My life with Orson Welles

Richard Linklater's latest film is a loving tribute to the great Citizen Kane director. Geoffrey Macnab reports on an enduring influence, and five film insiders share their memories of the man
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is almost a quarter of a century since Orson Welles died in late 1985, but the small matter of dying hasn't really curbed his career. Since then, Welles manifestations have been as plentiful as ever. Fresh controversies emerged about his work; new versions of some of his movies have been released; he has been the subject of several biographies; and the quest to complete his film The Other Side Of The Wind has continued.

The fascination with Welles as magician, raconteur, outrageous ham and mountebank remains undiminished. Some formidable actors have played the great man on screen in recent years. In 2006, Danny Huston – son of Welles' friend John Huston – took on the role in Oliver Parker's Fade To Black (2006). Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen was recruited by Tim Robbins to play Welles in Cradle Will Rock (1999). Liev Schreiber portrayed him in Benjamin Ross's television movie RKO 281 (1999) about Welles' battles with the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell) in the wake of Citizen Kane (1941).

Now Welles is on screen again. In Richard Linklater's new film he is played brilliantly by the young British actor, Christian McKay. Me and Orson Welles is about a teenage theatre enthusiast Richard Samuels (Zac Effron) who blags his way into a small role in Welles' celebrated production of Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre in 1937. Although Welles is only a few years older than his young admirer, he already seems a wildly exotic and outlandish personality. McKay's performance captures Welles' pomposity, his absurd vanity, his ruthlessness, his mercurial quality and his brilliance.

Norman Lloyd, actor-producer

Lloyd played Cinna the poet in Orson Welles' legendary modern-dress production of 'Julius Caesar' at the Mercury Theatre in 1937, the production that forms the backdrop to the new film, 'Me and Orson Welles'

"The rehearsal period for Julius Caesar was utter madness. Orson was so absorbed with lights and so forth that at the first preview, I said I wasn't going on because I hadn't rehearsed. So I wasn't in the first preview. It was such a disaster that we couldn't even get one curtain call. The show was postponed for five days while Orson really got down to work. Usually his rehearsals were rather informal, easy going and full of laughter. Then, when it came time for the dress rehearsal, Orson became totally impossible. Then he was absorbed in the lights, the sets and the physical aspects of the production while the actors sat around till 2am or 3am.

I was about the same age as Orson. I was 22. Was I exasperated by him? Yes, because we suffered terrible deprivations in these terrible rehearsals when he did the lighting and we sat there without food. (Orson was having food secretly brought to him. We found that out later.)

In the rehearsals for the scene where Brutus (played by Welles) stabs Caesar (Joe Holland), all the actors had real daggers. Orson would slide the dagger between Joe's overcoat and his body. At a dress rehearsal, Orson dropped the dagger and it stuck in the ground and shook. My God, what an effect! Orson, seeing that, decreed that all the other actors would use rubber daggers from there on. Only he would use the real dagger. One night, he cut through the coat and cut Joe's artery. He lay on the stage bleeding through the whole scene. He bled and bled. They got him to the hospital where he stayedfor a couple of months. He just about made it.

The way the play was conceived by Welles, with the costumes of the Italian fascists and Marc Blitzstein taking the Italian fascist anthem and arranging it for the show, was as if you had written a political melodrama the night before. There was nothing so immediate as this play. It was as if Shakespeare handed in the script the night before."

William Friedkin, director

"I saw Citizen Kane when I started working as a floor manager at a television station in Chicago. Before then, I saw movies just as entertainment. I would go to movies on a Saturday afternoon like other kids of my age. One day, somebody suggested I saw Citizen Kane. I'd heard that this was really a great movie so one Saturday afternoon I found myself with nothing to do and I went to the 12pm screening. I left the theatre at midnight. I just saw it straight through about seven or eight times. I was just flabbergasted. All at once, I realised that cinema could produce a work of art and that one intelligence could inform a film as one intelligence informs a novel or a painting."

Harry Kümel, director

Kümel directed Welles in 'Malpertuis' (1971)

"All the actors were in awe at the idea of having Orson Welles on set. When he arrived in Bruges at the hotel, I knew immediately what I was in for. He unpacked his greasepaint and putty to make up his nose. The man wanted to disguise himself. All the actors – Michel Bouquet in particular – were keen to work with the great genius Welles, but after half an hour with him, Michel hated him. He couldn't mention his name. Welles had laughed in one of his scenes with Michel. After the 17th take, when he started to laugh, Michel was seething. He knew his scene was being destroyed.

Welles had torn the screenplay to pieces and on the back had written his lines because he couldn't remember them. Every time he stepped out of the bed, all these little pieces of paper floated around like butterflies.

It was truly Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Off the set, Orson was an angel – the nicest raconteur, a wonderful and pleasant man. For all his drunkenness and mercenary aspect, he still had a very keen mind where film was concerned."

Joseph McBride, actor

McBride acted in 'The Other Side of the Wind' and has authored several books, among them 'What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: a Portrait of an Independent Career'

"I met Welles in 1970. I was 23 years old and living in Wisconsin. I was writing a book about him. When I went to Hollywood in 1970, Welles was pretty much in eclipse in America. I called him from Schwab's drugstore. Welles immediately said, "we're about to start shooting a film. Would you like to be in it?" I was stunned. I had never been in a film. The whole idea of acting in an Orson Welles film was astonishing.

In The Other Side Of The Wind I was playing a young intellectual film critic who carried around a big tape recorder and tried to interview the John Huston character. The nature of this film was that Welles wanted the actors to write their own dialogue. This was a whole new experience for me.

A year later, when we were shooting in 1971, he started bullying me. He'd order me around rather brusquely. That was how he was for the next couple of years. I wasn't thrilled, but I was completely co-operative. Who was I to challenge Welles? He paid me two boxes of cigars.

Welles used to screen the rushes at Peter Bogdanovich's house. A crew member told me he had said: "Joe looks good up there on the screen, but he always looks good on screen." That was completely transforming, because Orson had never given me that kind of compliment. After hearing that, I suddenly relaxed. All that tension I had felt about displeasing him because I was an amateur and him being a bully all evaporated. For the next three years, I had a wonderful time!

I've done three books on Welles now. I've spent my life writing about him. I hope I won't do another book about him but I am sure I will. He is one of the few filmmakers you can keep studying your whole life and you keep discovering new facets of his career and life."

Leslie Megahey, director-producer

Megahey interviewed Welles for 'Arena: The Orson Welles Story' (1982)

"I went along determined to get his entire life on film. The whole arrangement was rather informal. At the beginning of the programme, I asked him three questions. One was about something he had said to Huw Weldon about his approach to every film being like walking along a precipice. The first three questions seemed to convince him that I was alright. We got there at 8am and filmed to almost 8pm. Then, he went home to watch the Oscar ceremony on television. He had talked all day, non-stop. We rang him the next day to thank him and he said: "You bastards, I lost my voice!"

The day of making the documentary was the most unforgettable day I had in the business. The raison d'etre was to give people a taste of what it was like to be in his presence. When you are actually sitting opposite Orson Welles for virtually a whole day, it's just the most extraordinary experience. When he talked about Falstaff, it was almost as if he turned into Falstaff. When he talked about Kane, it was almost as if he grew younger and became the young Kane again."

'Me and Orson Welles' is released later in the year. 'Malpertuis' is available on DVD in a special edition made by the Royal Belgian Film Archive