Welles first gained wide notoriety for his October 30, 1938, radio broadcast of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Adapted to sound like a contemporary news broadcast, it caused a number of listeners to panic. In the mid-1930s, his New York theatre adaptations of Macbeth and a contemporary allegorical Julius Caesar became legendary. Welles was also an accomplished magician, starring in troop variety spectacles in the war years. During this period he became a serious political activist and commentator through journalism, radio and public appearances closely associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1941, he co-wrote, directed, produced and starred in Citizen Kane, often chosen in polls of film critics as the greatest film ever made. The rest of his career was often obstructed by lack of funds, incompetent studio interference and other unfortunate occurrences, both during exile in Europe and brief returns to Hollywood. Despite these difficulties Othello won the 1952 Grand Prix du Festival International du Film at the Cannes Film Festival and Touch of Evil won the top prize at the Brussels World Fair, while Welles himself considered The Trial and Chimes at Midnight to be the best of his efforts.
Although Welles remained on the margins of the major studios as a director/producer, his larger-than-life personality made him a bankable actor. In his later years he struggled against a Hollywood system that refused to finance his independent film projects, making a living largely through acting, commercials, and voice-over work. Welles received a 1975 American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award, the third person to do so after John Ford and James Cagney. Critical appreciation for Welles has increased since his death. He is now widely acknowledged as one of the most important dramatic artists of the 20th century: in 2002 he was voted as the greatest film director of all time in the British Film Institute's poll of Top Ten Directors.
Maurice Bernstein became his guardian, but his background for the role is improbable. Born in Russia, he came to Chicago in 1890, studied and became a successful physician. In a very few years, he had several wives, including the Chicago Lyric Opera soprano, Edith Mason. Edith divorced company director Giorgio Polacco to marry Bernstein. Not long thereafter, they divorced and she remarried Polacco. In 1930, Bernstein was living in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago, as a wealthy physician with another wife and child, claiming to have been born in Illinois to parents from New York.
At Todd, Welles came under the positive influence and guidance of Roger Hill, a teacher who later became Todd's headmaster. Hill provided Welles with an 'ad hoc' educational environment that proved invaluable to his creative experience, allowing Welles to concentrate on subjects that interested him. Welles performed and staged his first theatrical experiments and productions there.
On his father's death, Welles traveled to Europe with the aid of a small inheritance. While on a walking and painting trip through Ireland, he strode into the Gate Theatre in Dublin and claimed he was a Broadway star. Gate manager Hilton Edwards later claimed he didn't believe him but was impressed by his brashness and some impassioned quality in his audition. Welles made his stage debut at the Gate in 1931, appearing in Jew Suss as the Duke. He acted to great acclaim, acclaim that reached the United States. He performed smaller supporting roles as well. On returning to the United States he found his brief fame ephemeral and turned to a writing project at Todd that would become the immensely successful Everybody's Shakespeare, and subsequently, The Mercury Shakespeare. Welles traveled to North Africa while working on thousands of illustrations for the Everybody's Shakespeare series of educational books, a series that remained in print for decades.
An introduction by Thornton Wilder led Welles to the New York stage. He toured in three off-Broadway productions with Katharine Cornell's company. Restless and impatient when the planned Broadway opening of Romeo and Juliet was canceled, Welles staged a drama festival of his own with the Todd School, inviting Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards from Dublin's Gate Theatre to appear, along with New York stage luminaries. It was a roaring success. The subsequent revival of Romeo and Juliet brought Welles to the notice of John Houseman, who was then casting for an unusual lead actor and about to take a lead role in the Federal Theatre Project.
By 1935 Welles was supplementing his earnings in the theater as a radio actor in New York City, working with many of the actors who would later form the core of his Mercury Theatre. He married actress and socialite Virginia Nicholson in 1934. They had one daughter, Christopher, who became known as Chris Welles Feder, an author of educational materials for children. Welles also shot an eight-minute silent short film, The Hearts of Age with Nicholson.
After the success of Macbeth, Welles mounted the absurd farce Horse Eats Hat. He consolidated his "White Hope" reputation with Dr Faustus. This was even more ground-breaking theatre than Macbeth, using light as a prime unifying scenic element in a nearly blacked-out stage. In 1937, he rehearsed Marc Blitzstein's pro-union "labour opera" The Cradle Will Rock. Because of severe federal cutbacks and perhaps rumoured Congressional worries about communist propaganda in the Federal Theatre, the show's premiere at the Maxine Elliott Theatre was cancelled and the theatre locked and guarded by National Guardsmen. In a last-minute theatrical coup Welles announced to waiting ticket-holders that the show was being transferred to the Venice, about twenty blocks away. Cast, crew and audience walked the distance on foot. Since the unions forbade the actors and musicians performing from the stage, The Cradle Will Rock began with Blitzstein introducing the show and playing the piano accompaniment on stage, with the cast performing their parts from the audience. This impromptu performance was a tremendous hit.
Resigning from the Federal Theatre, Welles and Houseman formed their own company, the Mercury Theatre, which included actors such as Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Frank Readick, Everett Sloane, Eustace Wyatt and Erskine Sanford, all of whom would continue to work for Welles for years. The first Mercury Theatre production was a melodramatic and heavily edited version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, set in a contemporary frame of fascist Italy. Cinna the Poet dies at the hands not of a mob but a secret police force. According to Norman Lloyd, who played Cinna, "it stopped the show". The applause lasted more than 3 minutes and the production was widely acclaimed.
