Essay

My Adventures with Orson Welles

Author Steve Ecclesine reveals what it's like to serve a Hollywood legend.

My Adventures with Orson Welles

Steve Ecclesine, author of So You Wanna Be a Producer?, worked more than 30 years in Hollywood, producing more than 700 TV shows and 14 movies. He caught his lucky break in 1975 when he landed a job as a film editor for the legendary Orson Welles.

Below, Ecclesine shares what it was like to know Welles intimately, and to work with the genius writer, director, and actor’s often unpredictable moods.


Instead of one long, glorious climb to the top of the mountain, my career has taken a four-decade zigzag course through Hollywood, tacking into the wind; oftentimes, just waiting for the wind. Despite having produced more than 700 TV shows and 14 movies, the goals of winning a gold statue and creating financial stability have somehow eluded my grasp. However, I have experienced some amazing adventures in the showbiz sandbox and an early chapter involves my time with Orson Welles.

Sitting next to Orson for two and a half years as his film editor, provided a great opportunity to closely study him. Catching a ride on this fading comet that once upon a time blazed dramatically across the world stage certainly altered my life’s journey.

In the intervening years, Orson has proven to be a subject of great fascination for a myriad of biographers, primarily because he produced, directed, co-wrote, and starred in Citizen Kane at the tender age of 25. Most of Orson’s biographers never met him, never saw him skinny-dipping, never heard him describe ordinary events with life or death hyperbole like they were pronouncements from Mt. Olympus, never chauffeured his 400-pound bulk around in an old convertible listing badly to port, never said something funny that cracked him up with his sidesplitting laugh, never taught him something useful like how to edit videotape, or had a chance to direct him in a couple of TV specials…but I did.

During our time together, I learned to love Orson, to loathe him, and I came to admire and respect him, and, in hindsight, I grew to really appreciate his struggle to remain relevant in the fast-paced, always-changing world of show business.

MY LUCKY BREAK

When I began working with Orson in 1975, it seemed as if he was afraid to finish anything because of what the critics said about most of his later work: “It’s good, but not as good as…” He proclaimed that every word of negative criticism felt like a dagger in the back.

After falling off the proverbial turnip truck into Hollywood in 1973, clutching my BA in Mass Communications from Emerson College like it was a magic talisman, the only job available, starting at the back of the pack, was as a low-paying assistant editor ($40 / week) on a couple of Roger and Gene Corman “kill whitey” movies. I helped edit two lousy exploitation movies and became disillusioned with the huge expenditure of money and manpower required to make absolute crap palatable to the masses. Not about to tell my parents what their hard-earned investment in my education had earned me, I retired from showbiz for the first time.

Lured in by those ads in the trade publications about earning big money in your spare time, in order to support my little family, the wee hours of the morning found me selling Bic pens, pencils, Xerox toner, etc., over the phone—primarily to nuns on the East Coast. This was about as far away as possible from the David Lean career I was hoping to have. In hindsight, being a phone salesman turned out to be a great experience because a) I was able to pay the bills, b) it connected my tongue with my brain and taught me how to sell myself first, and c) it made me realize that people will buy almost anything if you tell them a good enough story.

A year and a half later, one of my Emerson College classmates, Howard Grossman, called out of the blue asking if I would be interested in being Orson Welles’s film editor, being on call seven days a week making $200 / week. It was like being kicked in the head and waking up to discover that I had become this great telephone salesman, a career never envisioned for myself. It meant taking a 60 percent pay cut and without consulting the missus…of course, I said yes.

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Howard had migrated to Hollywood about the same time I arrived in town and had gotten himself a job as Peter Bogdanovich’s principal water boy. Peter was courting Orson to move into his house in Bel Air, which he eventually did. In the meantime, Orson was chomping through editors and had a fast-approaching deadline to edit a promo together for his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award scheduled the following week on network TV. The assignment was to boil down his career into a few precious moments, thus reminding everyone why he was receiving this most prestigious award. Orson used the opportunity to promote his current film, The Other Side of the Wind, and chide Hollywood for ignoring his genius.

When I first met the 60-year-old aging wunderkind, he had returned to baby mogul Hollywood for the first time in many decades, hoping to reignite his faltering career with the latest generation of decision makers who revered his legacy and wanted to be regaled with stories of Hollywood’s golden era while being seen in his company at expensive watering holes. Despite his best efforts, they weren’t inclined to give him any money to produce the kind of movies he wanted to make.

I’ve often wondered if reaching your zenith very early on is such a terrible thing. It has its plusses and minuses, but the big question becomes how to handle the remainder of your life. Being one of the most famous people in the world is an incredible trip for anyone. Orson tried his best to enjoy the ride every day, but, by this point in his life, there was an underlying world-weary sadness around the edges as he possibly ruminated on what might have been. The Other Side of the Wind, his semi-autobiographical film that I primarily worked on, was one of the last great hopes to show everyone that he still had what it takes.

