You know Orson Welles was one of the most revered actors and directors of the 20th century, but how much do you know about his sketchy big break or his deft efforts to make rabbits disappear? Let’s take a look at five surprising things about Welles.
1. He Knew How to Fib
Welles got his first acting gig before he turned 10; he received $25 a day to dress up as Peter Rabbit and stand in the window at Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store. His real breakthrough came when he was traveling through Europe when he was 16. While in Dublin, Welles showed up at the Gate Theatre one night and proudly proclaimed that he was a big Theatre Guild star from New York.
Welles wasn’t a real star of the stage, but he was convincing enough as an actor to get the theater to fall for his lie. Thanks to his fabricated resume he landed a lead role right off the bat and spent the entire season acting in Dublin’s biggest theaters. By the time he left Ireland, he had real acting experience.
2. William Randolph Hearst Wasn’t a Fan
It’s no secret that Welles’ signature film, Citizen Kane, was loosely based on newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, and the portrayal isn’t what anyone would call flattering.
Hearst allegedly trying to block showings of the film, and Hearst newspapers refused to advertise, review, or otherwise mention Citizen Kane.
The Hearts papers were under similar orders not to speak of Welles, but a 1941 New Yorker piece explained there were exceptions to that rule. “[T]he Hearst press is under strict orders to ignore Welles, except for a series of articles pointing out that he is a menace to American motherhood, freedom of speech and assembly, and the pursuit of happiness; otherwise, no mention of that hated name, even in listings of radio programs or dramatic news from New York.”
Hearst and company supposedly offered RKO Pictures, the studio that released the film, a payment that would cover all of the production costs plus a modest profit if the studio would cancel the release and destroy all prints of the film. RKO refused the deal, a decision that paved the way for Citizen Kane to be considered one of the best films of all time.
3. He Could Saw Movie Stars in Half
When his flat feet rendered him unfit for service in World War II, he decided to chip in by cheering the troops up. With magic. He traveled around the European front performing shows in which he sawed movie star Marlene Dietrich in half.
Welles later took his show home to Los Angeles, where his movie-star wife, Rita Hayworth, took Dietrich’s place in the box. He continued performing magic throughout his life, and some confidantes said that the actor actually loved magic more than acting or directing.
YouTube contains a treasure trove of clips involving Welles and magic, but it’s hard to beat this one:
4. He Could Really Do a Voiceover
When Welles’ weight ballooned as he aged, his rotund physique began to limit the sort of roles he could play. He still had his inimitable voice even after he let his waistline go, though, so Welles found all sorts of interesting voiceover parts. He provided the off-screen voice for Robin Masters, Tom Selleck’s never-seen host in the first few seasons of Magnum, P.I. He voiced Unicron in the 1986 animated film Transformers: The Movie, leading to this unbelievable quote:
“I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I’m destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen.”
Best of all, he narrated the trailer for Revenge of the Nerds. Have a listen to Charles Foster Kane’s voice describing the downfalls of being a nerd:
Welles also took a slew of commercial endorsement work. He once referred to these appearances as “the most innocent form of whoring I know,” and he took that philosophy to ads for everything from Shredded Wheat to Perrier to Jim Beam. Fans of Lost in Translation will particularly enjoy this whiskey commercial Welles shot for the Japanese market:
5. He Left Behind a Lot of Unfinished Projects
When Welles died in 1985, he had a slew of tantalizing unfinished projects still kicking around. He had periodically worked on a film adaptation of Don Quixote for 15 years during the 1950s and 60s, but funding shortfalls plagued the project. Although Welles apparently finished shooting the film, the final draft never saw the light of day.
That wasn’t Welles’ only big loss. In 1969 and 1970 he had directed a film version of The Merchant of Venice featuring himself as Shylock. Although that film was completed, someone stole several reels of the final negative from his office in Rome. The world never got to see this version of Welles as Shylock, but years later the actor, dressed in a trench coat and standing in an empty field, recorded a version of the money lender’s famous monologue.
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