Welles was increasingly active on radio, as an actor and soon as a director and producer. He played Hamlet for CBS on The Columbia Workshop, adapting and directing the play himself. The Mutual Network gave him a seven-week series to adapt Les Misérables, which he did with great success. Welles was chosen to anonymously play Lamont Cranston, The Shadow, in late 1937 (again for Mutual) and in the summer of 1938 CBS gave him (and the Mercury Theatre) a weekly hour-long show to broadcast radio plays based on classic literary works. The show was titled The Mercury Theatre on the Air, with original music by Bernard Herrmann, who would continue working with Welles on radio and in films for years.
Their October 30 broadcast, H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, brought Welles notoriety and instant fame on both a national and international level. The fortuitous mixture of news bulletin format with the between-breaks dial spinning habits of listeners from the rival and far more popular Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy program, created widespread confusion among late tuners. Panic spread among many listeners who believed the news reports of an actual Martian invasion. The resulting panic was duly reported around the world and disparagingly mentioned by Adolf Hitler in a public speech a few months later. Welles' growing fame soon drew Hollywood offers, lures which the independent-minded Welles resisted at first. However, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, which had been a "sustaining show" (without sponsorship) was picked up by Campbell Soup and renamed The Campbell Playhouse.
Welles toyed with various ideas for his first project for RKO Pictures, settling on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which he worked on in great detail. He planned to film the action with a subjective camera from the protagonist's point of view. However, the darkened international political climate created marketing restrictions across Europe. When a budget was drawn up, RKO's enthusiasm cooled, as it was greater than the previously agreed limit. The anti-fascist tenor of the story was now suddenly problematic too. RKO also declined to approve another Welles' project, The Smiler with the Knife, for similar political reasons and ostensibly because they lacked faith in Lucille Ball's ability to carry the leading lady role.
In a sign of things to come, Welles left The Campbell Playhouse in 1940, due to creative differences with the sponsor. The show continued without him, produced by John Houseman. In perhaps another sign of things to come, Welles' first actual experience on a Hollywood film was as narrator for RKO's 1940 production of Swiss Family Robinson.
Welles found a suitable film project in an idea he conceived with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (who was then writing radio plays for The Campbell Playhouse). Initially called American, it would eventually become Welles's first feature film, Citizen Kane (1941).
Mankiewicz based his original notion on an exposé of the life of William Randolph Hearst, whom he knew socially but now hated, having once been great friends with Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies. Mankiewicz was now banished from her company because of his perpetual drunkenness. Mankiewicz, a notorious gossip, exacted revenge with his unflattering depiction of Davies in Citizen Kane for which Welles got most of the criticisms; Welles also had a connection with Davies through his first wife. Kane's megalomaniac personality was also loosely modeled on Robert McCormick, Howard Hughes, and Joseph Pulitzer, as Welles wanted to create a broad, complex character, intending to show him in the same scenes from several points of view. The use of multiple narrative perspectives in Conrad's Heart of Darkness also influenced the treatment. Supplying Mankiewicz with 300 pages of notes, Welles urged him to write the first draft of a screenplay under the watchful nursing of John Houseman, who was posted to ensure Mankiewicz stayed sober. On Welles's instruction, Houseman wrote the opening narration as a pastiche of The March of Time newsreels. Taking these drafts, Welles drastically condensed and rearranged them, then added scenes of his own.
The resulting character of Charles Foster Kane is loosely based on parts of Hearst's life. Nonetheless, with perhaps sly and barely disguised malice towards their young boss, Mankiewicz and Houseman cunningly worked in autobiographical allusions to Welles himself, most noticeably in the treatment of Kane's childhood, particularly regarding his guardianship. Welles then added features from other famous American lives to create a general and mysterious personality rather than the narrow journalistic portrait intended by Mankiewicz, whose first drafts included scandalous claims about the death of the film director Thomas Ince, killed on an excursion on a Hearst yacht. Ironically, Mankiewicz later argued, probably astutely, that if this material had been left in, Hearst would never have dared to make the public connection to his own life and would have left the film alone.
Once the script was completed. Welles attracted some of Hollywood's best technicians, including cinematographer Gregg Toland, who walked into Welles office and announced he wanted to work on the picture. For the cast, Welles primarily used actors from his Mercury Theatre. Grasping that films were a collaboration, he invited suggestions from everyone, but only if they were directed through him.
There was little concern over the Hearst connection when Welles completed production on the film. However, Mankiewicz handed a copy of the final shooting script to his friend, Charles Lederer, now husband of Welles' ex-wife Virginia Nicholson and nephew of Hearst's mistress Marion Davies. Hedda Hopper saw a small ad in a newspaper for a preview screening of Citizen Kane and went. Hopper, realizing immediately that the film was based on features of Hearst's life, reported this back to him and threatened to give "Hollywood, Private Lives" if that was what it wanted. Thus began the struggle over the attempted suppression of Citizen Kane.
Hearst's media empire boycotted the film. It exerted enormous pressure on the Hollywood film community by threatening to expose 15 years of suppressed scandals and the fact that most of the studio bosses were Jewish. At one point, the heads of the major studios jointly offered RKO the cost of the film in exchange for the negative and all existing prints, for the express purpose of burning it. RKO declined, and the film was given a limited release. Meanwhile, Hearst successfully intimidated theatre chains by threatening to ban advertising for any of their other films in any of his papers if they showed Citizen Kane. RKO didn't own many theatres, so few moviehouses actually dared to screen Citizen Kane.
