acting in the #1 movie on the American Film Institute list, "Citizen Kane" and the British Film institute, #1 film "The Third Man, (#57 on AFI's top 100). He received the American Film Institute's 3rd Lifetime Achievement Award in 1975 …
Quick Tip by . August 29, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
George Orson Welles was born 6 May 1915, Kenosha, Wisconsin, USA , died 10 October 1985, Hollywood, California, USA (heart attack, two hours after doing an interview for the “Merv Griffith show).      Marriages   Virginia Nicholson(14 November 1934 - 1 February 1940) (divorced) 1 child, Rita Hayworth(7 September 1943 - 1 December 1948) (divorced) 1 child, Paola Mori(8 May 1955 - 10 October 1985) (his death) 1 child.      His father was a well-to-do …
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Michael Neulander ()
Ranked #43
Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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About this actor


George Orson Welles (May 6, 1915 – October 10, 1985), best known as Orson Welles, was an American filmmaker, actor, theatre director, screenwriter, and producer, who worked extensively in film, theatre, television and radio. Noted for his innovative dramatic productions as well as his distinctive voice and personality, Welles is widely acknowledged as one of the most accomplished dramatic artists of the twentieth century, especially for his significant and influential early work, despite his notoriously contentious relationship with Hollywood. His distinctive directorial style featured layered, nonlinear narrative forms, innovative uses of lighting and chiaroscuro, unique camera angles, sound techniques borrowed from radio, deep focus shots, and long takes. Welles' long career in film is noted for his struggle for artistic control in the face of pressure from studios, which resulted in many of his films being severely edited and others left unreleased. He has thus been praised as a major creative force and as "the ultimate auteur."[1]

Welles first found national and international fame as the director and narrator of a 1938 radio adaptation of H. G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds performed for the radio drama anthology series Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was reported to have caused widespread panic when listeners supposedly thought that an extraterrestrial invasion was occurring. Although these reports of panic were mostly false,[2] they ...

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