Part Three: 1949
1959, Hollywood Studios
Orson Welles and Feet of Clay
About seven months later, someone at the agency telephoned and said that
Orson Welles wanted to see me about a pilot film for an anthology series he was going to
make for Desilu.
Orson Welles wanted to see me?
I raced down to what had been the old RKO studios on Gower. This Desilu
was one of three studio lots that had been acquired by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball from
the profits of I Love Lucy.
I entered Orson Welles presence. One didnt walk into his
office, one entered his presence.
He was just an inch shy of my six-feet-four and his weight was in the
neighborhood of 340 or so pounds. He had his suits made with straight up and down lines to
the jacket, sort of boxy, but they didnt really hide his girth. He was all charm.
Smiling me to a chair, shaking my hand like we were long lost brothers, telling me how
much hed enjoyed my work. I had finally met my hero.
Warning! If you have a hero in your life whom you idolize from afar and
you have an opportunity to meet him: WARNING! They may just have feet of clay. In this
case, it was a dichotomy. I would have given anything to work with him, and afterwards I
would have given anything to never work with him again.
The Fountain of Youth was from a short story that Welles adapted
for his first (and last) venture into television. He produced, directed, edited, and did
the on-screen and off-screen narration. He also dubbed some of the actors lines and
had a hand in the music.
Inventive is a word that doesnt come close to what this genius could
do. He used a technique Id never heard of, and one that I dont believe has
ever been used since. Rather than shooting scenes on Hollywood sets, he photographed still
pictures of the exteriors and interiors he needed. What he couldnt find for
interiors, he had built, photographed, then tore down.
To shoot a scene, there was a slide projector sixty feet or so away from
the camera that projected the still onto a huge opaque screen (which more than filled the
camera lens) in front of which we worked. A few pieces of furniture, or whatever were
required in the foreground to dress the set, completed the arrangement. Most scenes were
in either medium or close shots and, rather than cut from one scene to the other, Welles
had the actor stand in place while the opaque screen behind him dissolved to the new
scene. If the actor was going from an exterior to an interior, the lights on him would go
dark, leaving him in silhouette during the backscreen dissolve. As the background changed
to the interior, the lights came up on his face and he removed his hat and coat as the
camera pulled back revealing the new interior set.
Everything had to work with exactness, which was extremely time consuming.
Welles was doing a lot of the cutting in the camera. The effect was astounding, though
subtle, and Welles settled for nothing less than perfection. In his usual manner, money
meant nothing to him. Desi had given him a five day schedule to shoot the half-hour pilot.
Welles managed to bring it in in eight-and-a-half days. By the third day of shooting, a
somewhat hyper, and very nervous, Desi would pop onto the stage in a spiffy sport jacket
and black-and-white wing-tipped shoes, every two or three hours, smiling as broadly as he
could, and call out, "Hows it going, Orson?"
Welles, without looking up from whatever he was doing, would dismiss him
in an offhand way, "Fine, Desi, Ill see you later."
Orson had, among other objectionable habits, a maddening one of walking
away from you as you were in conversation with him. Hed talk to you over his
shoulder and you found yourself trying to keep up with his stride as you spoke. One day he
did it to me for the fourth or fifth time. I stopped, put two fingers in my mouth and let
out a whistle that would frighten a banshee. He stopped, turned to me and said,
"Something the matter?"
"Well, what is it? Spit it out."
"When were conversing, will you kindly not walk away from
Absently he said, "Was I doing that? Sorry" (He wasnt
sorry a bit.) He cleared his throat and said, "What is it you wanted?"
I stared at him. "Nothing," I said, turned and walked away. He
turned as well and was on his way.
My two co-stars were Joi Lansing, a woman who played dumb bleached
blondes, and was anything but dumb or blonde, and Dan Tobin, a fine character comedian.
Dan, the eldest of we three, passed away in 1982. Poor Joi, who was a true joy to work
with, died in her early thirties, cutting short a promising career.
There was a three-shot resembling the marriage ceremony in which Dan,
standing in the position of the preacher, makes us promise to keep a secret. We were set
in place and said our lines as the camera moved around us a full 360 degrees. Welles and
his cameraman walked around this triangle as we rehearsed, talking sotto voce. When
we got to the end of the scene hed say, "Good, run it again," and
wed run it again, and again. And again.
After half-an-hour of rehearsing and standing in one spot without moving,
Orson said to do it once more. "Orson," I said, "weve been standing
here for thirty minutes. Youve heard of tired?"
"Youre right," he said. He indicated three bent
canebacked chairs and asked for them to be brought into the set. My God, I
thought, the man has some humanity in him after all.
"Turn the chairs around," he directed, "now then, people,
rest your hands on the chair backs and lets do it one more time."
Alfred Hitchcock once protested, when told hed referred to actors as
cattle, "I never said actors were cattle. I said actors should be treated like
cattle." Thats about the way Welles treated his actors.
We finished, and the cameraman called for a break while he set the lights.
I was walking off the set past Orson who was observing the light stands being moved into
place. I threw at him, "You sonofabitch!" He looked at me for a moment threw his
head back and laughed. It was the funniest thing hed heard all day.
Not only did the pilot not sell, but nine other Desilu pilots didnt
sell, either. Desilu made a deal to run the ten unsold shows on television as an anthology
series. The Fountain Of Youth, shown just that once, won the coveted Peabody
Broadcast award as the best comedy of 1956.
It took me eight years to buy a 16 mm print of the show. Ive watched
it and shown it to friends over the years at least a dozen times (it now resides in the
UCLA Film Archives). My memories of Orson have softened with time, and working with his
unmatched talent was an experience worth being in show business. Herman Mankiewicz, who
wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane in collaboration with Welles, probably summed him up
as well as anybody. As Orson walked past the open door of Mankiewiczs office one
day, Herman turned to a friend and said, "Ah, there, but for the grace of God, goes