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On The Air:

Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst, And The Battle Over A Mercury Theatre Radio Play



By Chris Oakley


Part 4




Summary: In the previous three chapters of this series we looked back at the circumstances that led to the famous Hearst vs. Welles court case regarding Orson Welles’ controversial radio play Citizen Kane; the course of events of the case itself; the effects of the case’s outcome on both Welles’ and William Randolph Hearst’s lives; Hearst’s final downfall; and the making of Welles’ breakthrough motion picture War Of The Worlds. In this installment, we’ll see the early days of Welles’ post-Worlds life and career.


For Orson Welles, winning the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars at the 1942 Academy Awards was not only a ratification of his status as a bona fide Hollywood A-lister but also a vindication of all the risks he had taken as Mercury Theatre boss since his first days working on the scripts for the radio broadcast of the first episode of Citizen Kane. The late William Randolph Hearst’s attempt to destroy Welles had backfired in the most ironic way possible-- it had made him into something close to a demigod.

On the heels of his Oscar triumph, the U.S. War Department tapped Welles to produce a series of short documentaries outlining the causes of the Second World War. Titled Why We Fight and narrated by Joseph Cotten, these documentaries were aimed at swaying public opinion in favor of the Roosevelt Administration’s wartime policies; they were also envisaged as a fundraising tool to gain financial aid for groups resisting Nazi occupation forces in Europe or Japanese oppression of conquered territories in Asia. The first film in the series, released just after the Battle of the Coral Sea, dealt at length with Japanese atrocities in China and Manchuria; Welles was said to have walked out of the screening room on the verge of tears when he was done screening the final cut.

For the next three years afterwards, Fight’s camera crews traveled the world to bring movie audiences a bird’s-eye view of the war; more than once Welles himself accompanied these crews on their assignments. In fact, a Fight cameraman was one of the first Allied correspondents to hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.1 From there, Fight recorded the Anglo-American advance through western Europe, the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, the linkup of American and Soviet troops on the Elbe, the Red Army’s triumphant entry into Berlin, and the German final surrender in May of 1945.

Fight came full circle in the summer of 1945 as the US armed forces launched their final assaults on the Japanese; the series’ closing edition, released in U.S. theaters in early September of that year, chronicled the struggle for Okinawa and the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In March of 1946 the Why We Fight production team reunited one last time to make a one-hour postscript film titled Appointment In Tokyo, a moment-by-moment summary of the surrender ceremonies at which Japan officially ended hostilities with the Allies in September of 1945.

In the summer of 1947 Welles returned to his first love, radio, with the creation of his mystery series The Third Man. Inspired by the real-life exploits of OSS agents in western Europe during the Second World War, Third Man chronicled the adventures of Harry Lime, a secret agent who battled saboteurs and assassins for the U.S. government and at the same time looked for clues to the fate of his old friend Holly  Martins, a writer who had mysteriously disappeared shortly before the war ended. For six years Third Man, its action propelled by a heavily zither-laden soundtrack, was a Wednesday night ritual for millions of radio listeners across America; during the third year of its run it would start to catch on with prime time viewers when Welles adapted the series for television. Third Man’s August 1953 series finale, in which Lime at last discovered the heartrending truth about Martins’ disappearance, was one of the most widely-listened to programs on the radio that year.


After Third Man ended its run, Welles threw himself into what would turn out to be the most acclaimed-- and controversial --movie project of his career, a production of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Othello. At a time when it was still common practice for white actors to play black parts in some films by disguising themselves with dark makeup, Welles took a major gamble by casting an African-American in the title role. It was a gamble that would pay off handsomely not only for Welles himself but also for the actor who he recruited to portray Othello: Sidney Poitier. Coming off a highly respectable film debut in the 1950 social drama No Way Out and a seven-year turn on the stage as a member of the American Negro Theater, Poitier was seen by Welles as a perfect choice to play the part of Othello.

But not everyone shared Welles’ enthusiasm for casting Poitier in the male lead. In the southern U.S., where Jim Crow still held sway over many aspects of life including entertainment, a number of movie theater owners threatened to boycott Othello upon its release; the Ku Klux Klan went one step further, declaring Welles a "race traitor" and vowing to drive him out of the motion picture business if he didn’t immediately change his mind and replace Poitier with a white actor. He was even subjected to death threats: in the spring of 1954, shortly before Welles left the U.S. for Italy to begin filming Othello in the countryside near Milan, the FBI arrested a Georgia man who had been sending menacing letters to Welles for three months.2 The last one of those letters chillingly promised the veteran director: "I’ll hunt you down and cut your (expletive)-loving throat."

Filming on Othello kept Welles abroad for most of the spring and summer of 1954. While shooting the movie’s climactic sequence, he came up with the preliminary concept for a psychological thriller inspired by his experiences with the death threats he’d received after naming Sidney Poitier his leading man for Othello. Tentatively titled Touch Of Evil, it would as he envisioned it be an exploration of the social and moral damage caused by racial prejudice. It was hardly the stuff of popcorn cinema, but then again Welles was used to taking risks by now.

