Me and Orson Welles
Only 35 pages into this lyrical and magical one-week interlude in 17-year-old Richard Samuel’s life, even he recognizes the fact that he’s “the luckiest bastard on the face of the earth.” Recruited by chance to be an actor in Orson Welles’ stage production of Julius Caesar, Richard, still a high school student in suburban New Jersey, must sneak out of classes and lie to his mother to become a part of history: opening night for The Mercury Theatre: New York City, November 11, 1937. On the stage with Orson Welles, John Houseman, Joseph Cotten, and George Coulouris, madly in love with Sonja Jones, Orson Welles’ personal assistant, what flame could burn brighter than young Richard’s, if only for a week?
The show itself is Orson Welles’ pet project. Whenever there’s a need for it, he’s creative on the spot. As we watch him slide the pieces of the play into position, this convincing portrayal of actor-producer-director Orson Welles, towering over everyone in a three-mile radius, is a gem to behold. The man, then only 22 years old himself, was a genius, and Robert Kaplow does the near impossible: he brings him back to life.
His was a flawed genius, we know that now. It was a conclusion that became more and more obvious as his career went on. Kaplow suggests that it was clear from the beginning. Orson Welles was a gigantic talent, but only that. From page 181, human virtues, virtually none: “generosity, decency, loyalty – whatever – all missing.”
Richard’s life intersects that of Mr. Welles only briefly, and perhaps luckily so. This beguiling coming-of-age tale is also one of the funniest and most warm-hearted stories I’ve read in a long while. This one’s a keeper. Don’t miss it.