Due to a myriad of legal entanglements, it has never been seen theatrically, but hope springs eternal as some prominent filmmakers have recently announced that they are reviving the effort to get it released.

GETTING STARTED

I didn’t really know what to expect the first day I was ushered into the den of a Beverly Hills mansion that had been converted into an editing room. Orson walked in wearing maroon pajamas, smelling up the room with a footlong Havana cigar and introduced himself. The first thing that struck me was that large bovine head perched atop an amazingly rotund body with cigar ash spilled down his front. He checked me out with his sparkling blue eyes under a hooded brow and rasped out, “Welcome, let’s get to work.”

He didn’t want to shake hands because he was afraid of other people’s germs.

The first couple of days were a beehive of activity as he divided his time between the editing room and the double-car garage out back where he was directing additional scenes for The Other Side of the Wind with a four-man crew and no permits. I had visited a few Hollywood sound stages with all the lights and crew people so it came as a shock that anything could look that good with so few people. It was a very important lesson to learn.

At the end of our third day together filled with, “Hey, can you get me that reel and thread it up on the flatbed?” “Hey, I need this now!” “Hey, can you bring me some water?”

I stopped and said, “My name is Steve, and would appreciate not being called, ‘Hey.’”

He gave me a funny look and the next day began with, “Steve, could you get me this? You know, I was thinking, Steve, that we should include this scene. Steve, do this or that.”

He must have really needed me at that moment or possibly liked that I was willing to be shown the door over something so basic as treating someone like a human being who wasn’t totally cowed by him. There was always a second flatbed-editing table nearby because he would often be editing two different projects simultaneously. Sometimes the second editors would last a day, a week, a couple of weeks before he would turn and mutter, “Get rid of them.”

I would politely thank the individual at the end of the day and send them packing. Orson discarded a dozen other editors working on the second editing machine during our time together. Somehow I made the cut.

While driving to work each morning through Beverly Hills in my beat-up ’68 Saab, passing one multi-million dollar mansion after another and all the fancy cars that were each worth more than I had in the bank, I always felt like a lucky S.O.B. because many of these show business–connected rich and powerful people would have donated a kidney to spend the day working alongside the Great Big Man. If they only knew what that really meant. Sometimes perception and reality reside in stark contrast to one another.

Orson’s ego needed constant stroking. His churning mind needed to be engaged. It was like being with a person who would do almost anything not to be alone with himself. He was a worker bee who needed to work on something, deadlines to be missed, bills to be incurred, footlong cigars to smoke, yet more food to be devoured. We’d all have to stop what we were doing and watch reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show with him at 3 p.m. because the man loved to laugh. At the tender age of 24, I was hard-pressed to keep up with him.

There was a certain amount of stirring the pot and keeping busy for the sake of keeping busy, but it was his way of feeding the fire. After all, he was Orson Welles and it was only a question of time before he reminded the world once again that somebody special this way comes.

In between editing work, I was often tasked with a variety of gopher duties (go for this, go for that). I would be handed a bunch of $100 bills, as most transactions were paid in cash. Apparently, there was some ongoing dispute with the IRS that dictated no paper trail.

Orson didn’t believe in making small talk with the help when calling on the phone. He would tell you what was on his mind and abruptly hang up when he was finished. One morning I was in the bathtub when my wife brought me the telephone. “I need you to go to Kodak and pick up some film and bring it over right away.” Click.

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The night before he had given me different marching orders to stop at the lab on the other side of town and pick up a work print and bring it over first thing the next morning. Being pissed off about having been hung up on, when I arrived I told him off because he hadn’t given me the opportunity to ask him which chore was more important. Either way, I was being set up to be wrong. Whichever item I brought would be answered with, “Where’s the other thing you didn’t bring?” He paused for a brief moment, eyes twinkling, and said, “Tough, isn’t it?” He knew he was being difficult, and as I was the only person currently available. He enjoyed it.

When it came to the help, he had learned a trick that I’m sure had served him well over the years. He was a keen observer of the human condition and just as you were about to tell him to shove that legend where the sun don’t shine, he would extend a meaty paw, put on that stage grin, and innocently inquire if he had told you what a good job you had been doing lately.

The sun broke through the clouds and all was right with the world again.


NEXT WEEK: Part 2 of “My Adventures with Orson Welles” which includes Steve’s time on the set of The Other Side of the Wind. In the meantime, read more stories from Steve’s long career in Hollywood in So You Wanna Be a Producer?

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