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The Orson Welles centenary

Orson Welles in the 1930s. CBS

George Orson Welles, born on May 6, 1915, was a man of innumerable talents and unquenchable drive, whose creative stamp was left on stage, on radio and in film. An enfant terrible up to his death in 1985 at age 70, Welles pushed the boundaries of a maverick director long before an independent cinema movement developed in the U.S., with his films '"Citizen Kane," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Touch of Evil" and "Chimes at Midnights" among the greatest ever made - a testament to his dramatic creativity, technical ingenuity, and willingness to challenge the parameters of commercial entertainment.

Making his first professional appearance on stage at age 16, Welles became a leading figure in New York theatre and on CBS Radio in the 1930s, before being given the keys to RKO Pictures (or, as he put it, "the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!"). His "golden boy" status didn't last long in Hollywood, however -- a willingness to step on toes got him kicked out of the studios. He eventually fled to Europe to make films, or more accurately, to commit dreams to celluloid, and not always complete ones. Though his total output was by the end small, it was monumental in ambition and dramatic scope, and would be an inspiration to generations of filmmakers who followed.

Click through this gallery to play video and audio clips from Welles' career.

By senior producer David Morgan

"The Hearts of Age"

An eight-minute short film, clearly influenced by surrealists such as Luis Bunuel, "The Hearts of Age" was co-directed by Orson Welles and William Vance in 1934, when Welles was 19 years old.

A plot description is kind of meaningless. But the film is visually striking, and offers a glimmering preview of the boldness that Welles would show later, with polished Hollywood technicians at his side.

Vance was attending a summer drama festival that Welles helped organize at his alma mater, the Todd School in Woodstock, Ill., when they shot the film. (Welles had recently returned after appearing in several stage productions in Ireland.) Among the cast was Virginia Nicolson, with whom Welles later eloped.

Vance would go on to direct TV commercials.

"Voodoo Macbeth"

The Three Witches and assorted voodoo adherents in a scene from "Macbeth," at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, New York. Library of Congress

One of the biggest sensations of Welles' stage career was his 1936 production in Harlem of "Macbeth," featuring an all-black cast. With the action set on a Caribbean island, and African drummers supplying the background music, the play -- popularly known as "Voodoo Macbeth" -- was a tremendous hit. Welles was just 20 years old at the time.

In a 1975 TV interview Welles said the production was "a big political event. There was a riot that night. The police were around because there was a big part of the black community that thought we were making fun of the blacks to make them in Shakespeare and that the people would go to laugh ... the word had gone out that it was a kind of burlesque."

During three months of rehearsal, Welles said, the dialogue was created by the cast in their own vernacular. "I never said to an actor you must say it like this," he recalled. "It was very interesting and very beautiful. I gave them no tradition at all. I brought none of the white Shakespearean tradition to it, of speaking or of anything else."

Below: Footage of Orson Welles' Harlem production of "Macbeth," filmed for a documentary about the Federal Theatre Project.

Radio Drama

Orson Welles directing "The Mercury Theatre on the Air." CBS

In the 1930s Welles served as a writer, director and actor on several radio series at CBS, including "Columbia Playhouse," "The March of Time," and "The Mercury Theatre on the Air," which featured many stars of his theatre company.

Welles also appeared as Lamont Cranston, a crimefighter who had the ability to cloud men's minds and appear invisible, in the thriller series, "The Shadow."

From "The Shadow: Murders in Wax" (broadcast July 24, 1938), in which a killer in prison manages to enact his revenge on those who sent him up by placing their dead bodies in a wax museum.

"The Shadow" (excerpt)

The most notorious production by "The Mercury Theatre on the Air" (or anyone, for that matter), was Welles' Halloween 1938 broadcast of an adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds," in which fake news bulletins told of the Martian invasion begun in New Jersey.

"The War of the Worlds" (excerpt)

Though the broadcast was prefaced with an announcement that it was fiction, many who tuned in took the faux breaking news alerts to be real. Panic ensued. Martians!!!

A humbled Welles later spoke to the press...

