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At His Final Exit, Orson Welles Leaves a Legend and a Debate as Large as the Man Himself

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Steamed fish and vegetables, washed down with mineral water and lime, no ice, is not a repast one associates with Orson Welles, a man of omnivorous passions. But in the last six months of his life, the legendary actor and director made what for him must have been the supreme sacrifice: He went on a diet.

No one would say he enjoyed it. Looking down at his dinner plate, then mournfully up at his friend, Hollywood restaurateur Patrick Terrail, Welles would say, “What I’m eating is very bad, but it’s not your fault, it’s mine.” Welles pretty much stuck to his punishing regime, and most days he steamed 20 laps back and forth across his swimming pool. He actually peeled off 50 pounds. Other than cigars, there wasn’t much else to give up. Four years earlier he had kicked alcohol and a 20-cup-a-day caffeine habit.

If the rest of show business was treating him as a dinosaur, the mastermind of Citizen Kane and a dozen other films was obstinately refusing to become extinct. He planned to star and direct a film of King Lear, a project that would require stamina, especially to drum up the financial backing.

Until he died of a heart attack in L.A. on October 10 at the age of 70, Welles was out promoting Welles. On the evening before his death, he showed up at The Merv Griffin Show, “ashen and short of breath,” as a staffer recalls. “He tried to get permission from a security guard to pull up his car straight to the backstage door so he wouldn’t have to walk the extra 40 yards from the parking lot. But he lost the argument with the guard.” Yet after the taping, he was in a mood that his biographer, Barbara Learning, described as “Orsonian wonderful. He kept saying, ‘The audience liked me.’ He had this fear of not being liked.”

For an interview two weeks before his death, Welles made his customary entrance at Terrail’s restaurant, Ma Maison—through the kitchen. While Welles greeted the chefs, his toy poodle, Kiki, bounded ahead into the dining room and hopped over to her customary chair at the star’s personal table. “She bites like a serpent, but she’s quiet in a restaurant,” said Welles. “She suffers so if I leave her.”

Welles allowed he was something of a social outcast on the Hollywood scene. “One of the many reasons I don’t get invited out much is because they all know I won’t take any cocaine,” he said. “Because I’m a gray-beard they think I’m sitting there like a terrible wet blanket while they snort.”

Welles was amused that Learning’s authorized biography referred to his allegedly libidinous past. “I was no great lover. Every time she [Learning] finds a photograph of me taking somebody out to dinner, that’s a proof of me as a Casanova. I’d love to write about all my failures as a Casanova, which are sensational and very funny. But at my age you never object to that kind of thing, no matter how exaggerated. Bless her heart for giving me this strange crown of laurel leaves.”

Friends such as Eartha Kitt insist Welles earned his reputation. “Orson spent most of his money on women,” says Kitt. “That’s why he didn’t have the money to make films.” Besides tempestuous marriages to socialite Virginia Nicolson (1934-40) and movie siren Rita Hayworth (1943-48), Welles was linked with such beauties as Dolores Del Rio and Marlene Dietrich. But his 1955 marriage to an Italian countess, Paola Mori, then 24, eventually brought stability. Until his death they shared a home in Las Vegas with her mother. “I’m a provincial,” said Welles. “I live very much like a hermit: reading, listening to music, working in the cutting room, writing, commercial work—which doesn’t take up that much time.”

Welles fathered a daughter in each of his marriages: Christopher, 47, is a textbook writer living in New York, Rebecca, 40, lives in Tacoma, Wash, and Beatrice (named after his adored mother), 29, is starting a line of cosmetics in Arizona. “I worry a lot about taking care of my dependents, all those perfectly ordinary middle-class preoccupations,” said Welles. He never pretended anything but a financial motive in making films with Pia Zadora (Butterfly) or Miss Piggy (The Muppet Movie) or shilling for Eastern Airlines or Paul Masson wine. His wife and daughters attended his Hollywood funeral (he’ll be buried in his beloved Spain), but Welles never had much time for the role of doting dad. Playing Lear, who also had three daughters of varying ambitions, was never meant as an emotional catharsis. “I have never put them to such a test.”

Also unlike Lear, Welles the boy wonder steadfastly refused to see himself as an old man. “Lear gives up power, authority, responsibility and, in effect, goes to one of those retirement homes. Of course, he goes to pieces.”

That way would never suit Welles, who, till his dying breath, kept negotiating for the power to make movies. His last film, The Other Side of the Wind, begun in 1975, is 90 percent complete, but financing degenerated into a legal feud with his Iranian backer Mehdi Bouscheri. The same money problems affected Lear. “In the last two and a half years, I’ve spent about five months sitting in a hotel in Paris waiting for the Lear project to happen,” Welles said. “I found myself unable to work. I’ve a mud turtle mind and keep thinking about what I’m waiting for.”

He had done a lot of waiting. People have enormous respect for his legend, but respect for the man is something different. Steven Spielberg paid $50,000 for the Rosebud sled Welles used in Citizen Kane—”Not that he would give me that money to write a script,” said Welles. Director and Welles protégé Henry (Always) Jaglom remarks, “Since Orson’s death all these people have been going on television talking about how dear Orson was. Yet these same stars and whiz kid directors wouldn’t help him get one of his movies made. Any one of these people could have made Orson’s life so much happier these past 10 years just by nodding their heads.”

Says Kitt: “The way Hollywood treated him was a form of envy, jealousy. He died a frustrated man. In the eyes of Hollywood he never achieved Citizen Kane again, but ironically Hollywood wouldn’t let him achieve another great success like Kane.”

Welles’ death didn’t end the debate about him. Says Charles Higham, author of a just-published unauthorized biography: “Welles lacked discipline. While he was always very bankable as a personality, he was never very bankable as an artist because nobody knew when he’d ever finish anything.”

Charlton Heston, who starred in Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1958, defends him. “He was not an extravagant director. I mean, Warren Beatty can spend $60 million making Reds half an hour too long and it crosses nobody’s lips that that’s too much money.”

Says Jaglom: “Last Saturday over lunch Orson said, ‘When I die, watch them come out of the woodwork. Watch them praise me.’ ”

As usual, Welles was right. “People are a bit more charitable toward me now,” he said near the end. “I suppose because of advancing years—’Marvelous old fellow, isn’t he wonderful!’ But I’m suspicious of it. I’ve spent most of my mature life trying to prove that I’m not irresponsible.”

In death, Orson Welles finally proved something he could not prove in life: He is irreplaceable.