Orson Welles, King of the Cameo
Orson Welles wrote, directed, and starred in the film that many consider to be the greatest in existence (Citizen Kane). But rarely is he recognized for another distinction he richly deserves, one for which he beats out such notables as Danny Trejo, Stan Lee, and Neil Patrick Harris: he’s the king of the cameo.
Between 1949, when Welles embodied Harry Lime’s grinning solipsism for the final scenes of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, and 1985 when he died at the age of 70, his acting career was defined not by eponymous starring roles but by walk-on parts and voice-over narrations. He narrated something like 47 TV and film productions and appeared as himself approximately 24 times. Welles had the ability to steal a show — often behind a fake nose and seemingly with a different pants size and new hairline each time — in just a few powerful minutes.
Here are three times he did just that.
Welles is responsible one of cinema’s greatest mic-drops. In the 1956 version of Moby Dick (screen treatment by Ray Bradbury), Welles’s Father Mapple is a walk-on part in the most literal sense: he enters a church, delivers a heartfelt sermon to the whalers about to ship out to sea, and then holds for a fade-out — in one perfect take. There aren’t many actors outside of theater who can pull that off. In the clip above, he enters at 1:30 and climbs into a pulpit fashioned like the prow of a ship. There are just five cuts between 2:18 and 6:55, but if it’s true that Welles delivered not one but two perfect takes for director John Huston, it was probably a mistake to use any cuts. Welles’s biographer Charles Higham considers the scene “the greatest acting tour de force of his career.” The salary Welles earned for the scene went to fund his own stage adaptation of Melville’s novel.
Welles as Lew Lord in The Muppet Movie (1979)
Everybody loves the Muppets, but Welles really loved the Muppets. In 1970, just a year after Sesame Street hit the air, Welles called it “the greatest thing that ever happened to television.” A decade later his enthusiasm was undiminished; in 1979 he appeared at the climax of the first Muppet movie as Lew Lord, head of a fictional Hollywood studio, and also hosted Jim Henson and his felt-covered friends on the unaired pilot of his own talk program, The Orson Welles Show. In a classic example of a trailer giving too much away, you can see the highlights of Welles’ Muppet Movie cameo just by watching the original teaser: his slow spin in an executive chair and his raised eyebrow as Kermit delivers an impassioned plea. The casting of Welles in the part speaks to his ability to project gravitas even in the service of comedy.
Welles as Cardinal Wolsey in A Man for All Seasons (1966)
It’s not the case, as some simplistically assert, that the Academy ignored Welles; it gave him a screenwriting award for Citizen Kane and an honorary Oscar in 1970. But it is true that the only film in which he appeared that won Best Picture was one in which he had only a small part. In 1966’s A Man for All Seasons, about the 1535 treason trial of Saint Sir Thomas More, Welles plays the aged Cardinal Wolsey in a few early scenes. He subsumes himself in the role, seeming smaller and more stooped than usual. But, like Churchill, Wolsey’s unassuming stature only puts his lofty words and delivery into sharper relief. Since A Man for All Seasons is a hagiography of More, its star, Paul Scofield, is perpetually wreathed in an aura of veneration. When More’s foe King Henry VIII is on screen, character actor Robert Shaw is a force of nature. Since Wolsey was the king’s chief advisor and More’s superior and patron, his few scenes required an actor who could project even more dignity than Scofield, even more force of personality than Shaw. It is no wonder that Welles was one of just three actors to receive over £10,000 for the film ($28,000 at the 1966 conversion rate), a significant chunk of the $2 million budget.
Since Welles left the scene, there has probably not been another actor so well-suited to filling significant small roles and providing memorable cameos. The creator of the AFI’s top film and the star of the British Film Institute’s number one movie must also chart highly on a list of cinema’s greatest bit players.
Orson Welles’s best on-screen roles as determined by Flickchart users:
1. Citizen Kane (#25)
2. The Third Man (#36)
3. Touch of Evil (#55)
4. The Lady from Shanghai (#512)
5. F for Fake (#631)
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