The Life of Orson Welles Part 1

Citizen Kane is widely viewed as one of the most popular and influential films of all time. Continuing to make “best of” lists today, the film inspired and will continue to inspire filmmakers all over the world. But what about the man behind such an infamous film? Let’s take a look at the beginning of Orson Welles life and career.


Photo: Indie Wire

Born George Orson Welles on May 6th, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. At a young age Welles parents separated after his father decided not to work anymore. His father suffered from an alcohol addiction and his mother passed away on May 10th, 1924. Orson’s mother was a musician, specifically a pianist, after her death he began to pursue a career in music.

For a while after Beatrice’s death, the Welles family traveled from place to place. With his fathers consuming alcoholism, Richard left work and decided to take Orson with him to Jamaica. After a short time in Jamaica the family returned home and began living in the Grand Detour Hotel in Illinois, which was owned by Orson’s father. Unfortunately, the hotel burned down forcing the family to move once again. At the age of 15, Orson’s father passed away from heart and kidney failure, he died on December 28th, 1930.

Once Orson graduated from high school, he received a scholarship to Harvard University. However, Orson turned down the scholarship and decided he’d rather travel the world. Orson headed off for Europe and began a career as an actor at the Gate Theater in Dublin. The story goes that Orson Welles was strolling along when he encountered Hilton Edwards, the theater manger, and told him that he was a famous Broadway Star. Edwards has stated that he never believed Welles, but was impressed by his passion for for the stage. Orson Welles made his debut appearance on October 13th, 1931 in the play Jew Suss by Ashley Duke.

Once Welles had returned to the United States his acting career skyrocketed. He starred in famous plays such as Romeo and Juliet. Eventually Orson Welles and John Houseman founded a theater company titled Mercury Theater. Welles became the executive producer and began working with actors such as Geraldine Fitzgerald, Martin Gabel, John Hoyt, and Vincent Price. The theater opened November 11th, 1937 with Orson’s modern adaptation of Julius Caesar titled, Caesar.

Continuing his work at the theater, Welles also began working in various positions at different radio studios. In 1937, Orson began working on the radio adaptation of Les Misérables which was a seven week series. This was his first writing and directing job in the radio business. His success with this project led CBS Radio to invite Welles to create a 13 week show. His show began on July 11th, 1938 and was titled First Person Singular. 

Many have heard the infamous tale of The War of the Worlds being read on the radio. Well this adaptation was read by none other than Orson Welles on October 30th, 1938. Panic spread among audience members as Welles read fictional news reports about an alien invasion. This reading put Orson’s career on the track to fame and he was soon sought out by Hollywood.

Upon signing a film contract with RKO Pictures, Orson began pitching movie proposals. The production company rejected his first two ideas, but fell in love with his third offer, Citizen Kane. Welles wrote, directed, and starred in the famous film. The film was eventually voted “Best Picture” in 1941 and won an Academy Award for “Best Original Screenplay.”

Under RKO Welles began working on his second film titled, The Magnificent Ambersons. This film was adapted from the novel with the same title by Booth Trakington. Orson’s success continued on and he filmed a number of films for RKO after the success of Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, in 1942 RKO Pictures came into new management. After multiple board resignations, RKO took over The Magnificent Ambersons and edited the film to be into what is considered a commercial format. In addition to the re-editing of Welles film, RKO halted production of Orson’s film titled It’s All True. Orson Welles was then fired from RKO.