Othello finished its production schedule in early August of 1954; after hosting a lavish wrap party for his cast and crew, Welles rushed back to the States for what promised to be the busiest three months he’d had since he made War Of The Worlds. Not only did he have a great deal of post-production work to do to get the final cut of Othello ready for the movie’s scheduled January 1955 release date, but he had also signed a deal with CBS to helm a televised adaptation of Citizen Kane to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the original radio play’s first broadcast. For the TV adaptation of Kane Welles would have as his chief collaborator a former paratrooper and Binghamton, New York native who would in later years establish a reputation as one of the medium’s greatest writers: Rodman Edward Serling.

Rod Serling was still a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday when he first teamed up with Welles to bring Citizen Kane to the tube, but he’d already drawn considerable critical acclaim for his contributions to drama anthology series like Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90. Welles couldn’t have asked for a more gifted partner to work with in his quest to bring Kane to life on television. In fact, much of the success of the TV version of Kane would be credited to Serling’s out-of-left-field and highly ingenious solution to the sixteen-year-long mystery of what Charles Foster Kane meant when he gasped "Rosebud" on his deathbed.

In the backstory Serling and Welles developed for the TV version of Kane about Kane’s childhood in Colorado, "Rosebud" was the name of Kane’s favorite sled as a boy; thus, his invocation of it in his last moments represented a wistful longing for simpler times and a hope of reuniting with his long-gone parents. It was a powerful concept, lent added punch by Welles’ decision to end the final scene of the teleplay with a tight-in shot of the eponymous sled being thrown by junkmen on a kindling pile to be burned with other unwanted objects from the Kane estate.

The Kane teleplay aired in November of 1954 to massive critical praise and some of the best ratings CBS had yet seen for a prime time show; a soundtrack album was released in the spring of 1955 and soon cracked the Billboard top ten record charts. The success of the CBS-TV version of Kane guaranteed that the already loud buzz over Othello was about to become deafening....


...and some of that buzz managed to penetrate all the way to the hallowed halls of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, where for the second time in his career Welles was in contention for a Best Director Oscar. There were even a few rumors Sidney Poitier might be up for a Best Actor nod(rumors which would turn out to be premature; Poitier didn’t get a Best Actor nomination until 1963, when he won the award for his role as construction worker Homer Smith in Lilies Of The Field).

When Othello had its official nationwide premiere on January 22nd, 1955 at Radio City Music Hall a detachment of mounted NYPD patrolmen was on hand to deter would-be rabble-rousers from starting trouble. It turned out to be an unnecessary precaution, however; a typically cold New York winter and throngs of Welles supporters marching in support of the great film auteur combined to minimize any impulses anyone may have had toward rowdyism. (Of course, the rumors that a certain well- known alleged Mafia boss would be in the audience that night may have also played a part.)

Shortly after Othello’s premiere, Welles had an impromptu reunion with his Kane TV collaborator Rod Serling. It happened in one of the passenger lounges at Idlewild Airport; Welles was preparing to leave New York for a promotional tour of the Midwest on Othello’s behalf, while Serling was just coming back to New York after a four-day stint on the West Coast working on rewrites of his next teleplay, a boxing drama called Requiem For A Heavyweight. As Welles waited for his plane to arrive, he listened to Serling pitch his latest story idea, a time travel-oriented script fittingly entitled "The Time Element". To say that Welles was intrigued by Serling’s concept, which centered around a Manhattan bartender mentally going back to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, would be an understatement to say the least....


...because two years to the day after that airport meeting, Welles was standing before CBS executives pitching an idea for a weekly drama anthology series based on stories like "The Time Element". Originally titled Colgate Mystery Theatre after the series’ anticipated principal sponsor, the show was re-dubbed The Twilight Zone at the suggestion of Rod Serling, who thought Colgate Mystery Theatre sounded too much like a crime drama.

The series’ episodes would each be a half-hour long, since both Welles and Serling felt that this was the ideal format for the kind of stories TZ would focus on, and would be based primarily on original scripts(although there were certain short stories that Welles hoped to adapt for television, like Richard Matheson’s "Third From The Sun"). They would touch on a host of themes relevant to the urban viewers who comprised the bulk of America’s TV audience in those days and explore said themes with a heady mix of down-to-earth realism and childlike imagination; thanks to Serling’s experiences as a Marine during the Second World War, the horrors of combat and the consequences of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man would figure heavily in TZ plotlines.

Shooting on the Twilight Zone series pilot began in late June of 1957 and would span more than three months; while movie commitments would prevent Welles from spending much time on the shoot in person, he and Serling would frequently confer with each other-- and with the CBS brass in New York --via phone calls and telegrams. "I must have spent more time at the telegraph desk than Samuel Morse." Welles would quip to a 60 Minutes interviewer twenty years later.

After an additional three weeks’ post-production editing, the TZ pilot was screen for CBS executives in early October of 1957. It was once again make-or-break time for one of the most influential producers and directors in the entertainment industry; how the CBS suits responded to the finished product of Welles’ and Serling’s labors would have lasting consequences for Welles’ career, and only time would tell if those consequences would be good or ill...


To Be Continued



[1] Two decades later Welles would visit Normandy in his own right as a co-producer on Darryl Zanuck’s epic war movie The Longest Day.

[2] Ironically, at the time of that arrest Welles himself was under secret FBI scrutiny as a result of his left-wing political views.


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