When Orson Welles Crossed Paths With Hitler (and Churchill): “He Had No Personality.… I Think There Was Nothing There.”

Dick Cavett excelled at turn­ing the late-night talk show for­mat into a show­case for gen­uine­ly reveal­ing con­ver­sa­tions (and the occa­sion­al wrestling match). Of the many riv­et­ing guests he had on through­out the 60s and 70s, some appear­ing mul­ti­ple times, few could match Orson Welles for sheer sto­ry­telling prowess. As if in a con­test to out­do him­self, Welles appeared on Cavett’s show three times in 1970, and once more in 1973, as an ami­able, gruff racon­teur who lived a life almost impos­si­ble to believe actu­al­ly hap­pened.

Welles met every­one. He even met Hitler, he says in the clip above from a July 1970 appear­ance on the show, his sec­ond that year. In those ear­ly days, he says, “the Nazis were just a very com­i­cal kind of minor­i­ty par­ty of nuts that nobody took seri­ous­ly at all” except Welles’ Aus­tri­an hik­ing instruc­tor, who brought the leg­endary actor and direc­tor to a Nazi din­ner with the future mass-mur­der­ing dic­ta­tor. Welles was seat­ed next to Hitler, who “made so lit­tle an impres­sion on me that I can’t remem­ber a sec­ond of it. He had no per­son­al­i­ty. He was invis­i­ble…. I think there was noth­ing there.”

By 1938, every­one knew who he was: Hitler was named “man of the year” by Time mag­a­zine, who wrote, “less­er men of the year seemed small indeed beside the Führer”—and Welles was named “Radio’s Man of the Year.” His “famous The War of the Worlds broad­cast, scared few­er peo­ple than Hitler,” the edi­tors wrote, “but more than had ever been fright­ened by radio before, demon­strat­ing that radio can be a tremen­dous force in whip­ping up mass emo­tion.” Welles’ nev­er met Stal­in, he tells Cavett, unprompt­ed, but knew Roo­sevelt “very well.”

In a lat­er appear­ance on the show, in Sep­tem­ber 1970, Welles claimed Roo­sevelt told him no one believed the Pearl Har­bor announce­ment because of the War of the Worlds hoax. Here, in this twelve-minute clip from July, he has many more sto­ries to tell and excel­lent ques­tions from Cavett to answer (if he went back to school, he says, and “real­ly want­ed to get good at a sub­ject,” he would study anthro­pol­o­gy). Towards the end, at 9:00, he talks about anoth­er world leader who did make a dis­tinct impres­sion on him: Win­ston Churchill. “He was quite anoth­er thing,” says Welles. “He had great humor and great irony.”

Welles tells a sto­ry of Churchill com­ing to see him play Oth­el­lo in Lon­don. “I heard a mur­mur­ing in the front row. I thought he was talk­ing to him­self.” Churchill lat­er came to vis­it Welles in his dress­ing room and began to recite all of Othello’s lines from mem­o­ry, “includ­ing the cuts which I had made.” Years lat­er, after the war, when Churchill was out of office, Welles ran into him once more in Venice, and their pri­or asso­ci­a­tion came very much in handy in the financ­ing of his next pic­ture. (He doesn’t name the film, but it might have been The Stranger.)

No one expe­ri­enced the 20th cen­tu­ry quite like Orson Welles, and no one left such a cre­ative lega­cy. Always enter­tain­ing, his Cavett appear­ances are more than oppor­tu­ni­ties for name dropping—they’re tele­vised mem­oirs, in extem­po­ra­ne­ous vignettes, from one of history’s most engag­ing sto­ry­tellers.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sal­vador Dalí Strolls onto The Dick Cavett Show with an Anteater, Then Talks About Dreams & Sur­re­al­ism, the Gold­en Ratio & More (1970)

Orson Welles Trash­es Famous Direc­tors: Alfred Hitch­cock (“Ego­tism and Lazi­ness”), Woody Allen (“His Arro­gance Is Unlim­it­ed”) & More

Alfred Hitch­cock Talks with Dick Cavett About Sab­o­tage, For­eign Cor­re­spon­dent & Lax­a­tives (1972)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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Comments (4)
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  • Barbara MacDougall says:

    Makes you won­der what Welles would say about Trump and his min­ions. Insert thought bal­loon about his­to­ry repeat­ing itself.

  • Bob Taylor says:

    Orson Welles was a great film direc­tor, mar­velous racon­teur, and supreme bull­shit artist, maybe the best of the 20th cen­tu­ry.

    I don’t believe a word of the Hitler sto­ry. We know that Welles was on his own in Europe from age 16, in 1930. By 1930, the Nazis were tak­en very seri­ous­ly, indeed.

    The Pearl Har­bor sto­ry is fan­ta­sy. Read then con­tem­po­rary accounts of pub­lic reac­tion to the announce­ment of the attack. As for “The War of the Worlds” pan­ic, in which you must believe if you believe the Welles/Roosevelt sto­ry, research in the last few years has shown that “the pan­ic” was, with the excep­tion of the scat­tered cred­u­lous here and there, large­ly one of the great hype jobs of 20th cen­tu­ry show­biz and tabloid jour­nal­ism.

    As for the Churchill sto­ry, Richard Bur­ton told it about him­self as Ham­let, and Churchill, to Jack Paar in 1964 or 1965.

    As a say, a great artist, and a supreme bull­shit artist.

  • Lonnie says:

    That Churchill sto­ry is gold! Lol

  • Steve d says:

    Thank you for your com­plete­ly rhetor­i­cal biased and argu­men­ta­tive asser­tion. Ive lit­tle doubt his opin­ion would be much dif­fer­ent as that toward Oba­ma.

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