Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He had a bizarre childhood: His parents applied enormous pressure on his older brother Dickie to become a great and famous person. Dickie Welles was terribly unsuited to this role and became a homeless drunk. Orson inherited the role of wonder boy and seemed magically adept at it, though his personal relationships surely suffered because of it.
He made his stage debut in Dublin, Ireland, in 1931 and by 1934 was a radio producer in the United States. Welles drew a great deal of attention in 1937 with a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar set in Fascist Italy. Shortly after, he and John Houseman founded the Mercury Theatre company.
In the summer of 1938, Welles and Mercury Theatre began weekly broadcasts of short radio plays based on classic or popular literary works. Their October 30 broadcast of that year was an adaptation of the War of the Worlds. This brought Welles his first public notoriety on a national level -- the program created panic among listeners who found it completely convincing. Welles's adaptation of H. G. Wells's classic novel simulated a news broadcast, cutting into a routine dance music program, describing the landing of Martian spacecraft in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. The broadcast was realistic enough to frighten many in the audience into believing that an actual Martian invasion was in progress. Recordings of the broadcast are still available (see old-time radio).
An arrogant man who showed little tact in dealing with film studios, Welles had trouble financing his films after Citizen Kane (1941). The gossip writer Louella Parsons convinced the yellow-press magnate, William Randolph Hearst, that he was the basis for Kane, a figure pilloried in scorn and derision. Hearst and his newspapers and other media outlets boycotted the film. Since the film clearly was based on Hearst, any dismay on Welles's part would have been disingenuous.
Studios often wrested control of the films from him, making drastic cuts or changing endings: Welles's original ending to The Magnificent Ambersons has been lost, apparently permanently. After three more attempts to work within the Hollywood system (listed below), Welles left Hollywood in 1948. Barring a brief return in 1958 to make Touch of Evil (which was also butchered by the studio but has since been restored to something like what Welles intended), the rest of Welles' directorial career was spent in Europe, his films self-financed with acting fees or, later, funded by Auteurist sympathetic producers. On almost all of these projects he retained final cut, but the independence thus gained also resulted in drastically reduced budgets and technical facilities. Despite this setback, some of Welles' best work was produced during this period.
Welles starred in many of his films and wrote the scripts, often using the talents of the Mercury Theatre. These included several stories from English literature, such as Macbeth (1948), Jane Eyre (which he produced uncredited, and in which he appeared opposite Joan Fontaine), and Chimes at Midnight (1965), an underrated classic in which Welles played Falstaff.
During his career he won one Oscar and was nominated for a further four. One of his last notable film appearances was as Cardinal Wolsey in A Man for All Seasons(1966). In 1971 the Academy gave him an Honorary award "For superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures".
Always a large figure of a man, he achieved full-blown obesity in his later years. He capitalized on his image in various advertising campaigns hawking certain brands of wines, hot dogs, and correspondence courses.
He was an aficionado of stage magic and often appeared at Hollywood's Magic Castle. He died of a heart attack in Hollywood, California (U.S.A.).
His works as a director include the following films (Welles also starred in many of them):
- Citizen Kane - won Oscar for Best Writing, Original Screenplay; nominated for best actor, best picture and best director.
- The Lady from Shanghai
- The Magnificent Ambersons - nominated for Oscar for best picture
- Othello -- winner of the Palme d'Or, 1952 Cannes Film Festival
- The Stranger
- Touch of Evil
- The Trial
- The Black Rose (1950)
- Casino Royale (1967)
- Catch-22 (1970)
- A Man for All Seasons (1966)
- Moby Dick (1956)
- The Muppet Movie
- Napoleon (1955)
- Paris brûle-t-il (1966)
- Prince of Foxes (1949)
- The Third Man (1949)
- Transformers: The Movie (voice)
- Trent's Last Case (1952)
- Waterloo (1970)
- Mercury Theatre on the Air website provides MP3 and Real Audio files of Welles' radio dramas.