While the film was critically well-received, by the time it reached the general public the positive tide of publicity had waned. It garnered nine Academy Award nominations, but won only for Best Original Screenplay, shared by Mankiewicz and Welles. The delay in its release and its uneven distribution contributed to its average result at the box-office, making back its budget and marketing, but RKO lost any chance of a major profit. The fact that Citizen Kane ignored many Hollywood conventions also meant that the film confused and angered the 1940s cinema public. Exhibitor response was scathing; most theater owners complained bitterly about the adverse audience reaction and the many walkouts, and only a few saw fit to acknowledge Welles's artistic technique. RKO shelved the film and did not re-release it until 1956. During the 1950s, the film came to be seen by young French film critics such as Francois Truffaut as exemplifying the "auteur theory", in which the director is the "author" of a film. Truffaut, Godard and others were inspired by Welles' example to make their own films, giving birth to the Nouvelle Vague. In the 1960s Citizen Kane became popular on college campuses, both as a film-study exercise and as an entertainment subject. Its frequent revivals on television, home video, and DVD have enhanced its "classic" status, and it ultimately recouped its costs.
The 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane chronicles the battle between Welles and Hearst. In 1999, RKO 281, an HBO docudrama, tells the story of the making of Citizen Kane, starring Liev Schreiber as Orson Welles.
At RKO's request, simultaneously, Welles worked on an adaptation of Eric Ambler's spy thriller, Journey into Fear, which he co-wrote with Joseph Cotten. In addition to acting in the film, Welles was also producer. Direction was credited solely to Norman Foster. Welles later stated that they were in such a rush that the director of each scene was whoever was closest to the camera.
Welles was then offered a new radio series by CBS. Called The Orson Welles Show, it was a half-hour variety show of short stories, comedy skits, poetry and musical numbers. Joining the original Mercury Theatre cast was Jiminy Cricket, "on loan from Walt Disney". The variety format was unpopular with the listeners, and Welles was soon forced into full half-hour stories instead.
To further complicate matters during the production of Ambersons and Journey into Fear, Welles was approached by Nelson Rockefeller and Jock Whitney to produce a documentary film about South America. This was at the behest of the federal government's Good Neighbor Policy, a wartime propaganda effort designed to prevent Latin America from allying with the Axis Powers. Welles saw his involvement as a form of national service, because his physical condition excused him from direct military service.
Expected to film the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Welles rushed to finish the editing on Ambersons and his acting scenes in Journey into Fear. Ending his CBS radio show, he lashed together a rough cut of Ambersons with Robert Wise, who had edited Citizen Kane, and left for Brazil. Unfortunately, to get Ambersons made, Welles had renegotiated away his original contract for final cut.
Wise was to join him in Rio to complete the film but never arrived. Other moves were afoot at RKO. A provisional final cut arranged via phone call, telegram, and shortwave radio was previewed without Welles' approval in Pomona in a double bill, to a mostly negative audience response, in particular to the character of Aunt Fanny played by Agnes Moorehead.
Whereas Schaefer argued that Welles be allowed to complete his own version of the film, and that an archival copy be kept with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, RKO was in no mood for such aesthetic niceties.
RKO studio management was in turmoil as Charles Koerner staged a management coup against Schaefer. It took control of the film, formed a committee which was ordered to remove fifty minutes of Welles' footage, re-shot sequences, rearranged the scene order, and tacked on a happy ending. Schaefer was replaced as RKO President by Koerner, who released the shortened film on the bottom of a double-bill with the Lupe Velez comedy Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost, thus providing the last nail in the coffin for both Welles's and Schaefer's careers. Ambersons was an expensive flop for RKO, though it received four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Agnes Moorehead.
Welles' South American documentary, titled It's All True, budgeted at one million dollars with half of its budget coming from the U.S. Government upon completion, was treated scarcely better by RKO. They closed down the production, withdrew most of the crew and kicked the Mercury staff out of the studio while Welles was still in Brazil.
In It's All True, Welles recreated the journey of the jangadeiros, four poor fishermen who had made a journey on their open raft to petition Brazilian President Vargas about their working conditions. The four had become national folk heroes, Welles first read of their journey in Time. Despite their leader, Jacare, dying during a filming mishap, Welles begged to be able to finish the film. He was given a limited amount of black-and-white stock and a silent camera. He completed the sequence, but RKO refused to let him complete the film. Surviving footage was released in 1993, including a rough reconstruction of the Four Men on a Raft segment. Meanwhile, RKO launched a premeditated publicity campaign against Welles, falsely claiming he had gone to Brazil without a screenplay, and that he had squandered a million dollars. Their official company slogan was pointedly changed to "Showmanship in place of Genius".
Unable to continue work as a film director after the twin disasters of The Magnificent Ambersons and It's All True, Welles worked on radio. CBS offered him two weekly series, Hello Americans, based on the research he'd done in Brazil, and Ceiling Unlimited, sponsored by Lockheed, a wartime salute to advances in aviation. Both featured several members of his original Mercury Theatre. Within a few months, Hello Americans was canceled and Welles was replaced as host of Ceiling Unlimited by Joseph Cotten. Welles guest-starred on a great variety of shows, notably guest-hosting Jack Benny's show for a month in 1943. He took an increasingly active role in American and international politics and used journalism to communicate his forceful ideas widely.
In 1943 Welles married Rita Hayworth. They had one child, Rebecca Welles, and divorced five years later in 1948. In between, Welles found work as an actor in other directors' films. He starred in the 1943 film adaptation of Jane Eyre, trading credit as associate producer for top billing over Joan Fontaine. He also had a cameo in the 1944 wartime salute Follow the Boys, in which he performed his Mercury Wonder Show magic act and sawed Marlene Dietrich in half after Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn refused to allow Hayworth to perform.
