Photo Credit: Getty Images
George Orson Welles (//; May 6, 1915 – October 10, 1985) was an American actor, director, writer, and producer who worked in theatre, radio, and film. He is remembered for his innovative work in all three: in theatre, most notably Caesar (1937), a Broadway adaptation of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar; in radio, the legendary 1938 broadcast "The War of the Worlds"; and in film, Citizen Kane (1941), consistently ranked as one of the greatest films ever made.
In his 20s, Welles directed a number of high-profile stage productions for the Federal Theatre Project, including an adaptation of Macbeth with an entirely African American cast, and the political musical The Cradle Will Rock. In 1937 he and John Houseman founded the Mercury Theatre, an independent repertory theatre company that presented a series of productions on Broadway through 1941. Welles found national and international fame as the director and narrator of a 1938 radio adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds performed for his radio anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It reportedly caused widespread panic when listeners thought that an invasion by extraterrestrial beings was actually occurring. Although some contemporary sources claim these reports of panic were mostly false and overstated, they rocketed Welles to notoriety.
His first film was Citizen Kane (1941), which he co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in as Charles Foster Kane. Welles was an outsider to the studio system and directed only 13 full-length films in his career. He struggled for creative control on his projects early on with the major film studios and later in life with a variety of independent financiers, and his films were either heavily edited or remained unreleased. His distinctive directorial style featured layered and nonlinear narrative forms, uses of lighting such as chiaroscuro, unusual camera angles, sound techniques borrowed from radio, deep focus shots, and long takes. He has been praised as "the ultimate auteur".
Welles followed up Citizen Kane with 12 other feature films, the most acclaimed of which include The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Touch of Evil (1958), and Chimes at Midnight (1966). Other works of his, such as The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and F for Fake (1973), are also well-regarded.
In 2002, Welles was voted the greatest film director of all time in two British Film Institute polls among directors and critics. Known for his baritone voice, Welles was an actor in radio and film, a Shakespearean stage actor, and a magician noted for presenting troop variety shows in the war years.
Last Updated: July 18, 2017