National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Elsie M. Warnecke
Born Kenosha, Wisconsin
For actor-director Orson Welles, the impulse to innovate was second nature. By 1937, his unorthodox staging of such classics as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar had established him as the theater’s "Wonder Boy." Welles proved equally inventive when he turned to directing, and in the late 1930s he raised radio drama to new levels of sophistication. His 1938 adaptation of H.G. Welles’s "The War of the Worlds" for the Mercury Theatre of the Air on CBS was so compelling that many panicked listeners believed aliens had actually landed in New Jersey. The most celebrated testament to his genius, however, was the landmark motion picture Citizen Kane (1941). In addition to producing and directing this unconventional film, the twenty-five-year-old Welles co-authored the script and played the title role. Citizen Kane was not a commercial success, but it influenced countless filmmakers thanks to the innovative cinematic techniques that Welles pioneered.