Orson Welles: 6 Facts About the Man Who Changed Film

Today would've marked Orson Welles's 100th birthday. To celebrate this milestone, let's look at a few lesser-known facts about the legendary auteur...
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Orson Welles Photo

Orson Welles in March 1937, at the age of 21. (Photo: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A few months before the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor altered the course and outcome of World War II, a 26-year-old stage and radio actor from Wisconsin changed the world in his own way. In September of 1941, Orson Welles, then a young and handsome man with a baritone voice and a fully developed sense of braggadocio, released Citizen Kane and transformed modern cinema.

Welles was already well known to the American public through his theater work and voice acting—he was a regular on Broadway and had induced widespread panic with his radio adaptation of War of the Worlds—but with the release of Citizen Kane, Welles secured his place in history. The film, a loosely fictionalized exposé of a powerful American businessman, defied conventional cinematic techniques and provided moviegoers with radically innovative uses of cinematography, narrative structures, and music. Most scholars and casual film buffs cite Citizen Kane as being the greatest film of all time, and Orson Welles—who produced, co-wrote, directed, and starred in the production—often tops the list of the world’s most celebrated directors.

Welles passed away in 1985, but his status as the man who fundamentally changed an art form so central to our lives will remain indefinitely. To celebrate Welles’s 100th birthday, let’s look at a few lesser-known facts about the legendary auteur.

I. A Career Based on a Lie

Orson was only 15 when Richard Welles, his brilliant but troubled alcoholic father, passed away. Before fully giving in to his vice, Richard had made a fortune by inventing a bicycle lamp, and he left a small inheritance to his son upon his death. With these unexpected funds, Orson did what young people still do today: he traveled Europe. 

Orson Welles Photo

Welles in 1938. (Photo: Crowell Publishing Company, photographer not credited [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

While gallivanting in Ireland in 1931, he stopped by the Gate Theatre in Dublin and confidently informed the manager that he was a star on Broadway, even though he hadn’t yet acted a day in his life. The manager’s curiosity was roused, and not long after he gave an intense and heartfelt audition, Orson made his stage debut in an adaptation of Jew Suss. Sadly, his career in European show business came to a quick halt when, in the following year, he returned to the US because the Irish authorities wouldn’t grant him a work permit.

II. The Rabble-Rouser

Only ten years after his white lie catapulted him onto the stage, Orson Welles created Citizen Kane. But, like most if not all great works of art, it received major backlash. The movie, a film à clef, included a thinly veiled depiction of the life of William Randolph Hearst, one of America’s preeminent newspaper tycoons. The portrayal of Hearst was less than flattering, as it chronicled the evolution of Hearst from a young, benevolent man to a media mogul ruthlessly obsessed with pursuing power at all costs. 

Not unexpectedly, Hearst’s feelings were hurt (to say the least). The influential man tried to block showings of the film, and all of the newspapers he owned refused to advertise, promote, or even mention Citizen Kane. Rumor has it Hearst even offered to pay the film’s studio enough money to cover all production costs and then some if the studio agreed to destroy every copy that was made. Thankfully, coercion lost to the formidable foe of artistic free expression, and Citizen Kane survived and flourished.

III. Who Needs an Oscar, Anyway?

Citizen Kane was an immediate critical success. While Welles and his film were nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1942, the famed actor, writer, and director took home only one: Best Original Screenplay. For most people, this award—the Holy Grail of the film industry—would be prominently displayed high on a sturdy shelf for all to see or locked away in a fireproof safe. For Welles, though, an Oscar was literally as good as gold. 

Orson Welles Photo

Welles after the 'War of the Worlds' broadcast in 1938. (Photo: Acme News Photos (eBay front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

While filming The Other Side of the Wind in the early 1970s, Welles realized that he didn’t have enough money to pay his cinematographer, Gary Graver. As a replacement for hard cash, Welles handed over his one and only Academy Award. In 1994, Graver tried to sell the golden statuette but faced opposition from Beatrice Welles, Orson’s youngest daughter and only heir. Big money eventually ruled the day, however. The award sold for $861,000 in 2011.

IV. A Clever Traveller

If you’ve ever been in New York City during business hours, or on a weekend evening, or pretty much at anytime, then you’ll likely understand Welles’s frustration with the city’s transportation. Taxis are hard enough to hail, and, even if you manage to snag one, getting through more than two stoplights in a row is a nearly impossible feat. For a busy man like Welles, who needed to quickly shuttle between theaters and studios and local drinking establishments, a yellow cab just wouldn’t do. Instead, he hired ambulances to ferry him from spot to spot, exploiting a legal loophole that said a person didn’t have to be ill to request such services. Presumably his copay didn’t cover such costs.

V. A Backup Plan

Even though he had acquired fame on stage and screen and the radio, Orson Welles always kept in the back of his mind the possibility of an abrupt end to his illustrious career. If he failed to maintain his status as a revered actor, screenwriter, and director, then he would fall back on the next best thing: magic. When Welles was a young boy in the 1920s, he learned his first magic tricks from Harry Houdini, and from this childhood fascination emerged a lifelong hobby. 

Orson Welles Photo

Welles maintained a lifelong fascination with magic. (Photo: via YouTube)

Even as he grew in age and size and fame, Welles maintained membership in various organizations for magicians and honed his sleight of hand techniques in his spare time. During World War II, for which he was deemed too flat-footed to serve, Welles even entertained US troops in Europe by putting on a show and sawing the superstar Marlene Dietrich in two.

VI. A Tainted Legacy

Throughout his life Orson Welles had, like most people, picked up a few nasty habits. At a early age, he developed a penchant for tobacco and booze and rich, fattening foods. As life went on, Welles struggled to moderate these habits—a typical meal often involved two rare steaks and a pint of scotch—and by middle age he was morbidly obese, weighing nearly 400 pounds and hosting a number of physical maladies. He even had to go on a diet to play Falstaff, the famously fat Shakespearean character. As Orson aged, he felt increasingly marginalized by Hollywood, and many think that this led to depression and overindulgence of food and alcohol. 

Orson Welles Photo

Welles in his later years. (Photo: wellesnet.com)

Welles was struck by a fatal heart attack in 1985, only hours after recording his final interview. While his life brimmed with accomplishments that most people could only dream of—winning an Academy Award, revolutionizing the art of filmmaking, and even earning two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—his final decades of deterioration worked against his rapid rise to fame, leaving the public with conflicting views of the distinguished artist. Citizen Kane, on the other hand, remains largely blemish-free.