Part Three: 1949
1959, Hollywood Studios
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 me."
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 God."