William Alland on working with ORSON WELLES from JULIUS CAESAR to TOUCH OF EVIL
Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles had its New York City premiere on November 23, and the next day, on November 24, there was a dedication by Chris Welles Feder and Christian McKay of a plaque in memory of Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre which once stood at the site of the current building which now occupies the lot at 110 West 41st street.
That is why Wellesnet will be recalling some of the memories of the original cast members of Julius Caesar this week, beginning with these filmed recollections of one of the founding members of Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre company, Mr. William Alland.
Part One: Meeting Welles, Theater and Radio
Photos of William Alland and Orson Welles can be seen at Wellesnet's Facebook page HERE.
William Alland most famously played the reporter Thompson in Citizen Kane, and was one of the original Mercury Theatre actors, having first met Welles early in his career in 1936. He then went on to play the part of Marullus in Julius Caesar, and joined the other Mercury Actors when they went to Hollywood. Alland debuted as a film actor in Citizen Kane and worked with Welles on several of his subsequent films, including playing one of the murderers in Macbeth.
Mr. Alland also had roles in many of Welles's radio shows, most notably playing several parts in the notorious War of the Worlds broadcast.
John McCarty, a colleague from Cinefantastique magazine, recently wrote to tell me he had filmed an long interview segment with Mr. Alland for a documentary project and had just recently placed it on YouTube for everyone to enjoy.
I asked John to write a short introduction for his documentary, The Man Who Pursued Rosebud, and he readily complied. In looking at Mr. Alland's comments, what I found especially interesting, is how his account of his first meeting with Orson Welles differed so greatly from what John Houseman recorded in his own autobiography, Run Though. Like the reporter he played in Citizen Kane, it seems William Alland and Mr. Houseman have two very different memories of how they first came to meet the great man!
So after you watch John McCarty's documentary, I have included the relevant comments from John Houseman's book, where he recalls his own take on how William Alland became a member of the Mercury Theatre.
It should also be noted that William Alland is portrayed in a featured part in Me and Orson Welles, by the actor Iain McKee. In the movie he is known only as "Vakhtangov" which is explained by Mr. Houseman in the excerpt from his autobiography.
THE MAN WHO PURSUED ROSEBUD
By John McCarty
In 1994, I published a book titled The Fearmakers (St. Martin’s Press), a compendium of essay-profiles of twenty filmmakers who, in my opinion, had the greatest influence on the evolution of the terror-horror-suspense film genre from the silent era to the present (circa 1993). One of these filmmakers was Jack Arnold, the director of such enduring sci-fi/horror classics of the 1950s as It Came From Outer Space, Tarantula, The Creature of From the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and others.
Two years later, a Texas-based video production company contacted me about developing the book into a documentary series for the fast-growing home video market. Each half-hour segment would focus on one of these master fearmakers and include clips from their films as well as interviews with co-workers, cast members, film historians, and even the filmmakers themselves if they were still around. I signed on as narrator, script supervisor, co-director, interviewer, and chief cook and bottle washer.
After selecting a baker’s dozen from the twenty in my book for the thirteen segments that would be produced, I gave the producers a list of potential interviewees. For the segment on Jack Arnold, the interviewee I most hoped to get was William Alland, Universal’s “house producer” of science-fiction and horror films in the ‘50s – and, not unimportantly to me, the man who had played Jerry Thompson, the reporter in pursuit of the identity of “rosebud” in the Orson Welles masterpiece Citizen Kane.
I’m still amazed that everybody on my interviewee “wish list,” including Mr. Alland, readily agreed to come in and sit down and do an on-camera interview for our, shall we say, “conservatively budgeted” enterprise. [Mr. Famous Monsters himself, the late Forry Ackerman, was the only one to decline.]
The producers rented a ballroom in the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, site of the first Academy Awards ceremony, and in the course of one week in June of ’96, I had the time of my life interviewing everyone from Sam Arkoff, the co-founder of American International Pictures, to Robert Wise, director of The Body Snatcher and The Haunting, and, not incidentally, the editor of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
If memory serves, the Alland interview took place late morning on the second or third day. Then in his eighties and walking with a cane (he would pass away the following year), Mr. Alland was on time and sharp as a tack. The only time he did seem a bit confused was when he referred to Suzan Ball, the actress who had starred in his 1955 film Chief Crazy Horse, as Lucille Ball. [He also revealed that they had to keep disguising on camera that she had only one leg!]
We scheduled extra time for all the interviewees so that I could cover multiple subjects with them in addition to the director they had come to talk about. I had two hours with Mr. Alland. There was a method to my madness. What I really wanted to hear were stories about Mr. Alland’s adventures with Orson Welles. So, the first half-hour I devoted to discussing Jack Arnold and Alland’s memories of making films with him like The Creature of the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature. [Alland recounted how he’d gotten the idea for Creature in the 1940s at dinner with Orson Welles, Dolores Del Rio, and the distinguished Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who told of the legendary “fishmen of the Amazon” – whom Figueroa claimed to have actually seen!] Then we got down to business and began peppering him with questions about Welles and his own career. He talked for 90 minutes about Kane, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, The War of the Worlds fiasco – all of which he’d been an eyewitness to – and the time just flew by.
