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Orson Welles’ Previously Unknown Letter Reveals Director’s Planned Film and Stage Projects

Atilla the Hun and "Moby-Dick" had both caught his interest.

Orson Welles

AP/REX/Shutterstock

A letter found inside a book at the Lilly Library at Indiana University has revealed that, while living in Europe in the early 1950s, Orson Welles was contemplating working on several films and stage projects.

The signed, two-page letter, which was typed on Welles’ stationery, was found by Liana Meeker, a catalog specialist at Lilly Library. It was folded inside a copy of Whit Materson’s “Badge of Evil,” which was the basis for Welles’ 1958 film “Touch of Evil.”

It is unknown how the letter ended up in the book, said Craig S. Simpson, Manuscripts Archivist at Lilly Library.”It was just a random item found in a random book,” he explained.

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The letter, dated March 11, 1953, is believed to have been addressed to Welles’ longtime friend and columnist Leonard Lyons. In it, the actor and filmmaker asks Lyons to publish a column about an Italian comedy he was appearing in, “L’uomo, la bestia e la virtù” (Man, Beast and Virtue). He also gave his friend the good news that United Artists was set to distribute his film “Othello,” which had won the Palme d’Or at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival.

Welles further told Lyons about other prospective projects he was mulling over. According to the letter, British actor Laurence Olivier had asked Welles to co-star with him in a Bridget Boland play he referred to as “I Confess.” Welles also revealed that he had been asked to direct and star in a film production of “Attila the Hun,” based on the exploits of the 5th-century warrior.

Another project Welles had in mind was a one-man show in which he would read Herman Melville’s classic novel “Moby Dick” — something Andy Kaufman later did with “The Great Gatsby.” He planned on launching the production in London before bringing it to New York. “My intentions are very serious and I may very well be breaking it on a short English provincial tour very shortly,” Welles wrote.

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Of the three potential projects, “Attila the Hun” never saw the light. Boland’s play was staged as “The Prisoner” in 1954, and a film of the same name was made in 1956; neither Welles nor Olivier starred in either project.

Welles did proceed with “Moby Dick,” but not as a one-man show. His adaptation of  Melville’s novel was staged at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London in June 1955, as “Moby Dick Rehearsed,” but with an entire cast. In his final years, Welles shot a one-man version of readings from “Moby Dick” with cameraman Gary Graver.

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