Orson Welles had worked in radio from pretty much the beginning of his New York acting career, thanks to his versatility (he could play virtually age or accent). But it was the notoriety of his stage productions, specifically his all-black, "voodoo" Macbeth and the controversy over Marc Blitzstein's opera The Cradle Will Rock, that raised his profile and got him better radio roles.
A very boyish Orson Welles early in his radio career:
In late 1937 Welles starred in a seven part
adaptation of Les Miserables:
As Welles' reputation as a stage auteur grew, he was able to leverage that for more creative control of his radio work:
Exuberant Orson directs:
CBS gave Welles and his Mercury Theatre their own show (unsponsored) in 1938, and Welles went from Bad Boy of Broadway to Enfant Terrible of The Air. He acted in and directed literary adaptations without major incident until the day before Halloween, when he produced the most infamous broadcast in history:
Everyone should listen to "The War Of The Worlds" at least once, to hear what all the fuss was about. It later inspired not one but two TV dramas. The first was done live on CBS Studio One in 1957 and features early appearances from James Coburn, Ed Asner, John Astin, Warren Beatty, and Warren Oates (the two Warrens play Princeton fraternity brothers). Welles himself does not appear as a character.
Almost two decades later Nicolas Meyer wrote a TV movie in which Welles is portrayed onscreen.
Here's a PBS documentary telling the story behind the broadcast.
The Panic Broadcast got Welles a sponsor (and eventually, a Hollywood contract).
Welles continued to do radio throughout his Hollywood career (indeed for most of the '40s radio, not film, was Welles' major source of income). In the early '40s he teamed up with an aspiring radio playwright, the wife of his composer, Bernard Herrmann:
Lucille Fletcher and Bernard Herrmann:
You may know "The Hitchhiker" from Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, though I think it works better on radio. "The Hitchhiker" was a great success, but it was another play of Fletcher's that would make her The Queen of Radio Suspense.
"Sorry Wrong Number" would become a sensation, the most celebrated radio drama in history after "The War Of The Worlds". Welles himself called it "The greatest radio play ever written", its series of telephone conversations perfectly suited to the medium. It would be revived for radio no less than seven times, always starring Agnes Moorhead.
Moorhead emotes for "Sorry Wrong Number":
Fletcher produced at least one other classic of radio suspense, however as it was never filmed it remains comparatively obscure. This has a much more baroque atmosphere than her rather more everyday previous plays:
Old time radio is a veritable ocean of great drama and comedy waiting to be heard. In blogs to come we'll continue to explore more of this vast art form.
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