"Too Much Johnson"

A scene from "Too Much Johnson." George Eastman House

As part of a planned production of the play "Too Much Johnson" in 1938, Welles directed three short film vignettes which were intended to introduce each act of the knockabout farce. The cast included Joseph Cotten, Virginia Nicolson, Arlene Francis and Edgar Barrier.

The footage was never actually shown with the play (which failed), and the reels -- constituting Welles' first professional film -- were considered lost until just recently.

In the "CBS This Morning" feature below (from October 30, 2013), correspondent Don Dahler reports on the discovery, restoration and debut screening of "Too Much Johnson." The footage we see today not only shows an energy and visual dazzle that was evident in "Citizen Kane," but also shows the actors engaging in stuntwork that was flagrantly dangerous.

"Citizen Kane"

On May 1, 1941, when Welles was not quite 26 years old, his directorial debut, "Citizen Kane," premiered. Even today, more than 70 years and a host of cinematic inventions later, the film is as modern and fresh as when it burst upon the scene, with its landmark photography and design, bravura editing, and rich acting by Welles' Mercury Theatre players. Critically acclaimed, it was also attacked by supporters of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon who was the inspiration for the story about the emotional and moral poverty of the world's richest man.

The flashback of Charles Foster Kane's parents (Agnes Moorehead and Harry Shannon) features extreme deep-focus photography by Gregg Toland and evocative music by Bernard Herrmann.

In the breakfast montage, as recalled by Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), the marriage of Charles Foster Kane (Welles) and Emily (Ruth Warrick) is distilled into a few brief exchanges spanning years.

In the clip below Kane demonstrates how much fun it is to run a newspaper. With Cotten, George Coulouris as Thatcher, and Everett Sloane as Bernstein.

Though hated by some in the Hollywood community -- perhaps tinged with jealousy over the rare final cut privilege Welles had gotten in his contract with RKO -- "Citizen Kane" did earn Welles and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and an enduring critical reputation for the greatest film ever made.

"The Magnificent Ambersons"

"In those days we had time for everything ..."

Welles' followup to "Kane" was a dramatization of Booth Tarkington's novel "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942), about the changing fortunes of a once-proud Midwestern family at the turn of the century. Wounded by the financial failure of his previous film, Welles lost final cut.

In the end, while Welles was in South America shooting footage for a documentary, "It's All True," RKO sought edits after some disastrous preview screenings. Welles cabled some suggested changes from Brazil, while the studio recut the film and reshot some scenes. Nearly an hour of footage was lost, and a happier ending substituted. Though praised by critics, "Ambersons" still lost money. With the original 132-minute version lost (the cut footage was melted down for its silver content), the current version stands today as a "what if" shadow of Welles' original intentions.

Bwlow: The film's nostalgic opening scene, narrated by Welles.

A more elegiac tone tells of the comeuppance that fate has brought to George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), as the world he knew draws to a close.

"Jane Eyre"

Welles' first film performance for another director was in Robert Stevenson's memorable 1943 adaptation of "Jane Eyre." For a story filmed nearly two dozen times, his Rochester stands as the most earthy and tortured by the secret he keeps about the attic at Thornfield Hall. It won Welles legions of new fans (it was the Leonardo DiCaprio/"Titanic" star turn of its day), and started a new career for Welles as a romantic leading man in Hollywood dramas.

In the scene below Rochester has a heart-to-heart with Jane (Joan Fontaine) about his impending marriage.

Among the 1940s and '50s films in which Welles would hire himself out as an actor were "Tomorrow Is Forever," "Black Magic," "Prince of Foxes," "Trent's Last Case," "Man in the Shadow," and "The Long Hot Summer."

"The Stranger"

After the commercial failure of "The Magnificent Ambersons," Welles turned to a more populist programmer for his next directing assignment, the 1946 thriller, "The Stranger." Welles played an escaped Nazi war criminal hiding out as a schoolteacher in a bucolic New England town. On his heels: a Nazi hunter (Edward G. Robinson). Though a program picture, "The Stranger" contains stylistic touches (including long takes, striking camera angles and moody sound effects) that were recognizably Wellesian.

