Orson Welles

Welles, Orson, 1915–85, American actor, director, and producer, b. Kenosha, Wis. From childhood he evinced a precocious talent and lofty sense of self-assurance in theatrical matters. He began acting in the theater during the early 1930s, and in 1937 directed several Federal Theatre productions and organized the Mercury Theatre company in New York. In 1938 a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, done in the style of a news broadcast, panicked the listening public and brought Welles national attention. He departed for Hollywood the following year. For RKO he cowrote, produced, directed, and starred in his first film, Citizen Kane (1941), considered by many to be the greatest film ever made. Welles brought technical brilliance, a precise sense of casting, and a complex narrative structure to bear on a teasingly ambiguous portrait of an American tycoon. He won an Academy Award for the screenplay, but never enjoyed such acclaim again.

After Citizen Kane Welles clashed constantly with studio chiefs and was never again able to exert such absolute artistic control or achieve such creative success. His other films include The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Othello (1952), Touch of Evil (1958; restored and reworked according to Welles's instructions, 1998), The Trial (1963), and Chimes at Midnight (1966). Welles's booming voice and air of authority made him a popular film actor and occasional off-screen narrator, appearing in films such as Jane Eyre (1943), The Third Man (1949), Catch-22 (1970), and Someone to Love (1987). Beginning in the 1970s, he also became a popular figure on television, in commercials and as a frequent guest and occasional host on talk shows.

See O. Welles et al., This Is Orson Welles (rev. ed., 1998); biographies by F. Brady (1989), C. Higham (1985), B. Leaming (1985), S. Callow (2 vol., 1996–), J. McBride (rev. ed. 1996), and D. Thomson (1996); studies of his films by C. Higham (1970), P. Cowie (1972), H. James (1991), A. Bazin (1992), and P. Conrad (2003); H. J. Mankiewicz and P. Kael, The Citizen Kane Book (1971); R. L. Carringer, The Making of Citizen Kane (1985); C. Heylin, Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios (2005); The Battle over Citizen Kane (documentary film, 1995).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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