When Orson met Larry: 'Welles was a very bad boy. But he was a great artist'

It was a clash of two massive egos. As Orson’s Shadow makes its European premiere, its playwright Austin Pendleton about how he turned Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier’s famous theatrical fall out into a play

In 1960, Orson Welles directed Laurence Olivier in a stage production of Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Also in the cast was Olivier’s future wife, Joan Plowright, for whom he was about to leave Vivien Leigh. Welles and Olivier locked horns from the off. The director, still sore from an unhappy Dublin run of his Shakespearean play Chimes at Midnight, accused the actor of undermining him. “Instead of making it hard for me to direct him, he made it almost impossible for me to direct the cast,” Welles later complained. “He got them off in little groups and had quiet little rehearsals having nothing to do with me.” By the time the play opened at the Royal Court in London, Welles was its director in name only, having been told by Olivier that his presence at rehearsals was not required. It was, Welles conceded, “a black moment”.

The episode forms the basis of Orson’s Shadow, first staged in 2000 but only now receiving its European premiere. This piece of speculative fact-based fiction was written by the 75-year-old playwright Austin Pendleton, best known as a comic character actor – he was a giddy delight alongside Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? and played the stammering attorney in My Cousin Vinny.

While it is clear that Olivier and Welles clashed during Rhinoceros, any accounts of what actually happened tend to be threadbare. “The exact content of their disagreement I had to make up,” Pendleton tells me. “I knew that the play fitted chronologically with Olivier’s marriage breaking down, so that’s what convinced me to put Vivien Leigh in.” Kenneth Tynan is another key presence, despite not having had anything to do with the play until he reviewed it. “Tynan kept showing up in biographies of Welles and Olivier, so I thought: why not find a reason to put him in?” It is a complete invention, of course, as Joan Plowright pointed out in her autobiography. “She said something like, ‘If this is an example of the play’s historical accuracy, what are we to make of the rest of it?’” Pendleton gives a chuckle. “She’s absolutely right, of course.”

Watch Orson Welles as General Dreedle in Catch-22 – video

The bulk of Orson’s Shadow may be conjecture. But when Pendleton writes about Welles, he is hardly stabbing in the dark: they spent an intense fortnight together in 1969 when they were shooting Mike Nichols’s film version of Catch-22. “We were in the Mexican desert and we would all sit around in those high canvas chairs while a shot was being set up. Orson held court. He was fabulously entertaining. What we would do is throw him the names of directors, living or dead, and he would expound his opinions. It was like tossing fish to a seal. And he always saw to it that his opinions were as provocative as possible. His bete noire was Stanley Kubrick. He refused to see 2001 unless Kubrick cut it. And he talked at length about all the ways he found Paths of Glory to be inept! Piece by piece, he took it apart. There was a long pause, and then Mike said: ‘Orson, would you promise not to come and see Catch-22?’”

Austin Pendleton in What's Up, Doc?
Austin Pendleton in What’s Up, Doc? Photograph: PR

Shooting wasn’t always so cordial. In fact, the ways Welles disrupted the production seem, in the context of Orson’s Shadow, like a delayed, displaced revenge for the treatment he received on Rhinoceros. “Orson did to Mike Nichols what Olivier had done to him,” Pendleton says. “But Orson didn’t bother to do it secretly. We would all rehearse a scene, brilliantly directed by Mike, and then it would be lit. We’d be on the verge of shooting when Orson would stand up in front of everyone and say, ‘Mike, we can’t shoot it this way …’ He would then redirect the scene and almost ruin it.” It sounds destabilising, I say. “Well, yes, except it was so obvious that you didn’t feel you were being undermined! You had to give him credit for his outrageous brazenness.”

When a friend of Pendleton’s suggested the idea for Orson’s Shadow, he realised it could help resolve some of his own regrets from that period. “When the press visited the set of Catch-22, I said all kinds of inexcusable, smartass things about Orson, all of which were printed when the film came out. But by that point, I had seen the films he made – Chimes at Midnight, The Magnificent Ambersons … They were so brilliant that I felt ashamed about my remarks. I was condescending. It was awful.” Though Pendleton and Welles both starred in The Muppet Movie, filmed in 1978, their shooting schedules didn’t coincide, and they never saw one another again. “What inspired me to start writing the play was realising that I could make some kind of atonement to Orson. You know what he was? He was a bad boy. A very bad boy. But he was a great artist. And that’s what the play is about.”


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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