In this scene, as students play games, Welles' Franz Kindler is reunited with another former Nazi, Meinike (Konstantin Shayne).

The picture turned out to be the most commercially successful of any directed by Welles.

"The Lady From Shanghai"

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in "The Lady From Shanghai." Columbia Pictures

Welles directed his wife Rita Hayworth in the 1947 murder mystery, "The Lady From Shanghai," the highlight of which was the climactic shootout in a funhouse hall of mirrors (below). Though a failure at the time (it also preceded the couple's divorce), the film's striking visual flair has since won over critics.

Years later, on "The Dick Cavett Show," Welles explained his antipathy for Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn, who had a hand in editing "Lady From Shanghai."

"The Third Man"

One of the most indelible memories of Welles on screen was his performance as Harry Lime, a black marketeer in post-war Vienna, in the 1949 thriller "The Third Man." Based on the Graham Greene novel and directed by Carol Reed, the film was the best in which Welles appeared but did not direct himself.

Which is not to say there weren't Wellesian touches, such as our first sighting of Lime in the shadows:

Later, Welles offers a telling history lesson to his old friend (played by Joseph Cotten).


Orson Welles in "Macbeth" (1948). Republic Pictures

The pagan Weird Sisters made a powerful impression on Welles' condensed version of Shakespeare's tragedy. Shot in three weeks on a low budget for Republic, adapting sets that had been built for the studio's stock in trade (westerns), this 1948 "Macbeth" was initially criticized for the cast's Scottish brogues. The film was pulled from release and shortened, and its dialogue re-recorded. (In 1980, UCLA restored the footage and the original soundtrack.)

The highly theatrical film has been praised for its barbaric power, which Welles honed by first presenting the action on stage, before putting his cast before the cameras. (His experience with the "Voodoo Macbeth" also added to the flavor of his film.) Cheap sets and dry ice notwithstanding, this telling of the Scottish Play succeeds through its powerful central figure (played by Welles), torn by hubris and ambition in the face of an unspeakable evil.


A triumph of aesthetic ingenuity over low budgets, Welles shot "Othello" (1952) in several countries with different directors of photography. The high contrast cinematography (he couldn't afford many artificial lights) and deep, stark shadows accentuate his stylized adaptation, which elevates Iago in the drama and also excludes the Moor from his society.

Costarring Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona and Michael MacLiammoir as Iago.

"The Fountain of Youth"

Two years after Orson Welles appeared on an episode of "I Love Lucy," Desilu Productions produced the pilot (written and directed by Welles) of a projected anthology series. The O. Henry-like script, based on a short story by John Collier, was not groundbreaking, but the presentation certainly was. "The Fountain of Youth," hosted and narrated by Welles, was shot in a highly theatrical, avant-garde manner, using rear projection, stills, artificial-looking sets and stylized acting that today look downright David Lynchian.

The pilot went unsold (reportedly Welles and CBS could not come to an agreement on producing a full series), but the film aired on NBC's "Colgate Theatre" on September 16, 1958, and would win the prestigious Peabody Award.

You can watch the opening of "The Fountain of Youth" by clicking on the video player below.

You can also watch the entire half-hour production by clicking here.

"Touch of Evil"

Universal had sought a four-picture deal with Welles, until they saw his cut of "Touch of Evil," about a murder in a Mexican border town. Then he was barred from the lot, his film re-edited and re-scored. "The picture was just too dark and black and strange for them," he said years later. "They particularly loathed the black comedy -- the kind people like now."

The clip below features the film's famous opening -- a long tracking shot in which we see a bomber place an explosive in a car, and follow the car's progress until it explodes.

Welles co-starred as a corrupt San Diego police captain who has to work with a Mexican policeman (Charlton Heston) to investigate the murder of a wealthy American. As the clip below shows, they are often at odds.

The studio dumped the picture into theatres, where it failed, although today it is generally heralded as one of Welles' greatest pictures.

