Although Orson Welles received a scholarship from ‘Harvard,’ he did not join the institute. Instead, he traveled to Dublin where he claimed to be a Broadway star and walked into ‘Gate Theatre’ for an audition.
Although the manager did not believe him, he was impressed by his impassioned audition. Subsequently, Welles made his stage debut in 1931, appearing as the ‘Duke of Württemberg’ in a stage adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel ‘Jew Süss.’
Welles spent a year in Dublin, acting for ‘Gate Theatre’ and ‘Abbey Theatre.’ At the same time, he also wrote newspaper columns, designed sets, and directed plays.
In 1932, he went to London, but could not get the required work permit. Therefore, he traveled to Morocco and Spain before reaching the United States in 1933. He used the time to write books on Shakespeare, which remained in print for several decades.
In New York, he met Katharine Cornell, who hired him for her repertory theatre. Beginning from November 1933, Welles toured with the repertory theatre, acting in plays, such as ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street,’ and ‘Candida.’
Finally in December 1934, he made his New York debut as ‘Tybalt’ in Katharine Cornell’s revised production of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ His acting skills impressed theatrical producer John Houseman, who cast the 19-year-old Welles to play the lead role in ‘Panic,’ a verse play by Archibald MacLeish.
Simultaneously, Welles began supplementing his income by doing radio shows in Manhattan. As the ‘WPA Federal Theatre Project’ began in the mid-1930s, Welles joined Houseman to produce a number of innovative productions like ‘Voodoo Macbeth,’ ‘Horse Eats Hat,’ ‘Doctor Faustus,’ etc.
Simultaneously, he also produced plays like ‘The Second Hurricane’ and ‘The Cradle Will Rock’ outside WPA. Later in November 1937, he severed his ties with the organization to establish ‘Mercury Theatre.’ They began with a modern adaption of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ and then went on to produce ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday,’ ‘Heart Break House,’ ‘Danton’s Death,’ etc.
Side by side, he also worked extensively in radio. He wrote, directed, and produced several radio programs. ‘The March of Time,’ ‘Hamlet,’ ‘The Fall of The City,’ ‘Les Misérables,’ and ‘The Shadow’ were some of his important radio works from this period.
Continue Reading Below
While each of these programs became highly popular, it was ‘The War of The World’ that made him famous as a dramatist. Soon, offers from Hollywood began to pour in. After initial hesitation, he signed a contract with ‘RKO Pictures’ in August 1939.
After the two initial proposals got rejected, Welles eventually made his Hollywood debut in 1941 with ‘Citizen Kane.’ He co-authored, produced, directed, and starred in the film. It opened to rave reviews and received nine ‘Oscar’ nominations. The film is often ranked as the greatest movie ever made.
His second feature film, which he wrote, directed, and narrated, was titled ‘The Magnificent Ambersons.’ While shooting for this film, Welles also produced a CBS Radio series called ‘The Orson Welles Show.’
While ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ was on the editing table, Welles started working on ‘Journey into Fear.’ Before he could make progress, he had to make a trip to Rio de Janeiro to do a documentary titled ‘It’s All True.’
When he returned, he discovered that ‘RKO Pictures’ had started meddling with both the productions. Ultimately, he disowned ‘The Magnificent Ambersons.’ He requested for funds to complete ‘It’s All True.’ However, he had to quit making the documentary as he did not get much help.
Besides meddling with the productions, ‘RKO Pictures’ began to speak ill of Welles and said that he was difficult to work with. Subsequently, Welles started losing his foothold in Hollywood. Hence, he went back to his radio shows.
In 1943, Welles made two radio series in order to entertain the American soldiers fighting in the ‘World War II.’ In addition, he also starred in an adaption of ‘Jane Eyre.’ It was not until 1946 that he was given a chance to direct movies.
In 1946, Welles completed ‘The Stranger’ in record time and within budget. The cost of the film was $1.034 million and it grossed $3.216 million within 15 months. Although it was a box office success, he did not receive any other offer to direct movies.
He returned to New York to direct a Broadway musical titled ‘Around the World,’ a stage adaption of ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ by Jules Verne. However, to run the show he had to borrow money, which he could never recoup from the show.
Continue Reading Below
To repay the loan, he began shooting ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ for ‘Columbia Pictures.’ Although the film, which released in 1947, was appreciated in Europe, it did not run in the USA. Ironically, it was later considered a classic.
His next film ‘Macbeth’ (1948) failed at the box office. Welles now left for Europe and remained there till 1956, sustaining himself by acting. He then saved enough money for his next project. In 1948, he started filming ‘Othello.’ He would stop filming the project whenever the funds ran low and start acting to earn money.
The film was completed in 1952. It was showcased at Cannes, where it received top billing. ‘Black Rose’ (1950) and ‘Mr. Arkadin’ (1955) are two other important works of Welles from this period. Besides, he also created two television series during this period; ‘Orson Welles Sketch Book’ and ‘Around the World with Orson Welles.’
Welles returned to Hollywood in 1956. In the same year, he directed a television pilot called ‘The Fountain of Youth.’ In 1957, he co-starred in ‘Man in the Shadow,’ a crime film directed by Jack Arnold. In 1958, he wrote, directed, and co-starred in another crime thriller titled ‘Touch of Evil.’
He returned to Europe in 1959 to co-star in the British adventure film ‘Ferry to Hong Kong.’ This was followed by ‘Crack in the Mirror’ (1960) and ‘The Tartars' (1961). During this period, he also started working on ‘Don Quixote.’
In 1962, Welles wrote, directed, and starred in ‘The Trial,’ which according to him was the best film he had ever made. He wrote, directed, and starred in ‘Chimes at Midnight’ (1965) which was one of his significant works from this period.
He also acted in a number of well-known films like ‘Is Paris Burning?’(1966), ‘A Man for All Seasons’ (1966), ‘Casino Royale’ (1967), ‘Battle of Neretva’ (1969), ‘The Kremlin Letter’ (1970), ‘Catch-22’ (1970), ‘Get to Know Your Rabbit’ (1972), ‘F for Fake’ (1973), etc.
Incidentally, ‘F for Fake’ was the last major film that he had co-written, directed, and starred. From 1970 to 1976, he worked towards finishing his unfinished project ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ but could not succeed. It was released posthumously in 2018.
In 1975, Welles went back to Hollywood. This time around, he landed plenty of work and remained busy till his death. He made his last film appearance in ‘Someone to Love’ and last television appearance in ‘Moonlighting.’
Continue Reading Below
An animated feature film titled ‘The Transformers: The Movie’ was the last project that he was working on. In this film, he voiced a planet-eating robot called ‘Unicron.’