In 1944 Welles was offered a new radio show, broadcast only in California. Orson Welles' Almanac was another half-hour variety show, with Mobil Oil as sponsor. After the success of his stand-in hosting on The Jack Benny Show, the focus was primarily on comedy. His hosting on Jack Benny included several self-deprecating jokes and story lines about his being a "genius" and overriding any ideas advanced by other cast members. The trade papers were not eager to accept Welles as a comedian, and Welles often complained on-air about the poor quality of the scripts. When Welles started his Mercury Wonder Show a few months later, traveling to Armed Forces camps and performing magic tricks and doing comedy, the radio show was broadcast live from the camps and the material took a decidedly wartime flavor. Of his original Mercury actors, only Agnes Moorehead was left. The series was cancelled by year's end due to poor ratings.
While his suitability as a film director remained in question, Welles' popularity as an actor continued. Pabst Blue Ribbon gave Welles their radio series This Is My Best to direct, but after one month he was fired for creative differences. He started writing a political column for the New York Post, again called Orson Welles Almanac. While the paper wanted Welles to write about Hollywood gossip, Welles explored serious political issues. His activism for world peace took considerable amounts of his time. The Post column eventually failed in syndication because of contradictory expectations and was dropped by the Post.
In the summer of 1946, Welles directed a musical stage version of Around the World in Eighty Days, with a comedic and ironic rewriting of the Jules Verne novel by Welles, incidental music and songs by Cole Porter, and production by Mike Todd, who would later produce the successful film version with David Niven. When Todd pulled out from the lavish and expensive production, Welles supported the finances himself. When he ran out of money at one point, he convinced Columbia president Harry Cohn to send him enough to continue the show, and in exchange Welles promised to write, produce, direct and star in a film for Cohn for no further fee. The stage show would soon fail due to poor box-office, with Welles unable to claim the losses on his taxes. He wound up owing the IRS several hundred thousand dollars, and in a few years time Welles would seek tax-shelter in Europe.
At the same time in 1946 he began two new radio series, The Mercury Summer Theatre for CBS and Orson Welles Commentaries for ABC. While Summer Theatre featured half-hour adaptations of some of the classic Mercury radio shows from the 1930s, the first episode was a condensation of his Around the World stage play, and remains the only record of Cole Porter's music for the project. Several original Mercury actors returned for the series, as well as Bernard Herrmann. It was only scheduled for the summer months, and Welles invested his earnings into his failing stage play. Commentaries was a political soap-box, continuing the themes from his New York Post column. Again Welles lacked a clear focus, until the NAACP brought to his attention the case of Isaac Woodard. Welles devoted the rest of the run of the series to Woodard's cause, was the first broadcaster to bring it to national attention, and caused shock waves across the nation. Soon Welles was being hung in effigy in the South and The Stranger was banned in several southern states. ABC was unable to find a sponsor for the radio show and soon canceled it. Welles never had a regular radio show in America again and would never direct another anywhere. The film for Cohn wound up being The Lady from Shanghai, filmed in 1947 for Columbia Pictures. Intended to be a modest thriller, the budget skyrocketed after Cohn suggested that Welles' then-estranged second wife Rita Hayworth co-star. Cohn was enraged by Welles' rough-cut, in particular the confusing plot and lack of close-ups, and ordered extensive editing and re-shoots. After heavy editing by the studio, approximately one hour of Welles' first cut had been removed. While expressing dismay at the cuts, Welles was particularly appalled by the soundtrack, objecting to the musical score he thought more suitable for a Disney cartoon and the lack of the ambient soundscape he had designed. The film was considered a disaster in America at the time of release. Welles recalled people refusing to speak to him about it to save him embarrassment. Not long after release, Welles and Hayworth finalized their divorce. Though the film was acclaimed in Europe, it was not embraced in the US for several decades. A similar situation occurred when Welles suggested to Charles Chaplin that he star in a film directed by Welles based on the life of the French serial killer, Henri Désiré Landru. Chaplin instead adapted the idea for his own film, Monsieur Verdoux, with Welles officially credited for the idea. The film proved a failure opening during a time when Chaplin was publicly vilified, but since has gone on to be acclaimed as a classic black comedy.
Unable to find work as a director at any of the major studios, in 1948 Welles convinced Republic Pictures to let him direct a low-budget version of Macbeth, which featured papier mâché sets, cardboard crowns and a cast of actors lip-syncing to a prerecorded soundtrack. Republic did not care for the Scottish accents on the soundtrack and held up release for almost a year. Welles left for Europe, while his co-producer and life-long supporter Richard Wilson reworked the soundtrack. Welles ultimately returned and cut twenty minutes from the film at Republic's request and recorded narration to cover the gaps. The film was decried as another disaster. In the late 1970s, Macbeth was restored to Welles' original version.
During this time, Welles sought to adapt the radio and serial series The Shadow to the big screen. He aimed to direct, produce, write and star in the film, but the project collapsed when he failed to find any investors. The Mark Millar article detailing Welles' attempt at a Batman film is partially inspired by this.
The following year, Welles appeared as Harry Lime in The Third Man, written by Graham Greene, directed by Carol Reed, starring Mercury Theatre alumnus Joseph Cotten, and with a memorable zither score by Anton Karas. The film was an international smash hit, but Welles unfortunately turned down a percentage of the gross in exchange for a lump-sum advance. A few years later British radio producer Harry Alan Towers would resurrect the Lime character for radio in the series The Lives of Harry Lime. The 1951 series included new recordings by Karas, was very successful, and ran for 52 weeks. Welles claimed to write a handful of episodes – a claim disputed by Towers, who maintains they were written by Ernest Borneman – which would later serve as the basis for the screenplay of Welles' Mr. Arkadin (1955).