After his traumatic experience -- his last working for a Hollywood studio -- Welles retreated to Europe, where he continued to make films, or try to.

In the 1990s, editor Walter Murch oversaw a new cut and sound design for "Touch of Evil" incorporating Welles' notes. Murch said he was surprised by the modernistic touches that Welles had tried to put into the film four decades earlier.


In Richard Fleischer's "Compulsion" (1959), based on the lurid Leopold and Loeb murder trial, Orson Welles played the defense attorney (fashioned after Clarence Darrow).

In the extended clip below, Jonathan Wilk (Welles) makes an impassioned plea against the death penalty for his clients (Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman).

Welles, Stockwell and Dillman shared the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

"The Trial"

Anthony Perkins in "The Trial." Astor Pictures

In Orson Welles' "The Trial" (1962), based on the Franz Kafka novel, Anthony Perkins starred as Josef K., a bureaucrat accused of an unspecified crime who becomes victimized by the system. Welles played The Advocate, who may be key to resolving K's torturous nightmare.

Welles recognized it as his most expressionist film, as befits the psychological torture exerted upon Kafka's protagonist. "I carried wide angles to the point of madness," he said in a 1978 interview.

"Chimes at Midnight"

The 1965 film "Chimes at Midnight" (a.k.a. "Falstaff") had its origins in Welles' 1939 stage adaptation of several of Shakespeare's histories, "Five Kings." In one of his most colorful performances, Welles embodies the boisterous figure of Sir John Falstaff, who bore witness to the rise and fall of kings.

In the clip below, Falstaff encounters his longtime friend Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) at his coronation. The newly-crowned King Henry V, however, rejects his past life and associates.

Though the film won two awards at Cannes, and Welles was nominated for a Best Actor BAFTA Award, it made little splash in theatres. Today, however, "Chimes at Midnight" is recognized as one of Welles' lasting achievements.

"Don Quixote"

Francisco Reiguera as Don Quixote. Kino

"Don Quixote" was a production to which Welles devoted years of his life, taking acting jobs to fund his passion project. He began shooting in the summer of 1957, improvising without a screenplay, and would summon his cast to return to shoot additional scenes whenever he had a little more cash in hand.

Even after his Quixote, Spanish actor Francisco Reiguera, died in 1969, Welles continued to shoot, but the work was never completed.

In 1992, the existing footage was pulled together into a vestige of Welles' intent. Visually striking, it still misses the satiric edge that Welles sought to impart on the present-day telling of Cervantes' tale.

Below: An excerpt from the archived footage.

Although Welles did manage to complete "The Immortal Story" (based on a short story by "Out of Africa" author Ken Blixen) for French television, that drama still has not had a U.S. DVD release. But his list of uncompleted films is longer: "The Deep" (based on the novel that would later be adapted for "Dead Calm"); a 1969 film of "The Merchant of Venice" (originally planned for airing on CBS), which is classified as lost after several reels and the soundtrack went missing in Rome; and "The Dreamers," also based on stories by Blixen, parts of which were shot between 1980 and 1982.

AFI Tribute

In 1975 the American Film Institute presented its third Lifetime Achievement Award to Welles. In the speech he gave at the tribute (which was broadcast on CBS), he spoke of the position of maverick director, who keeps one foot inside Hollywood's gates, the other resolutely outside.

"What we do come up with has no special right to call itself better. It's just different. No, if there's any excuse for us at all it's that we're simply following the old American tradition of the maverick, and we are a vanishing breed. This honor I can only accept in the name of all the mavericks -- and also as a tribute to the generosity of all the rest of you, to the givers, to the ones with fixed addresses.

"A maverick may go his own way but he doesn't think that it's the only way or ever claim that it's the best one (except maybe for himself). ... As a director, for instance, I pay myself out of my acting jobs. I use my own work to subsidize my work. In other words, I'm crazy. But not crazy enough to pretend to be free. But it's a fact that many of the films you've seen tonight could never have been made otherwise. Or if otherwise, well, they might have been better, but certainly they wouldn't have been mine."

