The One and Only Orson Welles

American Cinematographer, April 1975 | Go to article overview

The One and Only Orson Welles


Like a gypsy restlessly wandering the earth, this rare artist moves in his own magnetic field of creative energy, and where he has been things are never quite the same again

Except for a few rare and unexpected visits to New York and Hollywood, he has been catapulting around the rest of the world like a huge grey-black cloud of inspiration and energy buffeted from one place to another by the errant winds of artistic opportunity and demand. The rumors, the gossip, the facts and the fables drift back from unlikely areas, engulfing his Falstaffian figure in the mists of mystery while he plies his trade as one of the most innovative, most exciting and most controversial filmmakers of the 20th century.

Wherever Orson Welles goes, whatever he does, he inevitably creates interest and excitement.

And now, for a rare moment, Hollywood has brought him back to the scene where his remarkable cinema career began in 1940 with what many consider the motion picture screen's greatest achievement, "CITIZEN KANE", this time to appear before a star-studded audience of film and television hierarchy to accept the Third Annual Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, a distinguished honor previously bestowed on the late John Ford and James Cagney.

The annual award established by the AFI Board of Trustees pays tribute to "one whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers, and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time ..."

For such a role, Orson Welles is perfect casting.

George Orson Welles, the second son of Richard Head Welles and the former Beatrice Ives, was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on May 6, 1915. His father was a world-traveler, a bon vivant, a manufacturer and inventor of such products as a newfangled plow, an automatic dishwasher, and a collapsible picnic kit that was the forerunner of the Army mess kit. His mother was a concert pianist, a suffragette and a crack rifle-shot. It has been said that his father originated the name, Orson, over a round of drinks in Rio de Janeiro.

His parents separated when Orson was six and he traveled with his mother for two more years prior to her death. When his dad died seven years later, Dr. Maurice Bernstein became his guardian.

It is doubtful that there was ever another childhood such as the one Orson experienced. At the age of two he was able to read fluently. At seven he could recite every speech in "King Lear". When he reached the fourth grade he had progressed smoothly from child prodigy to boy wonder. At the age of ten he was an actor, producer, painter, magician and dramatist. He had visited most of the corners of the globe and had expressed his preference for Berlin, Chicago, Budapest and Peking. At the age of eleven he made a solo walking tour of Europe.

After brief early schooling in Madison, Wis., Orson was enrolled at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Ill., where he managed to complete eight years of academic work during five years of study. Through his talented mother he had met Ravel and Stravinsky; through his father, an entourage of actors, magicians and circus performers. He had studied painting with the noted Russian artist, Boris Anisfield. Also, through his parents, Orson had developed a keen sense of original creation and a complete disregard of the established order of things, a trait that has always spotlighted his theatrical career. At Todd School he staged his first production of "Julius Caesar" and played two of the roles. Later, at 17, he was to collaborate with his Todd headmaster, Roger Hill, in writing a book on Shakespeare which sold over 100,000 copies.

But his earliest interests had been art and in 1930, at the age of 15, he began a walking-and-painting trek through Ireland, eventually arriving in Dublin in a donkey cart which he parked long enough to watch a performance at the Gate Theatre. …

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