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Orson Welles publicity photo, on the set of Citizen Kane in 1940. (Aberdeen Collection)

Orson Welles: Biography

Written by the Publicity Department of RKO Radio Pictures in 1942.

The achievements of your ordinary man of 24 can be written on the head of a pin

One needs a bigger writing surface than that for Orson Welles. At that age, when most young men are gunning for careers, Welles had enjoyed half a dozen.

He had, among other things, been a stage star in Ireland and the United States, had frightened a nation, had produced a Negro Macbeth, had put Julius Caesar in a Fascist uniform, had written pulp magazine stories and a school text book Shakespeare, had put Shakespearean productions on phonograph records, had been the voice of Chocolate pudding, the Shadow on radio, had organized the Mercury theatre and the Mercury theatre of the air, and had been a pianist and a painter.

George Orson Welles, in full stage make-up, makes the cover of Time on May 9, 1938, on the week of his 23nd birthday.

That record would satisfy any man. But not Welles. He then turned his attention to the cinema, signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures and wrote, produced, directed and starred in "Citizen Kane." That was in 1940. And in 1941, at 26, he achieved his greatest ambition through formation of his own Mercury Productions, Inc.

Early Years

Movieland's new quadruple-threat man came into being in Kenosha, Wis., on May 6, 1915. From his father, Richard Head Welles, manufacturer and inventor, Orson derived the keen sense of original creation and disregard of the established order of things that has spotlighted his theatrical career. From his mother, Beatrice Ives Welles, a concert pianist, he drew his artistic perception and sensitivity.

Both parents were imbued with a love for travel, and as a child, Orson knew intimately the far stretches of his native America, ancient wonders of Europe and Asia. At the age of 11, in fact, he made a solitary walking tour of Europe.

Orson Welles portrait, pre-dating his years in Hollywood.

The War of the Worlds

This bright effort, it will be remembered, involved a news-like treatment of a suppositious invasion of New Jersey by Martian monsters, who spread death and destruction in their wake.

The effect was unpredictable and Wellesian to the extreme.

Frantic New Jersey suburbanites, who heard fragments of the broadcast, fled their homes in panic. Across the Hudson, thousands of New Yorkers began a mass exodus to Westchester and Connecticut for safety. In Flint, Michigan, a whole church congregation gathered to pray for deliverance from this terrible menace. Recruiting stations of the army, navy and marines throughout the nation were flooded by gallant young men anxious to fight to preserve their country -- Chaos reigned.

Newspapers here and abroad seethed with the news for a week following. Congressmen, many of whom had been as frightened as the most gullible Jerseyite, issued scathing statements on the broadcast, calling for drastic action on the instant. The Federal Communications Commission became involved. And the fame of Orson Welles knew no bounds.

The widespread fanfare of publicity brought to the Mercury Theatre of the Air a wealthy sponsor. Meanwhile, the Broadway company continued through the season of 1938-39, highlighted by the Shakespearean chronicle plays presented on tour by Welles through the "Five Kings."

Future activity by this group was assured when Welles secured a clause in his RKO Radio contract permitting him to continue his interest in it.

Ariving in Los Angeles in 1939, Welles discovered the amoung of press and negative comments his new beard generated -- and decided to keep it during his first few months in Hollywood  to enhance his attitude as a high-flying independent.

Orson Welles In Hollywood

Welles turned to motion pictures because he felt that the possibilities of the screen were limitless. An indefatigable worker, he went to school at the studio for weeks before starting on his first production. His teachers were sound men, cameramen, electricians, grips, carpenters, special effects men and prop men.

For the first few months in Hollywood, Welles flew back to New York each week-end to produce his radio show. Finally he moved the show to the west coast.

Welles is a big man, well over six feet, who tips the scales around 200 pounds. He has no hobbies, considers working at his chosen professions enough to keep his mind occupied. He likes clothes and designs his own suits and dressing gowns. He is tremendously loyal to the members of the Mercury company and is using most of them in his pictures. It is his ambition to keep a permanent acting group. Great music inspired him and in his office he has a phonograph and a stack of fine recordings. He is an avid reader of comic strips and is particularly fond of "Terry and the Pirates." He believes comic strips mirror contemporary American life.

Welles knows he must do more than make a good picture—that he must make a great one. "I’ve been a movie fan all my life," he says. "That ought to help."

Welles married Virginia Nicholson, a stock actress in 1935 and she divorced him on Feb. 1, 1940. They have one child, a girl named Christopher, born in 1938.

The Expansion of Mercury

On forming Mercury Productions, Inc., in partnership with Jack Moss, Welles announced that hereafter his activities would be centralized in Hollywood. In addition to the motion picture productions for RKO Radio, Mercury Productions embraces the Mercury Theater of the Air, Mercury Theater, Mercury Text Shakespeare and the Mercury Text Records of Shakespeare. There are four of these already published and recorded.



Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, California.

See Bibliography.


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