Orson Welles’ Last Words

Having a fancy title at an elite film school, and also a reputation for providing nifty sound bites, during my decades as a professor in Westwood I was often approached by the press, especially on slow news days, for commentary regarding or another aspect of the media.

A question I’ve been asked multiple times is: What is the greatest movie of all time?

What could be more boring than a film professor citing Citizen Kane? 

Yet Kane it is. 

The film’s genius does not lie in particular principles that it established; it does not reside in its ‘importance,’ whatever that may mean.

Given my choice between seeing a good movie or an important film, I’ll go with the former every time.

Citizen Kane is just that, a really, really good movie. It does what good movies do: it tells a compelling, engaging story. Its characters are deep and rich, fleshy and real; they are splendidly, wretchedly human. 

Kane is what happens when great writing smashes into great directing and great acting.

The way the story is told, the techniques utilized in its revelations and discoveries—camera work, special effects, sound, editing, scenic design, hair, makeup, wardrobe, and all else that goes into film art and craft — are uniquely appropriate to the medium.

Download the screenplay for CITIZEN KANE here for free.

I first saw Citizen Kane perhaps sixty years ago. Since then I’ve seen it dozens of times. On subsequent viewings, is it as magnificent as the first time?

It is not.

It is even more so. 

Like truly timeless artistic achievement regardless of format—whether it’s Bach or the Beatles–further exposure is not merely as good as but even better than the first time.

In the fall of 1985, Orson Welles was scheduled to teach a course in directing at UCLA’s film school. 

Just prior to the start of classes, Welles died.

A week or two after the funeral, Dean Robert Gray of what was then called The College of Fine Arts showed me a handwritten letter from Welles in which he had expressed his excitement contemplating the launch of his class. Welles volunteered that the notion of working with students also filled him with anxiety and dread. He worried that he would not be a capable educator.

“This little note,” Bob told me, “turns out to be the last words Orson ever wrote.”

I marveled over the scrap of paper, regarding it as it were a religious relic, say, a splinter from the cross at Calvary.

I asked Dean Gray, “But why would he be so anxious about teaching?” 

“I asked him that,” Bob said. “Surely over your substantial career,” I said to him, “you’ve lectured, or led a seminar or workshop, or master class here or there.”

“No,” Welles said. “This is the very first time.”

The dean was surprised. “You never wanted to teach?”

Welles looked at the floor and then up again at the dean. “That’s not it,” he said. Shamefacedly he muttered, “Until now, no one ever invited me.”

I thought of the prettiest girl at the sock hop ball whom no one will ask to dance because he knows he’s just not cool enough for a creature so stunning.


Richard Walter is a novelist and author of best-selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, screenwriter, script consultant, lecturer and recently retired Professor and Associate and Interim Dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television where, for more than forty years, he chaired the graduate program in screenwriting.  He has written scripts for the major studios and television networks, including the earliest drafts of American Graffiti; lectured on screenwriting and storytelling and conducted master classes throughout North America as well as London, Paris, Jerusalem, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney and Hong Kong. 

He is also a pop culture commentator, blogger and media pundit who has made numerous appearances on The Today Show, The O’Reilly Factor, Hardball with Chris Matthews, ABC Primetime, Scarborough Country and CBS News Nightwatch, among many other high-profile national television programs.  More than a hundred newspaper and magazine articles have been published about him and the program he directed at UCLA.  For more information and to sign up for his newsletter, visit www.richardwalter.com. Contact Professor Walter at professorrichardwalter@gmail.com.  

©Richard Walter 2019


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