On October 30, 1938, a twenty-three-year-old actor convinced thousands of otherwise-rational Americans that the end of the world as they knew it was approaching. An apparent news report, narrated with convincing gravitas by a young man with a booming baritone voice, said that aliens from Mars were annihilating United States cities with their tripedal war machines. Some locked themselves in cellars to wait out the inevitable, and at least one New Jersey water tower was, according to a contemporary edition of the New York Daily News, shot at by locals mistaking it for a Martian. The actor was Orson Welles, the fateful broadcast was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and it was all a portent of the shape of things to come. Over the next fifty-odd years, Welles would become an indelible presence in Hollywood and shape the face of film by sheer force of personality. Though movie buffs both casual and serious know him for the many classic films – Citizen Kane, The Third Man, and The Stranger, among others – he directed and starred in, his influence is felt on any actor or director who considers him or herself a “serious artist.” It was Welles who first lifted the movies to the level of high art, and who, thanks to his financial ambition, laid the groundwork for the modern concept of the blockbuster.
Part of Welles’s mythic stature was the consistency of his image. From the beginning to the end of his career, he was always considered to be a vastly talented but hard-to-work-with jack of all trades. Whereas some stars undergo a metamorphosis of sorts as they grow older – witness actor/director Ron Howard, who was once considered to be an adorable but nevertheless annoying child star and is now a respected auteur – Welles, at his core, never really changed. He was as seemingly eternal during his lifetime as he is now. According to film scholar Dr. James Naremore, people in the film industry and in the public were willing to “put up with” Welles’s demanding nature simply because of the weight of his talent: “He made some of the greatest films of all time, and that became all that mattered, despite all the other things about him and his personality.”
Welles’s charisma was half-artifice and half-natural. “He was always posing. I remember one time he left a $100 bill for a Coca-Cola. I tell you, I was almost to the point to tears. How could a person be so vainglorious?” Welles’s Citizen Kane set designer Sam Leve said on an interview on YouTube. The posing worked almost every time. Leve remembered the incident with the tip sixty-odd years after it occurred, and this wasn’t the only stunt Welles is well-remembered for pulling. Part of his fame lies in the pieces of acting lore about him that sound like urban legends but are all too true: The fact that he hired actual voodoo priests to play the Weird Sisters in his 1936 stage production of Macbeth with an all-black cast, or that he played Sir John Falstaff at a time in his life when he was so fat he had to go on a diet to portray Shakespeare’s famously portly rogue. But beyond the apparent vainglory, Welles was also impossible to ignore physically. He stood six-foot-one and as he aged he steadily gained weight until he weighed 250 pounds or more. Even in his first medium of choice, radio, where physical features can’t be communicated to the audience, his powerful and distinctive voice made him instantly recognizable to listeners. The panic his The War of the Worlds broadcast caused was proof of his charisma – it was stated outright that the program was fiction at the beginning of the broadcast, and the events in it didn’t unfold in real time, yet the sheer authority he projected was enough to convince the audience it was all real.
It wasn’t long before Welles came to personify epic bombast in the public eye. In Peter Bogdanovich’s book of interviews with him, Welles claims that he and his Worlds briefly caused people to disbelieve that Pearl Harbor had been attacked because he was the first radio broadcaster to announce the news and did so in the middle of a “patriotic broadcast.” “Now, doesn’t that sound like me trying to do that again?” he imagined people thinking.
“He was a Shakespearean by training and by his own conceit, and he brought the blustering, British style of Shakespearean acting to the American public at large,” film historian Joseph McBride said in a phone interview. According to McBride, Welles “basked in the limelight, but at the same time felt he had to earn his place there. It wouldn’t suit his pride to be famous simply for doing a few things that were considered great early in his career, he had to keep feeding his ego and wound up becoming more famous for it.”
Not everything Welles produced was critically hailed or became a classic, however. He loved money just as much as he did fame. He believed himself to be a great artist, but was unconcerned with the idea of “compromising his artistic integrity” in pursuit of profit. “At times it seemed he would take any role if it came with a paycheck,” McBride said. Welles’s “selling out” made him a ripe target for that sure vector of fame: parody. Among other quick-and-dirty roles taken for pure profit, Welles made commercials for frozen peas and wine, and the outtakes from these commercials have become the stuff of legend thanks to Welles’s bad temper and sarcastic demeanor. Comedic works such as the television shows The Critic (in which an ersatz Welles shills Rosebud Frozen Peas and Blotto Brothers Wine) and Futurama have spoofed him for his advertising-world infamy years after his death. He later endured starring roles in two films based on 1980s children’s television series (The Muppet Movie and Transformers: the Movie), whose source material he said he despised. Ironically, his performances helped these to become cult classics and introduced his acting to a whole generation of Americans while they were too young to care about his “serious” work.
Perhaps Welles’s Transformers role, which was also his last, can serve as an apt metaphor for his career. He portrayed the voice of Unicron, the villain of the piece, a planet-sized robotic deity who sought to devour the universe. Welles himself sometimes seemed like he wanted to consume the universe of film, radio, and theater, and make it a part of him. His pride seeped its way into everything he touched, and he had intellectual tendrils running all throughout Hollywood. Unicron’s last words, and hence the last words that Welles ever spoke on film, are “My destiny… you cannot destroy my destiny!” A fitting end for someone who always believed he was fated for greatness, and melodramatic to the last.