Welles also appeared as Cesare Borgia in the 1949 Italian film Prince of Foxes, with Tyrone Power and Mercury Theatre alumnus Everett Sloane, and as the Mongol warrior Bayan in the 1950 film version of the novel The Black Rose (again with Tyrone Power). During this time, Welles was channeling his money from acting jobs into a self-financed film version of Shakespeare's play Othello.
From 1949 to 1951, Welles worked on Othello, filming on location in Europe and Morocco. The film featured Welles' old friends Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago and Hilton Edwards as Desdemona's father Brabantio. Suzanne Cloutier starred as Desdemona and Campbell Playhouse alumnus Robert Coote appeared as Iago's associate Roderigo.
Filming was suspended several times as Welles ran out of funds and left to find other acting jobs, accounted in detail in MacLiammóir's published memoir Put Money in Thy Purse. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival it won the Palme d'Or, but was not given a general release in the United States until 1955 (by which time Welles had re-cut the first reel and re-dubbed most of the film, removing Cloutier's voice entirely), and it played only in New York and Los Angeles. The American release prints had a technically flawed soundtrack, suffering from a complete drop-out of sound at every quiet moment, and it was one of these flawed prints that was restored by Welles's daughter, Beatrice Welles-Smith in 1992 for a wide re-release. The restoration included reconstructing Angelo Francesco Lavagnino's original musical score (which was inaudible) and adding ambient stereo sound effects (which weren't in the original film). Though still active in Italy, Lavagnino was not consulted. The subject of great controversy among film scholars, the restoration went on to a successful theatrical run in America. A print of the US version was released on laser-disc in 1995 and soon withdrawn after a legal challenge by Beatrice Welles-Smith. The original Cannes version has survived but is not commercially available.
In 1952 Welles continued finding work in England, after the success of the Harry Lime radio show. Harry Alan Towers offered Welles another series, The Black Museum, with Welles as host and narrator, and this would also run 52 weeks. Director Herbert Wilcox offered him the part of the murdered victim in Trent's Last Case, based on the novel by E. C. Bentley. And in 1953 the BBC hired Welles to read an hour of selections from Walt Whitman's epic poem Song of Myself. Towers hired Welles again, to play Professor Moriarty in the radio series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring John Gielgud, and Ralph Richardson.
Late in 1953, Welles returned to America to star in a live CBS Omnibus television presentation of Shakespeare's King Lear. The cast included MacLiammóir and the British actor Alan Badel. While Welles received good notices, he was guarded by IRS agents, prohibited to leave his hotel room when not at the studio, prevented from making any purchases, and the entire sum (less expenses) he earned went to his tax bill. Welles returned to England after the broadcast.
In 1954, director George More O'Ferrall offered Welles the title role in the 'Lord Mountdrago' segment of Three Cases of Murder, co-starring Badel. Herbert Wilcox cast him as the antagonist in Trouble in Glen opposite Margaret Lockwood, Forrest Tucker and Victor McLaglen. Old friend John Huston cast him as Father Mapple in his film adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, starring Gregory Peck.
Welles' next turn as director was the film Mr. Arkadin (1955), produced by Louis Dolivet Welles' political mentor from the 1940s. It was filmed in France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Based on several episodes of the Harry Lime radio show, it stars Welles as a paranoid billionaire who hires a petty smuggler to delve into the secrets of his seedy past. Welles' absurd and obvious makeup has been the subject of much derision, but it may have been the intent to show a character who was in disguise and hiding his true identity. The film stars Robert Arden, who had worked on the Harry Lime series, Welles' third wife, Paola Mori, whose voice was completely dubbed by actress Billie Whitelaw, and guest stars including Akim Tamiroff, Michael Redgrave, Katina Paxinou, and Mischa Auer. Frustrated by Welles' slow progress in the editing room, producer Dolivet removed Welles from the project and finished the film without him. Eventually five different versions of the film would be released, two in Spanish and three in English. The version which Dolivet completed was retitled Confidential Report and was the version furthest from Welles's original intention. In 2005 Stefan Droessler of the Munich Filmmuseum oversaw a reconstruction of what might have been Welles' original intention. It was released by the Criterion Company on DVD and is considered by Welles scholar and director Peter Bogdanovich to be the best version available.
Also in 1955 Welles directed two television series for the BBC. The first was Orson Welles' Sketchbook, a series of six 15-minute shows featuring Welles drawing in a sketchbook to illustrate his reminiscences for the camera (including such topics as the filming of It's All True and the Isaac Woodard case), and the second was Around the World with Orson Welles, a series of six travelogues set in different locations around Europe (such as Venice, the Basque Country between France and Spain, and England). Welles served as host and interviewer, his commentary including documentary facts and his own personal observations (a technique he would continue to explore). A seventh episode of this series, based on the Gaston Dominici case, was suppressed at the time by the French government, but was reconstructed after Welles's death and released to video in 1999.
In 1956 Welles completed Portrait of Gina, posthumously aired on German television under the title Viva Italia, a 30-minute personal essay on Gina Lollobrigida and the general subject of Italian sex symbols. Dissatisfied with the results - Welles recalled he had worked on it a lot and the result looked like it - he left the only print behind at the Hotel Ritz in Paris. The film cans would remain in a lost and found locker at the hotel for several decades, where they were rediscovered after Welles' death.
