Orson Welles Biography

(One of the Greatest Filmmakers of All Time and Director of 'Citizen Kane')

Birthday: May 6, 1915 (Taurus)

Born In: Kenosha, Wisconsin, United States

Orson Welles was an American actor, director, and writer. He was known for his remarkable contribution to theatre, radio, and films. He had a troubled childhood; his father was an alcoholic and his mother died when he was young. At the age of 11, he was enrolled at ‘Todd Seminary’ where he was introduced to the world of drama by his teacher Roger Hill. Soon after passing out from ‘Todd Seminary,’ he went to the United Kingdom and auditioned for a role. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 in Dublin. He returned to the USA at the age of 18 to start a career in acting by joining a repertory theatre group. He supplemented his income by doing radio shows and gradually became a popular figure in both radio and stage shows. However, radio remained his favorite till the very end. It was his radio show ‘The War of The World’ which introduced him to Hollywood. Unfortunately, the film industry was not kind to him at the beginning. Although he came up with masterpieces like ‘Citizen Kane’ at the beginning of his film career, it took him many years to make a name for himself in Hollywood.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: George Orson Welles

Died At Age: 70


Spouse/Ex-: Paola Mori (m. 1955–1985), Rita Hayworth (m. 1943–1947), Virginia Nicholson (m. 1934–1940)

father: Richard Head Welles

mother: Beatrice Ives

siblings: Dickie Welles, Richard Ives Welles

children: Beatrice Welles, Christopher Welles Feder, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Rebecca Welles

Born Country: United States

Quotes By Orson Welles Actors

Height: 6'4" (193 cm), 6'4" Males

Died on: October 10, 1985

place of death: Los Angeles, California, United States

U.S. State: Wisconsin

Ancestry: British American

Notable Alumni: School Of The Art Institute Of Chicago

Cause of Death: Heart Attack

Founder/Co-Founder: Mercury Theatre

More Facts

education: School Of The Art Institute Of Chicago

Childhood & Early Life
George Orson Welles was born on May 6, 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, United States. His father Richard Head Welles made a fortune by inventing a popular bicycle lamp. His mother Beatrice Ives Welles was a pianist. He had an elder brother named Richard Ives (Dickie) Wells.
Orson had a troubled childhood. Although the family was rich in the beginning, his father’s business began to falter soon after Orson’s birth and they moved to Chicago in 1919. His parents separated and he was brought up by his mother.
After his mother’s death in 1924, Orson was put under the custody of his alcoholic father. Initially, he was admitted to a public school. Later in 1926, he was enrolled at ‘Todd Seminary for Boys.’ At ‘Todd Seminary,’ his latent talents were nurtured by his teacher Roger Hill.
In 1927, Welles became a member of the ‘Todd Troupers’ and began to stage both classical and modern plays. Soon, he started directing the productions of ‘Todd Troupers’ and produced around eight to ten plays in three years.
Welles’ father died in 1930. A doctor from Chicago named Maurice Bernstein, who was also a family friend, became his guardian. Welles continued his studies at ‘Todd’ and passed out in 1931.
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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.
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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.
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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.’
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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.’
Major Works
According to Welles, ‘The Trial,’ which was made in 1962, was his best film. However, critics consider ‘Citizen Kane,’ which was based on the life of American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, to be the greatest film of all time. It was twice ranked first on AFI's ‘100 Years...100 Movies’ list; first in 1998 and then in 2007.
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Awards & Achievements
‘Citizen Kane,’ which was co-authored and directed by Welles, received the ‘New York Film Critics Circle Award’ for ‘Best Picture’ in 1941. The film also received nine ‘Academy Award’ nominations, winning the award under the ‘Original Screenplay’ category. It is believed that the film would have won more awards if not for the block voting by screen extras.
In 1942, ‘The National Board of Review’ voted ‘Citizen Kane’ as the ‘Best Film of 1941’ and recognized Welles for his performance.
He won the ‘Palme d'Or’ for ‘Othello’ at the 1952 ‘Cannes Film Festival.’
In 1966, ‘Chimes at Midnight’ won the ‘20th Anniversary Prize,’ ‘Technical Grand Prize,’ and ‘Citizens Writers Circle Award’ for ‘Best Film’ (Spain).
In 1984, he was presented with the ‘D. W. Griffith Award’ by the ‘Directors Guild of America.’ In 1985, he received the ‘Career Achievement Award’ from the ‘National Board of Review.’
Personal Life & Legacy
Orson Welles married actress Virginia Nicolson on November 14, 1934. The couple had a daughter named Christopher Welles Feder, who was born in 1938. The marriage ended in a divorce in February 1940 when Virginia learnt about Welles’ secret affair with Dolores Del Rio.
Welles’ affair with Dolores ended in 1943. By then, he had started having an affair with Rita Hayworth. Subsequently, Welles married Rita in September 1943. Their daughter Rebecca Welles Manning was born in December 1944. Although he had great regards for her, Rita and Welles divorced in 1947.
In 1955, Welles married Italian actress Paola Mori. They had a daughter named Beatrice Welles, who was born in November 1955. Although they remained married until his death in 1985, Welles had started living with Croatian-born artist and actress Oja Kodar since 1966.
Welles died on October 10, 1985, after suffering from heart attack. The previous day, he had recorded his final interview on the syndicated TV program ‘The Merv Griffin Show.’ On returning home, he worked into the early hours, typing stage directions for a shoot which was scheduled for the following day.
Early in the morning, he was found dead by his chauffer. In accordance with his will, his mortal remains were cremated and a brief private funeral was held.

Orson Welles Movies

1. Citizen Kane (1941)

  (Drama, Mystery)

2. The Third Man (1949)

  (Thriller, Film-Noir, Mystery)

3. Touch of Evil (1958)

  (Crime, Drama, Film-Noir, Thriller)

4. The Green Goddess (1939)

  (Comedy, Short)

5. Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight) (1965)

  (Drama, History, Comedy, War)

6. A Man for All Seasons (1966)

  (Drama, History, Biography)

7. Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

  (Drama, Comedy, Crime)

8. The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

  (Drama, Crime, Thriller, Film-Noir, Mystery)

9. Jane Eyre (1943)

  (Romance, Drama)

10. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

  (Drama, Romance)


Academy Awards(Oscars)
1942 Best Writing, Original Screenplay Citizen Kane (1941)
Grammy Awards
1982 Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama Recording Winner
1979 Best Spoken Word Recording Winner
1977 Best Spoken Word Recording Winner

See the events in life of Orson Welles in Chronological Order

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