Awesome Orson

Hammering out the movie's own theme on the piano, lanky neurosurgeon-crimefighter Jeff Goldblum figures out the villain's secret lair in the 1980s cult movie Buckaroo Banzai: Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Orson Welles wasn't playing a prank in 1938 when he broadcast on the radio that aliens had landed, he was actually telling the truth, deduces Goldblum.

"Orson Welles?" asks one of Goldblum's compadres. "You mean the old guy from the wine commercials?"

Welles may have been best-known as a pitchman for Paul Masson jug wine near the end, but his tremendous influence on filmmakers is acknowledged through the movie's sly citation. Just 25, he made Citizen Kane, considered by some to be the best film ever. While not a film noir, its chiaroscuro lighting, low-angle photography and nonlinear structure influenced the genre. Welles later ventured into noir territory with Lady From Shanghai, an ambitious film with a sophisticated use of voice over, and Touch of Evil, which has a stunning, one-of-a-kind opening shot.


1915. George Orson is born to the wealthy Welles family on May 6 in Kenosha, Wisconsin to mother Beatrice, pianist and singer, father Richard, inventor of carbide lamps. Older brother Dickie suffers from poor school performance, schizophrenia and his family's wrath. When the family hears a rumour that Dickie, a drifter, has been found dead on the banks of the Mississippi river, his father declares, "That's good. At least the family is rid of him."

At 18 months, family friend Dr. Maurice Bernstein proclaimed Orson a genius. Bernstein (also the name of Kane's lackey in Citizen Kane) stocked Orson with paints, a violin and a puppet theatre while trying to seduce Orson's mother.

"I always felt I was letting my parents down. That's why I worked so hard. That's the stuff that turned the motor."

1926. Ten-year-old Orson earns his first rave review from the press. "Cartoonist, Actor, Poet, and Only Ten," blared The Madison Journal.

Parents Beatrice and Richard divorce.

Beatrice dies.

At 13, 6-foot, 180-pound Orson is sent to the Todd School. He decides to stop talking to his father unless Dad quits drinking. His father dies soon after.

At 16, Welles takes a lone trip to Ireland and cons his way into a starring role at Dublin's Gate Theatre. He earns rave reviews.

At 18, Welles tours the US in a production of Romeo and Juliet, playing Mercutio.

1934. Marries first wife, actress and socialite Virginia Nicolson. Daughter Christopher (yes, Christopher).

1936-1939. Produces shows in New York to rave reviews. Co-founds Mercury Theatre with actor John Houseman. Eventually he lands on the cover of Time magazine for his theatre success.

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" Welles knows. At 22, becomes the voice of The Shadow on the CBS radio show.

1938. On October 30, Welles sends the nation into a panic by broadcasting the Martian "invasion" on radio. Here's an account of that night:

At precisely 8 p.m., a CBS announcer welcomed the audience of about a million to the Mercury Theatre production of ''War of the Worlds.'' A Latin dance band swung into action only to be interrupted by a series of chilling bulletins: Alarming atmospheric disturbances had been observed on Mars; ''a huge, flaming object'' believed to be a meteorite had fallen on a farm in Grover's Mill. A roving ''reporter'' described the aliens' emergence: ''Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed. . . . Someone's crawling out of the hollow top. . . . There, I can see the thing's body. It's as large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face. It . . . it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it.''

Listeners who switched over from other programs sat by their radios stunned; without hearing the introduction, many took the urgent reports as God's truth. As the drama continued, they were told that hideous invaders had wiped out the New Jersey militia, the Army and the Air Force; that President Roosevelt had declared a national emergency; that New York City had been taken over by aliens as tall as skyscrapers. Though members of the audience, which rapidly swelled to 6 million, were assured four times by an announcer that they were listening to a work of fiction -- and though Welles stated in an epilogue that ''((This was)) the Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and saying 'Boo!' '' -- about a million people missed the message.

By all accounts, Welles was shocked by the panic that ensued. ''He hadn't the faintest idea what the effect would be,'' says Houseman. CBS was inundated with calls; newspaper switchboards were jammed. Hysterical mobs took to the streets in New York and northern New Jersey. It was reported that only a husband's intervention saved a Pittsburgh woman who tried to poison herself rather than die at the hands of Martians. Welles himself later told the story -- perhaps apocryphal -- that the actor John Barrymore was drunk when he heard the broadcast and, convinced the world was coming to an end, ran into his backyard and threw open the door to the doghouse where his two Great Danes were kept. ''Fend for yourselves!'' he was said to have thundered.

Henry Sears, a carpenter whose parents owned an inn and tavern near Grover's Mill, remembers the scene as one of bitter confusion. ''I was sitting upstairs over the bar doing my homework and listening to the radio,'' says Sears, then a teenager, now 63. ''And all of a sudden come this break -- a news flash -- that the Martians had landed . . . at Grover's Mill. I listened again and kept hearing some more, then I unplugged the radio and took it down to the bar. There were about eight or so local customers, most of them farmers. I made them stop their checkers games, and I asked them to please listen to this. I was impressionable and believed what I heard, and so did everyone else.

