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Article

Orson Welles: The genius nobody wanted

The work of Hollywood’s outsider stands the test of time

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At the time of his death from heart failure on Oct. 10, 1985, Orson Welles was probably better known as the gargantuan spokesman in Paul Masson wine commercials than as the creator of one of America’s seminal films, 1941’s Citizen Kane. Today, though, Welles’ legacy in film, theater, and radio is receiving the acclaim it deserves.

This month, It’s All True, a ”lost” 1942 documentary he shot in Brazil and Mexico—the footage was seized and the project abandoned when RKO Studios changed management—will have its U.S. debut. In addition, many of his Mercury Theater radio plays are now available on cassette and laserdisc (The Theater of the Imagination: Radio Stories by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater).

The attention would have amused Welles. When in 1938, at age 23, he scared the hell out of the country with his War of the Worlds radio broadcasts already famous. Three weeks earlier, Time’s cover had hailed him as a ”Wonder Boy” for his adventurous Mercury Theater productions on Broadway. Only four years later, however, he was downgraded to has-been: The financial failures of Kane and 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons saddled him with a reputation as an irresponsible rogue.

Scorned by Hollywood, Welles still managed to amass a remarkable body of work. He earned enough to write, direct, and star in his own projects by accepting roles in others’ films (such as Harry Lime in The Third Man). Kane made millions when rereleased on its 50th anniversary in 1991. And last year, his 1952 Othello was rereleased to raves. His other films, including Touch of Evil (1958) and The Lady From Shanghai (1948), costarring his then wife Rita Hayworth, keep growing in stature.

Sadly, in spite of a 1975 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, Welles remained revered only as a past master. Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, and Clint Eastwood turned down a chance to be directed by Welles in his 1981-82 script, The Big Brass Ring, which was never made. And though Steven Spielberg paid $60,500 for a Rosebud sled from Kane, he reportedly denied his idol financial support for a project.

Welles often felt anguished regret over his rejection by Hollywood but kept it in humorous perspective. As he once quipped, ”I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since.”