Orson Welles Biography (1915-1985)

Full name, George Orson Welles; born May 6, 1915, in Kenosha, WI; died of anapparent heart attack in Hollywood, CA, on October 10, 1985; son of Richard Head (an inventor and manufacturer) and Beatrice (a concert pianist; maiden name, Ives) Welles; married Virginia Nicholson (an actress), December 20, 1934(divorced, 1940); married Rita Hayworth (an actress), September 7, 1942 (divorced); married Countess Paola Mori Girlalco (an actress), May 8, 1955; children: (first marriage) Christopher (a daughter); (second marriage) Rebecca; (third marriage) Beatrice.

The critically acclaimed director, writer, and actor Orson Welles was a childprodigy who wrote poetry, painted, studied the violin, put on Shakespeareanplays, and played Madama Butterfly's child at the Chicago opera--all before he was ten.

Welles toured Ireland after his high school graduation and while there becamea member of the Gate Players troupe for a short period of time. From Irelandhe traveled to Morocco, where he spent time polishing scripts and stories hehad written. Soon afterwards, he returned to America and burst onto the NewYork theatrical scene in his early twenties with such unorthodox productionsas his so- called "voodoo Macbeth," set in Haiti and using an all-black cast,and a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar, which he turned into a parableagainst Fascism. When the WPA's Federal Theatre Project, for whom Welles hadworked up to that point, banned his production of Marc Blitzstein's leftist musical drama The Cradle Will Rock and locked the cast out of the theatre, heand his associate John Houseman rented a theatre of their own, where the actors, prohibited by Equity from performing the work on stage, read it to the audience. Welles and Houseman then formed their own company, the Mercury Theatre.

In addition to stage work, the Mercury Theatre also presented radio programs.On Halloween Eve, 1938, Welles's radio dramatization of the Mercury Theatre's War of the Worlds caused a nationwide panic. Done as a fake news broadcast,the show was so realistic that many listeners thought New Jersey had reallybeen invaded by Martians.

After a disastrous attempt to produce his play Five Kings, Welles moved the Mercury Theatre to Hollywood to try his hand at the movie industry. Welles's first film, Citizen Kane, "is now fabled," according to his New York Times obituary, "for its use of flashback, deep-focus photography, sets with ceilings,striking camera angles, and imaginative sounds and cutting." International critics' polls conducted in 1962, 1972, and 1982 by the British magazine Sightand Sound selected Kane as the greatest film of all time. Ironically, it wasa commercial flop in its first release, largely because of pressure from publisher William Randolph Hearst, on whom the title character was in large partbased. Such was Hearst's influence on the public that bad reviews of Kane inhis newspapers kept moviegoers away from the film. "Rosebud," the title character's dying word in the film and the name of his boyhood sled, has become ahousehold word (the original sled was purchased at auction for $61,000 by director Steven Spielberg).

Even though his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, which he wrote, produced, and directed, was cut heavily by the studio (RKO) over Welles's objections, it, too, is now ranked among the great works of cinema history. Among his later films, Touch of Evil, released in 1958, and Chimes at Midnight, 1966, inparticular, are regarded as masterpieces, but Welles's directorial career after Kane and Ambersons was marred by an inability to get financial backing because of his reputation as a perfectionist (although he remained in great demand as an actor). Some of his most ambitious film projects were never made or, like his version of Don Quixote, begun but never completed.

Birth Details
May 6, 1915
Kenosha, Wisconsin, United States
Death Details
October 10, 1985
Hollywood, California, United States

Famous Works

Recent Updates

April 8, 2004: The film The Third Man, in which Welles starred,was restored for its 50th anniversary and shown in New York. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, April 8, 2004.September 2, 2005: A production of Welles's stage adaptation of HermanMelville's Moby-Dick, which was first performed in London in 1955, opened in East Hampton, New York, at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall. Called Moby Dick Rehearsed, the play was directed by Tony Walton. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, September 2, 2005.

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