''One man, Sam Dye, owned a bar. He said, 'Gawl darn, I'm going to get my shotgun, and we're going to get those Martians.' Everyone got their guns and came back. I had my .10-gauge shotgun, and we had an entourage of autos all heading toward Grover's Mill. We didn't much know what we were going to see, but we knew we were bound to see something. We got right up close to the lake, and everybody was milling around and getting excited. I can tell you, people were upset and aggravated, and some of them were disgusted. I think it was a mixed mood."

--from a story in People Weekly on the 50th anniversary of the Martian "invasion"

1939. Leaves New York to go make movies for RKO Studios in Hollywood.

1940. Divorces first wife Nicolson.

Stars as the title character in Citizen Kane. Filming lasts 10 weeks.

1941. Citizen Kane is released in May to rave reviews. The deep-focus photography, long takes, flashbacks, lighting and unusual camera angles are lauded for creating a "new vocabulary" in film. But the film doesn't interest the public and angers press baron William Randolph Hearst, the basis for the movie's central character Charles Foster Kane. No Hearst newspaper advertises the movie, and it flops. Welles later wins an Academy Award for the screenplay.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation opens a file on Welles after Hearst newspapers call Welles' Broadway plays Communist.

"This office has never been able to establish that WELLES is an actual member of the former Communist Party or the present Communist Political Association. [But] he has consistently followed the Communist Party line and has been active in numerous `front' organizations."
--The FBI, opening a file on Welles in 1941

"WELLES has never been placed as a member of the Communist Party."
--The FBI, closing the file on Welles in 1949

"I thought they were talking such nonsense that I began to hoot and holler."
--Welles on why he got booted from a Communist party meeting in 1935

1941. Makes Magnificent Ambersons but fails to edit it before visiting Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at President Roosevelt's request. RKO Studios takes control and releases its own edited version. Welles disowns the film and gains a reputation in Hollywood for not being able to finish projects on time.

1943. Besotted by her picture in Life magazine, Welles eventually marries second wife, screen siren Rita Hayworth. Daughter Rebecca.

In the mid-1940s, Welles moves to Europe.

1948. Divorces second wife Hayworth.

1955. Marries third wife, Italian countess Paola Mori. Daughter Beatrice, named after Welles' mum.

1958. Gets promoted from co-star to director of Touch of Evil when star Charlton Heston urges the studio. It ends up being the last film Welles directs in Hollywood.

1950s-1970s. Makes films in Europe including Othello, MacBeth, The Trial and the unfinished Don Quixote and The Other Side of the Wind, starring legendary filmmaker John Huston as a legendary filmmaker.

1970. Returns with third wife Mori to live in the United States. Divides his time between their home in Las Vegas and a four-bedroom house in "the 1700 block of North Stanley Avenue."

1980s. Planned directing projects include King Lear and a film version of the 1937 musical he produced, The Cradle Will Rock with Rupert Everett. But financing never comes through.

1985. Loses 50 pounds in the last 6 months of his life through diet and exercise.

Dies of a heart attack on October 10.

Notable Quotables

"I've spent most of my mature life trying to prove that I'm not irresponsible."
--Welles on his reputation in Hollywood

"The powerful young man seemed here more like an overgrown baby."
--New Republic film critic Stanley Kauffman on meeting Welles

"He made a film that changed film. Other directors--Griffith, Ford, Godard--have had sizable careers of immeasurable influence. But I can think of only two films that, in themselves, altered film vision. One is Eisenstein's Potemkin, the other is Citizen Kane."
--Stanley Kauffman on Welles' legacy

"Orson was the only genius I ever remember working with. He was difficult, and he paid the price for that over the years."
--actor and Welles' theatre partner John Houseman

"Welles lacked discipline. While he was always very bankable as a personality, he was never very bankable as an artist because nobody knew when he'd ever finish anything."
--Charles Higham, author of unauthorized Welles biography

"I went to see [a famous plastic surgeon] because I wanted to know if I could get my fat cut off."
--Welles on his waistline

"I'd love to write about all my failures as a Casanova, which are sensational and very funny. But at my age you never object to that kind of thing, no matter how exaggerated. Bless her heart for giving me this strange crown of laurel leaves."
--Welles on his alleged sexual exploits in the authorized biography by Barbara Leaming

"One of the many reasons I don't get invited out much is because they all know I won't take any cocaine."
--Welles on his rather open social calendar in Hollywood

"Not that he would give me that money to write a script."
--Welles on Steven Spielberg paying $50,000 for the Rosebud sled used in Citizen Kane

"These same stars and whiz kid directors wouldn't help him get one of his movies made. Any one of these people could have made Orson's life so much happier these past 10 years just by nodding their heads."
--director Henry Jaglom

"The way Hollywood treated him was a form of envy, jealousy. He died a frustrated man. In the eyes of Hollywood he never achieved Citizen Kane again, but ironically Hollywood wouldn't let him achieve another great success like Kane."
--singer Eartha Kitt

"Daddy was not an easy person to live with. You can't be a genius--and I really do believe he was a genius--and be a normal person."
--daughter Beatrice

"I had kept Daddy under my desk in my office at home for more than a year, trying to arrange his burial in Spain. We buried Daddy on May 6, his birth date."
--daughter Beatrice on her father's ashes


The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Mr. Arkadin (1955)

Touch of Evil (1958)


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