Welles stayed on at Universal to direct (and co-star with) Charlton Heston in the 1958 film Touch of Evil, based on Whit Masterson's novel Badge of Evil (Welles, who wrote the screenplay for the film, claimed never to have read the book). Originally only hired as an actor, Welles was promoted to director by Universal Studios at the suggestion (and insistence) of Charlton Heston. Reuniting many actors and technicians with whom he'd worked in Hollywood in the 1940s (including cameraman Russell Metty [The Stranger], make-up artist Maurice Siederman (Citizen Kane), and actors Joseph Cotten, Marlene Dietrich, and Akim Tamiroff), filming proceeded smoothly, with Welles finishing on schedule and on budget, and the studio bosses praising the daily rushes. Out of the blue, the studio wrested Touch of Evil from Welles' hands, re-edited it, re-shot scenes, and shot new exposition scenes to clarify the plot. Despite the trauma of having the film ripped from his creative control for no ostensible reason, Welles wrote a 58-page memo outlining suggestions and objections. The studio followed a few of the ideas, but cut another 30 minutes from the film and released it. Even in this state, the film was widely praised across Europe, awarded the top prize at the Brussels World's Fair.
In 1978, the long preview version of the film was rediscovered and released. In 1998, editor Walter Murch and producer Rick Schmidlin, consulting the original memo, used a workprint version to attempt to restore the film as close as possible to the memo. This is at best a compromise that should not be mistaken for Welles' original intent. Welles stated in that memo that the film was no longer his version — it was the studio's, but as such, he was still prepared to help them with it.
As Universal reworked Touch of Evil, Welles began filming his adaptation of Miguel Cervantes' novel Don Quixote in Mexico, starring Mischa Auer as Quixote and Akim Tamiroff as Sancho Panza. While filming would continue in fits and starts for several years, Welles would never complete the project.
In 1960 in Paris he co-starred in Richard Fleischer's film Crack in the Mirror. In Yugoslavia he starred in Richard Thorpe's film The Tartars. He also staged a play at the Gate Theatre in Dublin which compressed five of Shakespeare's history plays in order to focus on the story of Falstaff. Keith Baxter played Prince Hal and Welles called his adaptation Chimes at Midnight.
By this time he had completed filming on Quixote. Though he would continue toying with the editing well into the 1970s, he never completed the film. On the scenes he did complete, Welles voiced all the actors and provided the narration. In 1992 a version of the film was completed by director Jess Franco, though not all the footage Welles shot was available to him. What was available had decayed badly. While the Welles footage was greeted with interest, the post-production by Franco was met with harsh criticism.
In 1961 Welles directed In the Land of Don Quixote, a series of eight half-hour episodes for the Italian television network RAI. Similar to the Around the World with Orson Welles series, they presented travelogues of Spain and included Welles' wife, Paola, and their daughter, Beatrice. Though Welles was fluent in Italian, the network was not interested in him providing Italian narration because of his accent, and the series sat unreleased until 1964, by which time the network had added Italian narration of its own. Ultimately, the episodes were restored with the original musical score Welles had approved, but without the narration.
In 1962 Welles directed his adaptation of The Trial, based on the novel by Franz Kafka and produced by Alexander Salkind and Michael Salkind. The cast included Anthony Perkins as Josef K, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Paola Mori and Akim Tamiroff. While filming exteriors in Zagreb, Welles was informed that the Salkinds had run out of money, meaning that there could be no set construction. No stranger to shooting on found locations, Welles soon filmed the interiors in the Gare d'Orsay, at that time an abandoned railway station in Paris. Welles thought the location possessed a "Jules Verne modernism" and a melancholy sense of "waiting", both suitable for Kafka. The film failed at the box-office. Peter Bogdanovich would later observe that Welles found the film riotously funny. During the filming, Welles met Oja Kodar, who would later become his muse, star and partner for the last twenty years of his life.
Welles continued taking what work he could find acting, narrating or hosting other people's work, and began filming Chimes at Midnight, which was completed in 1966. Filmed in Spain, it was a condensation of five Shakespeare plays, telling the story of Falstaff and his relationship with Prince Hal. The cast included Keith Baxter, John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau, Fernando Rey and Margaret Rutherford, with narration by Ralph Richardson. Music was again by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino. Jess Franco served as second unit director.
In 1966, Welles directed a film for French television, an adaptation of The Immortal Story, by Isak Dinesen. Released in 1968, it stars Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio and Norman Eshley. The film had a successful run in French theaters. At this time Welles met Kodar again, and gave her a letter he had written to her and had been keeping for four years; they would not be parted again. They immediately began a collaboration both personal and professional. The first of these was an adaptation of Isak Dinesen's The Heroine, meant to be a companion piece to The Immortal Story and starring Kodar. Unfortunately, funding disappeared after one day's shooting. After completing this film, he appeared in a brief cameo as Cardinal Wolsey in Fred Zinnemann's adaptation of A Man for All Seasons - a role for which he won considerable acclaim.
In 1967 Welles began directing The Deep, based on the novel Dead Calm by Charles F. Williams and filmed off the shore of Yugoslavia. The cast included Jeanne Moreau, Laurence Harvey and Kodar. Personally financed by Welles and Kodar, they could not obtain the funds to complete the project, and it was abandoned a few years later after the death of Harvey. The surviving footage was eventually restored by the Filmmuseum München.
In 1968 Welles began filming a TV special for CBS under the title Orson's Bag, combining travelogue, comedy skits and a condensation of Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice with Welles as Shylock. Funding for the show sent by CBS to Welles in Switzerland was seized by the IRS, reputedly due to the anger of Richard Nixon over a record Welles had not written but had narrated, the political satire The Begatting of the President. Without funding, the show was not completed. The surviving portions were eventually restored by the Filmmuseum München.
In 1969, Welles authorised the use of his name for a cinema in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Orson Welles Cinema remained in operation until 1986, with Welles making a personal appearance there in 1977.
