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Orson Welles

The achievements of a young man of 24 are rarely great.  Yet, before he reached a quarter of a century of life, Orson Welles was a household name.  By that age, when most men are still struggling to settle into a career, Welles had enjoyed half a dozen of them--all successfully.

He had been a stage star in Ireland and the United States.  He had frightened a nation into believing it was under attack from Mars, produced a black version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, put Julius Caesar in a Fascist uniform, written pulp magazine stories and a text book on Shakespeare, put Shakespearean productions on phonograph records, organized the Mercury Theatre and the Mercury Theatre of the Air, been a pianist and a painter, and lent his voice to Chocolate pudding and the popular radio character known as The Shadow.

As if that weren't enough, he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine on May 9, 1938, on the week of his 23rd birthday.

Following that, he could have lived comfortably on his laurels for the rest of his life.  But that wasn't his style.  He turned his attention to the cinema, signing a contract with RKO Radio Pictures where he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in one of filmdom's all-time classic pictures, Citizen Kane.  That was in 1940.  Welles was 25. 

Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on May 6, 1915, to Richard Head Welles, a manufacturer and inventor, and Beatrice Ives Welles, a concert pianist from whom he drew upon for his artistic perception and sensitivity.

Both parents were gifted with a love for travel.  As a child, Welles wandered the four corners of the globe.  But childhood life for the ingenue was not idyllic.  His mother died when he was only nine, and his father turned increasingly to alcohol as a means of coping. 

Welles could easily have slipped into a protective shell, but at the age of 11, he had been enrolled in the Todd School, where he met and befriended headmaster Roger Hill, who became Welles' mentor.  There, he had unfettered access to the campus theatre and printing press, and it was there that a future impresario was born. 

Encouraged and nurtured by Hills, Orson wrote, directed, and performed a variety of roles, including that of the Virgin Mary in the school nativity play!

During his school years, Welles made his first film, Heart of Age, a four-minute short co-directed with another student, William Vance, and starring fellow student Virginia Nicholson, who would later become Welles' first wife. 

Welles began playing The Shadow in late 1937; his deep voice suited the role well.  The next summer, he began weekly broadcasts via the Mercury Theatre, which he had only recently founded with producer John Houseman.  The broadcasts consisted of short radio plays based on classic or popular literary works.  Their October 30 broadcast of that year was an adaptation of the War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.  It was about a fictitious invasion of the United States by aliens from Mars. 

The program was so realistic, many listeners panicked.  Part of the program's believability was due to the fact that Welles' adaptation included a simulated news broadcast interrupting a routine dance music program.  The broadcaster described the landing of Martian spacecraft in Grovers Mill, New Jersey.  Across the Hudson River, thousands of New Yorkers began a mass exodus to Westchester and Connecticut for safety.  In Flint, Michigan, a church congregation gathered to pray for deliverance from the terrifying menace.  Recruiting stations of the army, navy, and marines throughout the nation were flooded by gallant young men anxious to enlist to protect their families.

Recordings of the broadcast are still popular today (see old-time radio and the UK Region 2-DVD of Citizen Kane).  The publicity that resulted from the broadcast led RKO to offer Welles a three-picture contract, and the actor's fame skyrocketed.

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1939, Welles proved himself to be a tireless worker.  He went to school for several weeks at the studio before starting his first production.  His instructors were sound men, cameramen, electricians, grips, carpenters, and special effects and prop men.  For the first few months, Welles flew back to New York every weekend to produce his radio show before finally moving it to the West Coast.

A large-framed man, Welles liked clothes and designed his own suits and dressing gowns.  As a director, he felt that he had to do more than make good pictures.  He had to make great ones.  "I’ve been a movie fan all my life," he said. "That ought to help."

And help it did.  In 1941, Welles wrote, directed, and starred in Citizen Kane, his first public release, which proved a commercial failure, losing for RKO the then-staggering sum of $150,000.  His following films, including The Magnificent Ambersons and Chimes at Midnight, similarly won him many kudos but few profits.  When the studio began reigning in his expense account, Welles responded by exiling himself to Europe in 1948.

In 1956, Welles produced A Touch of Evil, which, while flopping in the United States, won a prize at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958.  He went on to produce many more successful films and received a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1971, the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1975, and, despite his lack of commercial success, the Directors Guild of America's D.W. Griffith award.

Spiralling into obesity, Welles suffered a fatal heart attack in Hollywood and died on October 10, 1985.  He was 70 years old.

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