"The Other Side of the Wind"

Among Welles' most notorious uncompleted films was "The Other Side of the Wind." Begun in 1970, the story concerns a famed Hollywood director (played by John Huston) who is surrounded by fans, acolytes and critics at his 70th birthday celebration. Shooting in friends' homes and backyards or rented houses over many years, the project took on a mythical status in Hollywood -- either as the last gasp of a director who just could not finish a movie, or a return to greatness as promised by "Citizen Kane."

Clips from the in-progress film were presented at the American Film Institute's 1975 tribute to Welles, with an eye toward appealing to investors who might pay to have the long-in-the-works project finished. In the scenes shown, Welles had given his extras 16mm and 8mm cameras to photograph the protagonist's interactions, subsequently creating a kaleidoscopic vision using different points of view (and varying film gauges). In addition to Huston as J.J. Hannaford, the clips feature Peter Jason as Marvin P. Fassbender; Peter Bogdanovich as Hannaford's protege Brooks Otterlake; and Susan Strasberg as a snooty film critic inspired by Pauline Kael (who had just published a New Yorker article questioning Welles' authorship of "Citizen Kane").

"This is a film that leads us into another direction of filmmaking," Bogdanovich told CBS News' David Morgan. "It's very daring, very unusual, and certainly had a very unusual birth.

"It's funny, it seems very modern to me. It seems like it was way ahead of its time. Even though the seventies was kind of a free-for-all in terms of filmmaking, nobody quite made a film like this."

Financial and legal problems thwarted Welles from wresting control from his French production company and Iranian interests (the Shah's brother was an investor), and the film was in limbo for years after Welles' death in 1985. Recent efforts to complete the film have come tantalizingly close to fruition.


In addition to acting and voiceover jobs (for examples, as narrator of the trailer for "Star Trek: The Motion Picture"), Welles was also a highly-practiced pitchman, for Eastern Airlines, Perrier, Jim Beam, Post's Shredded Wheat and Texaco. He was also the face and voice for ads touting Paul Masson wine, for which he earned half a million dollars a year, plus residuals, for commercials in which he declared, "We will sell no wine before its time."

The winery ultimately dropped Welles after he said in a television interview that he'd stopped drinking wine for health reasons - but as the outtakes from this commercial shoot show, Welles was definitely drinking something that day.

A hilarious audio of Welles recording spots for a British firm's frozen foods shows that the great director cannot help but complain about the ad copy that he is given to read:

"'We know a certain fjord in Norway near where the cod gather in great shoals. There, Yonster Stengelind ...' s***."

(Yes, it's NSFW.)

Frozen Peas Ad Recording Session

Welles in Popular Culture

After his passing, Welles was portrayed in dramatized accounts of his larger-than-life career, such as in Tim Robbins' "Cradle Will Rock" (1999), about the fabled stage production; "Fade to Black" (2006), where Welles is drawn into a web of intrigue in Italy; Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles" (2008); and the TV movie "Hemingway & Gellhorn" (2012).

Perhaps the most heartfelt was in Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" (1994), which features a chance meeting between the director of "Citizen Kane" (played by Vincent D'Onofrio) and Wood (Johnny Depp, in drag). Welles' inspiring message to the director of "Plan 9 From Outer Space"? "Visions are worth fighting for."

"F For Fake"

A fitting coda to a look at Orson Welles' career would be this excerpt from his 1973 film essay, "F For Fake," a quasi-documentary about art and authenticity. In this soliloquy he rhapsodizes about the beauty of Chartres, but also about the impermanence of art, and of the reputation of the artist.

And listen to that voice:

"And this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole Western world, and it's without a signature: Chartres. A celebration to God's glory and to the dignity of man. All that's left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked radish. There aren't any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.

"Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds; the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: We're going to die. 'Be of good heart,' cry the dead artists out of the living past.

"Our songs will all be silenced. But what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much."

Orson Welles

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane. RKO Pictures

For more information about Orson Welles centenary events and screenings:

The mesmerizing Orson Welles

By senior producer David Morgan

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