Drawn by the numerous offers he received to work in television and films, and upset by a tabloid scandal reporting his affair with Kodar, Welles abandoned the editing of Don Quixote and moved back to America in 1970.
In 1971 Welles directed a short adaptation of Moby-Dick, a one-man performance on a bare stage, reminiscent of his stage production Moby Dick Rehearsed from the 1950s. Never completed, it was eventually restored by the Filmmuseum München. He also appeared in La Décade prodigieuse, co-starring with Anthony Perkins and directed by Claude Chabrol, based on a detective novel by Ellery Queen.
In 1971 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him an honorary award "For superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures". Welles pretended to be out of town and sent John Huston to claim the award. Huston criticized the Academy for awarding Welles while they refused to give him any work.
In 1973 Welles completed F for Fake, a personal essay film about art forger Elmyr d'Hory and the biographer Clifford Irving. Based on an existing documentary by Francois Reichenbach, it included new material with Oja Kodar, Joseph Cotten, Paul Stewart and William Alland.
Working again for a British producer, Welles played Long John Silver in director John Hough's 1973 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island, which had been the second story broadcast by The Mercury Theatre on the Air in 1938. Welles also contributed to the script, his writing credit was attributed to the pseudonym 'O. W. Jeeves'.
Also in 1975, the American Film Institute presented Welles with its third Lifetime Achievement Award (the first two going to director John Ford and actor James Cagney). At the ceremony, Welles screened two scenes from the nearly finished The Other Side of the Wind. Filming had begun in 1972 and by 1976, Welles had almost completed the film. Financed by Iranian backers, ownership of the film fell into a legal quagmire after the Shah of Iran was deposed. Written by Welles, the story told of a destructive old film director looking for funds to complete his final film. It starred John Huston and the cast included Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Edmond O'Brien, Cameron Mitchell, and Dennis Hopper. As of 2006, all legal disputes concerning ownership of the film have been settled and end money for completing the film is being sought, in part from the Showtime cable network.
In 1979 Welles completed his documentary Filming Othello, which featured Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards. Made for West German television, it was also released in theaters. That same year, Welles completed his self-produced pilot for The Orson Welles Show television series, featuring interviews with Burt Reynolds, Jim Henson and Frank Oz and guest-starring The Muppets and Angie Dickinson. Unable to find network interest, the pilot was never broadcast.
Beginning in the late 1970s, Welles participated in a series of famous television commercial advertisements, acting as the on-camera spokesman for the Paul Masson wine company. The sign-off phrase of the commercials — "We will sell no wine before its time" — became a national catchphrase. He was also the voice behind the long-running Carlsberg "Probably the best lager in the world" campaign. The "probably" tag is still in use today. During coverage of these commercials on Ads Infinitum, Victor Lewis Smith, a critic of Masson wines, fondly remarked that Welles endorsements of the wine were proof he was "a genius, but a lying bastard" and promptly showed an outtake of Welles being impossible to work with in a commercial shoot. In 1979 Welles also appeared in the biopic The Secret Life of Nikola Tesla.
In 1982 the BBC broadcast The Orson Welles Story in the Arena series. Interviewed by Leslie Megahey, Welles examined his past in great detail, and several people from his professional past were interviewed as well. It was reissued in 1990 as With Orson Welles: Stories of a Life in Film.
Welles was the voice of (unseen) author Robin Masters during the early years of Magnum, P.I..
During the 1980s, Welles worked on such film projects as The Dreamers, based on two stories by Isak Dinesen and starring Oja Kodar, and The Orson Welles Magic Show, which reused material from his failed TV pilot. Another project he worked on was Filming The Trial, the second in a proposed series of documentaries examining his feature films. While much was shot for these projects, none of them were completed. All of them were eventually restored by the Filmmuseum München. Also during this time he recorded narration for the tracks "Dark Avenger" and "Defender" by heavy metal band Manowar.
"For my style, for my vision of the cinema, editing is not simply one aspect: it's THE aspect. The notion of directing a film is the invention of critics. It isn’t an art, or at best it's an art only one minute a day. That minute is terribly crucial, but it occurs very rarely. The only time one is able to exercise control over the film is in the editing. The images by themselves are not sufficient. They’re very important, but they’re only images. What's essential is the duration of each image and that which follows each image: the whole eloquence of cinema is that it's achieved in the editing room."
He died of a myocardial infarction (heart attack) at his home in Hollywood, California, at age 70, on October 10, 1985, the same day as Yul Brynner. He had various projects underway, including a film adaptation of King Lear, The Orson Welles Magic Show and The Dreamers. His final interview had been recorded on the day of his death for The Merv Griffin Show; he died two hours later. The last film roles before Welles' death included voice work in the animated films The Enchanted Journey (1984) and The Transformers: The Movie (1986), in which he played the planet-eating robot Unicron, along with on-screen work in Henry Jaglom's film Someone to Love (1987).His last filmed appearance was on the television show Moonlighting. He recorded an introduction to an episode entitled "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice", which was partially filmed in black and white. The episode aired five days after his death and was dedicated to his memory. His death forced the character of Robin Masters, a famous writer and playboy, to largely be written out of Magnum, P.I.. His ashes were buried in an old well on the property of a long time friend, retired bullfighter Antonio Ordoñez, in Ronda, Spain.
Welles had three children to three different mothers: children's author Chris Welles Feder, born 1937 to Virginia Nicholson, Rebecca Welles Manning, born 1944 to Rita Hayworth and Beatrice Welles, born November 1955 to Paola Mori.
According to a 1941 physical exam taken when he was 26, Welles was 72 inches (182.9 cm) tall and weighed 218 pounds (98.9 kg). His eyes were brown. Other sources cite that he was tall.
