ORIGINAL CAST PROFILES – Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson was born December 25, 1915.

After graduating from the University of Denver, Wilson got his start as a radio announcer on a local Denver station.

Wilson joined Orson Welles and John Houseman at the founding of the Mercury Theater company in 1937. Wilson worked as stage manager and actor in such Mercury productions as “Julius Caesar”, “The Cradle Will Rock”, “Native Son” and “Heartbreak House” while simultaneously working as an actor and production assistant on the radio program “Mercury Theater of the Air”.

His contribution to The War of the Worlds was the stern Brigadier General Montgomery Smith, the voice of “Langham Field”, and as an Officer of the 22nd Field Artillery – an Army regiment making a valiant effort to hold off Martian invaders.

Wilson appeared in Welles’ films Citizen Kane (1941) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948).

The following is an excerpt from an article on the Directors’ Guild of America’s website (republished from the DGA’s Action! Magazine, May-June 1969). It is an interview with Wilson regarding his memories of working on Citizen Kane.

I had been the original stage manager with Mercury Theatre, and Bill Alland and I came out to Hollywood with Orson when he made the RKO deal. How we came out is a story in itself. Orson had this idea of doing Five Kings, based on the Shakespeare chronicles and to be played in two evenings. We opened in Boston at 7:30 p.m. and the play was still going at 1:30 a.m. It got rave reviews, but we ran out of money. To raise new funds, Orson decided to play the old George Arliss vehicle, The Green Goddess, in vaudeville. The idea was to lay the groundwork with a film depicting an air crash in the Himalayas, then condense the play to 15 minutes.

It was a disaster. When we appeared in Pittsburgh, the film ran backwards, and everything was a shambles. Orson shocked the theater management by suggesting to the customers that they demand their money back. There seemed to be no other course than to take one of the many film offers that Orson had received. RKO offered the best one.

The Heart of Darkness, from the Joseph Conrad novel, had been one of Orson’s favorite Mercury Theatre broadcasts (as had The Magnificent Ambersons). He worked on a script, but RKO turned it down. Then he attempted Smiler with a Knife, which was about a furtive figure in the public eye. When RKO turned down Smiler, Citizen Kane was born.

Again it was a story of a public figure who had a profound effect on the population. Orson was from Chicago, and I believe he was as much influenced by [utility mogul] Samuel Insull and [publisher of The Chicago Tribune] Col. Robert McCormick as he was by the figure of Hearst.

Actually, Orson had known a previous motion picture experience. He had unearthed an old play by William Gillette called Too Much Johnson. To begin the first act, he filmed a 20-minute segment in which Edgar Barrier chased Joseph Cotten all over New York. Then there were 10-minute films that introduced the second and third acts. So he had already completed a 40-minute picture.

Orson had already shot long tests for Heart of Darkness–the tests could actually have been inserted into the finished picture. In Citizen Kane he used many of the people he had brought out for Heart of Darkness–Everett Sloane, George Coulouris, the burlesque comic Gus Schilling and others.

I left at the beginning of the summer to conduct a season of summer theater, but when I returned, Citizen Kane was still shooting. I even acted in the picture, playing one of the reporters in the press conference. One of my fellow reporters was a bit actor named Alan Ladd.

One day the entire RKO front office lead by Sid Rogell came down to the set to see what was going on. Orson suspended the shooting and we played baseball in the street until the studio brass departed. Then Orson resumed production, his creative integrity intact.

None of us knew what a furor the picture was going to raise. But then, we didn’t expect anything special from the Martian broadcast.

To read the full article, CLICK HERE!

After Welles departed for a career in Europe, Wilson joined Universal Studios where he worked as a producer on the Ma & Pa Kettle films and eventually began directing films like Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964).

Wilson’s final project was a feature film about the 1942 production of the unfinished Orson Welles project, “It’s All True”. His career as a film producer continued until his death, August 21, 1991.

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~ by Peter Overstreet on May 30, 2008.

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