Orson Welles

Orson Welles, 1915–85, American actor, director, and producer, b. Kenosha, Wis. From childhood he evinced a precocious talent and lofty sense of self-assurance in theatrical matters. He began acting in the theater during the early 1930s, and in 1937 directed several Federal Theatre productions and organized the Mercury Theatre company in New York. In 1938 a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, done in the style of a news broadcast, panicked the listening public and brought Welles national attention. He departed for Hollywood the following year. For RKO he cowrote, produced, directed, and starred in his first film, Citizen Kane (1941), considered by many to be the greatest film ever made. Welles brought technical brilliance, a precise sense of casting, and a complex narrative structure to bear on a teasingly ambiguous portrait of an American tycoon. He won an Academy Award for the screenplay, but never enjoyed such acclaim again.

After Citizen Kane Welles clashed constantly with studio chiefs and was never again able to exert such absolute artistic control or achieve such creative success. His other films include The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Othello (1952), Touch of Evil (1958; restored and reworked according to Welles's instructions, 1998), The Trial (1963), and Chimes at Midnight (1966). Welles's booming voice and air of authority made him a popular film actor and occasional off-screen narrator, appearing in films such as Jane Eyre (1943), The Third Man (1949), Catch-22 (1970), and Someone to Love (1987). Beginning in the 1970s, he also became a popular figure on television, in commercials and as a frequent guest and occasional host on talk shows.

See O. Welles et al., This Is Orson Welles (rev. ed., 1998); biographies by F. Brady (1989), C. Higham (1985), B. Leaming (1985), S. Callow (2 vol., 1996–), J. McBride (rev. ed. 1996), and D. Thomson (1996); studies of his films by C. Higham (1970), P. Cowie (1972), H. James (1991), A. Bazin (1992), and P. Conrad (2003); H. J. Mankiewicz and P. Kael, The Citizen Kane Book (1971); R. L. Carringer, The Making of Citizen Kane (1985); C. Heylin, Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios (2005); The Battle over Citizen Kane (documentary film, 1995).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Encounters with Filmmakers: Eight Career Studies
Jon Tuska.
Greenwood Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: "Orson Welles" begins on p. 189
You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film: History & Memory, 1927-1949
Andrew Sarris.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Orson Welles (1915-1985)" begins on p. 281
The Oxford History of World Cinema
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith.
Oxford University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: "Orson Welles (1915-1985)" begins on p. 454
A History of Narrative Film
David A. Cook.
W.W. Norton, 1996 (3rd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Orson Welles and the Modern Sound Film"
Radio Drama in Action: Twenty-Five Plays of a Changing World
Erik Barnouw.
Rinehart, 1945
Librarian’s tip: "Columbus Day" by Orson Welles begins on p. 1
Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique
Marilyn Fabe.
University of California Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Expressive Realism: Orson Welles's Citizen Kane"
The Indelible Signature of Orson Welles's Films
Heptonstall, Geoffrey.
Contemporary Review, Vol. 285, No. 1666, November 2004
The Political Performers: CBS Broadcasts in the Public Interest
Michael D. Murray.
Praeger Publishers, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Orson Welles's radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds begins on p. 14
After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life
Albert A. Harrison.
Plenum Trade, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Orson Welles's radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds begins on p. 231
Omens and Oracles: Collective Psychology in the Nuclear Age
Jerry Kroth.
Praeger Publishers, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Oracle of Orson Welles"
A History and Analysis of the Federal Communications Commission's Response to Radio Broadcast Hoaxes
Levine, Justin.
Federal Communications Law Journal, Vol. 52, No. 2, March 2000
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