From 1932, he fell in love with the Mexican actress Dolores del Rio. They lived through a torrid romance between 1938-1941 in spite of the fact that he was ten years her junior. They collaborated together in the movie Journey into Fear, but the romance ended due to Welles' insecurity. Dolores returned to Mexico and Orson married Rita Hayworth. Rebecca, the daughter of Orson, revealed that her father was obsessed with Dolores del Rio until his death.
Welles suffered from a serious weight problem in later life that rendered him morbidly obese, at one point weighing nearly four hundred pounds. His obesity was severe to the point that it restricted his ability to travel, aggravated other health conditions, including his asthma, and even required him to go on a diet in order to play Sir John Falstaff.
This condition was largely the result of over-eating, which some have attributed to depression over his marginalisation by the Hollywood system, in spite of his public willingness to joke about his weight.
Some sources state that his regular dinner consisted of two steaks and a pint of scotch and that, during his early years, especially during the filming of Citizen Kane, his daily dinner menu also included a whole pineapple, triple pistachio ice-cream and a full bottle of scotch. Others tell of him enjoying daily snacks consisting of four or five large portions of caviar and twenty cups of black coffee, although considering the cost of caviar and Welles' often fraught financial situation, this is very probably either apocryphal or exaggerated.
In his final few years, owing to medical concerns, he began to eat less and reportedly lost sixty pounds in the last six months of his life. It was perhaps the stress of this diet that ultimately precipitated his death from a heart attack. He was also famous as a heavy and enthusiastic smoker of cigars throughout much of his later life, which perhaps had just as much, if not more, to do with his cause of death.
In April 1982, Merv Griffin interviewed Welles and asked about his religious beliefs. Welles replied, "I try to be a Christian, I don't pray really, because I don't want to bore God. After the success of his 1941 film Citizen Kane, Welles announced that his next film would be about the life of Jesus Christ, and that he would play the lead role. However, Welles never got around to making the film.
In 1970 Welles began shooting The Other Side of the Wind, about the effort of a film director (played by John Huston) to complete his last Hollywood picture, and is largely set at a lavish party. Although in 1972 the film was reported by Welles as being "96% complete, the negative remained in a Paris vault until 2004, when Peter Bogdanovich (who also acted in the film) announced his intention to complete the production. Peter Bogdanovich is currently in the process of editing the footage, and it is scheduled to be completed and released through Showtime sometime in 2009. Some footage is included in the documentary Working with Orson Welles (1993).
Other unfinished projects include The Deep, an adaptation of Charles Williams' Dead Calm — abandoned in 1970 one scene short of completion due to the death of star Laurence Harvey — and The Big Brass Ring, the script of which was adapted and filmed by George Hickenlooper in 1999.
Welles in his later years was unable to get funding for his many film scripts, but came close with The Big Brass Ring and The Cradle Will Rock. Arnon Milchan had agreed to produce The Big Brass Ring if any one of six actors - Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, or Burt Reynolds - would sign on to star. All six declined for various reasons. Independent funding for The Cradle Will Rock had been obtained and actors had signed on, including Rupert Everett to play the young Orson Welles, location filming was to be done in New York City with studio work in Italy. While pre-production went without a problem, three weeks before filming was to begin the money fell through. Allegedly Welles approached Steven Spielberg to ask for assistance in rescuing the film, but Spielberg declined. The scripts to both films were published posthumously. After a studio auction, he complained that Spielberg spent $50,000 for the Rosebud sled used in Citizen Kane, but would not give him a dime to make a picture. Welles retaliated by publicly announcing the sled to be a fake, the original having been burned in the film, but he later recanted the claim.
The 1995 documentary Orson Welles: One-Man Band, included on the Criterion Collection DVD release of F for Fake, features scenes from several of these unfinished projects, as well as footage from an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice starring Welles that was never aired due to vital footage being allegedly stolen; several short subjects such as the titular One-Man Band, a Monty Python-esque spoof in which Welles plays all but one of the characters (including two characters in drag); footage of Welles reading chapters from Moby-Dick; and a comedy skit taking place in a tailor shop and co-starring Charles Gray. One short, also included in the documentary, is a comedy routine in which Welles (filmed in the 1970s) plays a reporter interviewing a king, also played by Welles, but in footage shot in the 1960s; Welles finished the skit and edited it together years later. The documentary also includes two completed and edited sequences from the unreleased The Other Side of the Wind, and footage from an unbroadcast television pilot for a talk show (he is shown interviewing The Muppets and discussing his rationale for doing the talk show, which was produced in the round). The documentary is built around a college lecture given by Welles not long before his death, in which he displays frustration at being unable to complete so many projects. According to Oja Kodar, interviewed in the documentary, Welles always traveled with camera equipment and would shoot film whenever the mood struck him, even if there were no immediate prospects for commercial release of such material.
Writer Joseph McBride, in his book Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?, claims that Welles left America in the 1950s to escape McCarthyism and the blacklist, though Welles himself denied this. According to Welles, he personally asked the House Un-American Activities Committee to allow him to appear and "explain to you why I'm not a communist." They turned him down.
Despite his left-wing politics, many of Welles' friends have noted that, on a personal level, he had a strong conservative streak. He disapproved of many of the excesses of the 1960s, and disliked the counterculture in general. According to McBride, much of The Other Side of the Wind is taken up with a satirical depiction of countercultural tastes and style. Welles was also extremely puritanical about sex, and told his friend and biographer Peter Bogdanovich that his film The Last Picture Show was "a dirty movie". The only films Welles directed which contain overtly erotic elements are F for Fake and the unfinished Other Side of the Wind, which many attribute to Oja Kodar's influence.