The most well-known filmmaker to the public this side of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles was the classic example of the genius that burns bright early in life only to flicker and fade later. The prodigy son of an inventor and a musician, Welles was well-versed in literature at an early age -- particularly Shakespeare -- and, through the unusual circumstances of his life (both of his parents died by the time he was 12, leaving him with an inheritance and not many family obligations), he found himself free to indulge his numerous interests, which included the theater. He was educated in private schools and traveled the world, even wangling stage work with Dublin's Gate Players while still a teenager. He found it tougher to get onto the Broadway stage, and traveled the world some more before returning to get a job with Katharine Cornell, with help from such notables as Alexander Woollcott and Thornton Wilder. He later became associated with John Houseman, and, together, the two of them set the New York theater afire during the 1930s with their work for the Federal Theatre Project, which led to the founding of the Mercury Theater.
The Mercury Players later graduated to radio, and their 1938 "War of the Worlds" broadcast made history when thousands of listeners mistakenly believed aliens had landed on Earth. In 1940, Hollywood beckoned, and Welles and company went west to RKO, where he began his short-lived reign over the film world. Working as director, producer, co-author, and star, he made Citizen Kane (1941), the most discussed -- if not the greatest -- American movie ever created. It made striking use of techniques that had been largely forgotten or overlooked by other American filmmakers, and Welles was greatly assisted on the movie by veteran cinematographer Gregg Toland. Kane, himself, attracted more attention than viewers, especially outside the major cities, and a boycott of advertising and coverage by the newspapers belonging to William Randolph Hearst -- who had served as a major model for the central figure of Charles Foster Kane -- ensured that it racked up a modest loss. Welles second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, ran into major budget and production problems, which brought down the studio management that had hired him. With the director overextending himself, the situation between Welles and RKO deteriorated. Faced with a major loss on a picture that was considered unreleasable, RKO gained control of the film and ordered it recut without Welles' consent or input, and the result is considered a flawed masterpiece. However, it was a loss for RKO, and soon after the Mercury Players were evicted from RKO, word quickly spread through the film community of Welles' difficulty in adhering to shooting schedules and budgets. His career never fully recovered, and, although he directed other films in Hollywood, including The Stranger (1946), Macbeth (1948), and Touch of Evil (1958), he was never again given full control over his movies.
European producers, however, were more forgiving, and with some effort and help from a few well-placed friends, Welles was able to make such pictures as Othello (1952), Chimes at Midnight (1967), and The Trial (1963). He also remained highly visible as a personality -- he discovered in the mid-'40s that, for 100,000 dollars a shot, he could make money as an actor to help finance his films and his fairly expensive lifestyle, which resulted in Welles' appearances in The Third Man (1949), The Roots of Heaven (1958), and Catch-22 (1970), among other pictures. He also made television appearances, did voice-overs and recordings, and occasional commercials until his death in 1985. Despite his lack of commercial success, Welles remains one of the most well-known, discussed, and important directors in the history of motion pictures.