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.