Welles, Orson

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 a portion of 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 feature 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 (1947), Othello (1952), Mr. Arkadin (1955), Touch of Evil (1958; restored and reworked according to Welles's instructions, 1998), The Trial (1963), Chimes at Midnight (1966), and F for Fake (1973). His final film, the semiautobiographical The Other Side of the Wind, was unfinished for financial, legal, and other reasons, but was finally released in 2018. They'll Love Me When I'm Dead (2018), directed by Morgan Neville, details its making. Welles's booming voice and air of authority made him a popular film actor and occasional off-screen narrator; he appeared in Jane Eyre (1943), The Third Man (1949), Catch-22 (1970), Someone to Love (1987), and other films. From the 1970s he was 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 (3 vol., 1996–), J. McBride (rev. ed. 1996), D. Thomson (1996), and P. McGilligan (2015); studies of his films by C. Higham (1970), P. Cowie (1972), H. James (1991), A. Bazin (1992), P. Conrad (2003), J. McBride (2006), J. Rosenbaum (2007), and J. Naremore (rev. ed. 2015); 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); J. Karp, Orson Welles's Last Movie (2015); H. Lebo, Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey (2016); The Battle over Citizen Kane (documentary, 1995).

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