Orson Welles is one of the world’s most famous actors, gifting theatres with the cinematic masterpiece, “Citizen Kane”. Few may realize, however, that this award-winning genius was from Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Born on May 6, 1915, Orson Welles’s time in Wisconsin was short-lived as his parents divorced and moved to Chicago when he was four-years-old. His mother died of jaundice when he was nine, and father died only six years later.
He began his theatrical experiments while attending the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois and was later awarded a scholarship to Harvard University. However, he chose to travel and study at the Art Institute of Chicago while frequently returning to Woodstock to direct Todd School productions.
While traveling in Ireland, Welles claimed to be a Broadway star at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, which landed him a role as the Duke in “Jew Suss”, along with several other roles. This kick-started his career in many ways, and his fame soon spread back to America.
Returning to America, Welles toured in three off-Broadway productions with Katharine Cornell’s company beginning in 1933. Their production of “Romeo and Juliet” was canceled, so Welles made his own production at Todd School. Welles’ role in “Romeo and Juliet” is one that earned him years of international praise.
In 1934, Welles married Virginia Nicholson and continued to make a short film, “The Hearts of Age” with her. Together they had a daughter, Christopher, who appeared as Macduff’s son in Welles’s film version of “Macbeth” in 1948. However, the two were divorced in 1940.
Orson Welles was proclaimed a prodigy at the age of 20 after directing the Federal Theatre Project, “Voodoo Macbeth”. He became involved in several Shakespearean productions including “Julius Caesar”, and “Hamlet”, while also immersing himself in radio. In 1938, CBS gave him weekly on-hour segments for radio plays based on literature works entitled, “The Mercury Theatre on the Air”. This company did an infamous radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” on October 30, 1938, which was so convincing that listeners actually believed that it was a news report of a martian invasion.
Though Welles resisted jumping into Hollywood productions at first, RKO Radio Pictures president George Schaefer offered Welles complete artistic control on a two picture deal. However, RKO rejected his ideas because they didn’t have faith in Lucille Ball’s ability to carry a film as a leading lady in one of his projects and they could not agree on a reasonable budget for the other.
Welles’s first experience on a Hollywood film was narrating RKO’s 1940 production of “The Swiss Family Robinson”, though only a year later, Welles had a third offer with RKO for “Citizen Kane”. Welles co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in this project, which only took ten weeks to film. It went on to receive nine Academy Award nominations, winning one for Best Original Screenplay. The film was later hailed as one of the best films ever made and noted as exemplifying the auteur theory of film. “Citizen Kane” became popular on college campuses as a film study exercise in the 1960s, and it still a prominent part of film studies today.
Welles married Rita Hayworth in 1943, and the two had a daughter, Rebecca Welles. The couple divorced five years later in 1948. In 1955, Welles married Paola Mori and the two had a daughter, Beatrice, a few months afterwards. Welles and Mori maintained an estranged marriage for thirty years.
Orson Welles had on-and-off success in Hollywood due to production companies’ unwillingness to work with him. He relied greatly on self-production for his later projects and, as a result, many of his films went unfinished. Welles’s unfinished projects include “Don Quixote”, “The Merchant of Venice” and “Moby Dick”. However, what completed films he worked on are considered major contributions to cinema.
Welles also had a great deal of success in writing as his educational series, Everybody’s Shakespeare, became immensely popular and remained in print for decades. Additionally, Welles took a strong interest in American and international politics, using journalism to communicate his forceful ideas. He wrote a political column in the “New York Post” for a time, instead of writing the Hollywood gossip column the paper wished him to produce. Welles dedicated a great deal of time to world peace activism, though his column eventually failed because of the “New York Post”‘s differing interests.
Orson Welles died of a heart attack on October 10, 1985, five hours after his final interview on “The Merv Griffin Show”. He was found at his typewriter, working on a new film script.
Orson Welles was a well-traveled, undeniably talented factor, writer, director, and producer. And though his origin might not be as infamous as this timeless filmmaker, Wisconsinites can be proud to find his roots in Kenosha, Wisconsin.