The Fearmakers docu-series received a limited release on VHS in 1997 and was re-issued in 2007 by Elite Entertainment in a spanking new DVD edition called The Fearmakers Collection that I revised and re-edited, and which is still available. [You can view clips under that title on YouTube]. We used only a few snippets of Mr. Alland’s sit down with me for the Jack Arnold episode. The rest went into storage.
Even though I had no venue for it, I was unable – and unwilling – to let so much excellent, rare material go to waste, however. [I believe it was the longest on-camera interview Mr. Alland had ever given – and possibly his last.] So I later asked the producers for the raw footage, they graciously sent it to me, and from that material emerged my as yet unreleased [potential distributors please take note!] 40-minute documentary The Man Who Pursued Rosebud: William Alland on His Career in Theatre and Film.
The excerpts here total 17 minutes and focus exclusively on Mr. Alland’s long association with Orson Welles. I’m not sure how much new information may be revealed in the stories he tells, especially for die-hard Wellesians, but Mr. Alland’s affection and admiration for Welles, as well as the fun he had working with the Mighty Orson, comes through loud and clear, as does his mutually shared disdain for Hollywood “suits.” One thing’s for sure: With his ebullient personality and wry, self-deprecating sense of humor, he makes these stories come alive. Because he was there!
John Houseman on William Alland
Excerpt from Run Though
Our stage management at the Mercury was effective but unorthodox: no professional could have functioned for more than a day in the capricious, overheated atmosphere that Orson created backstage. All technical matters, including sound and light, were handled by Jean Rosenthal and her flock of female assistants; the rest was in the hands of a sensitive, over strung young man with red hair who was with us for eighteen months until he suffered a nervous breakdown and left the theatre forever. His aides, that first season, were Richard Wilson (Welles's patient and devoted slave for the next eleven years) and a chinless shrimp of a boy with a big voice who called himself Vakhtangov or William Alland, neither of which was his real name (As William Alland, he played the important role of the Reporter in Citizen Kane, flew more than forty bombing missions in the Pacific and, after the War, became a successful producer of horror and science-fiction films.) Both of them, besides their assistant stage managers' duties, doubled and trebled as dressers, waiters, male nurses, messenger-boys and actors—playing Flavius and Marullus and members of the mob.
The manner of Alland's joining the Mercury was typical of the climate in which we lived. The previous spring, while he was directing Aaron Copland's Second Hurricane for the children of the Henry Street Settlement, Orson had told me of a boy who called himself Vakhtangov, who hung around day and night, working lights, holding book, sweeping, prompting, moving pianos, talking too much and making himself generally indispensable. In exchange for these services, at some time in the middle of the night, he had extracted a promise of employment in the theatre. Orson was not one to remember such a commitment. He had quite forgotten Vakhtangov's existence when a frail, ragged figure rose out of the sidewalk one evening as we were hurrying back to the theatre, discussing our latest crisis after dining hugely at Del Pezzo's beneath autographed photographs of Caruso, Scotti and Geraldine Farrar. Running backward ahead of us, this apparition began to harangue Orson in an agitated and almost incomprehensible voice. Once he tripped and fell. I told him to call me the next morning. But he picked himself up and continued to scuffle backwards all the way to the theatre, alternately pleading and threatening, urging Orson to remember his oath, offering to act, light, valet, pimp, clean the toilets, steal—anything at all, so long as he was allowed to fulfill his destiny, which his dead mother's ghost had told him lay with the Mercury Theatre. Amused, then finally exasperated, Orson brushed past him through the stage door and hurried across the unfinished stage into the dressing room which he used as his office. We were about to start work when the door flew open and Vakhtangov stood before us, wild-eyed and deathly pale, slammed the door shut behind him, locked it, slipped the key into his bosom and announced that he would never surrender it until he had been heard. Then at the top of his voice he launched into a word-perfect recitation of the entire funeral oration, which so surprised us that we hired him on the spot.
William Alland, Orson Welles and Gabriel Figueroa on THE SEA MONSTER!
It’s also rather fascinating to note that, as John McCarty points out, Orson Welles was present when the idea was hatched for one of William Alland’s most famous movies as a producer, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, directed by Jack Arnold.
As William Alland related the story to both John McCarty and film historian Tom Weaver, Alland was having dinner at Orson Welles house in Hollywood, with Dolores Del Rio, Welles and the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (who shot Del Rio in beautiful Toland style for John Ford's The Fugitive). It was probably in late 1941 or early 1942. In any event, at this dinner party, Figueroa related a story about a half-man, half-fish, that once a year came out of the depths of the Amazon River to claim a maiden from a nearby native village. Figueroa swore that this was a true story and William Alland later developed the idea of the Amazon Fish-Man into a story he called The Sea Monster.
Ten years later, when Alland became a producer for Universal-International, his story served as the basis for the screenplay of The Creature From The Black Lagoon. One has to wonder what Orson Welles thought of the tall tale told by Mr. Figueroa that evening. Did he believe it? Did he contribute in any way towards it's embellishment, or talk to his old friend, the producer of the project, William Alland?