The Final Day in the Life of Orson Wells

On October 9, 1985, the great director and actor, Orson Welles, was scheduled to appear on “The Merv Griffin Show”, one of TV’s most popular talk shows. Griffin had actually met Welles years before at his Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow. “I was right outside his bungalow”, recalled Griffin. “I introduced myself, and he said ‘I know who you are and I want to come on your show.’ I said, ‘We have been trying for years to get you.’ He said, ‘I’m ready now.'”

Interestingly, although he had deliberately avoided doing Griffin’s show, Welles had made various appearances of other talk shows of the time, including “The Dick Cavett Show” and “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson”. Doubly interestingly, Welles had actually guest-hosted the Griffin show in the early 1980s. For some odd reason, he just always refused to be interviewed by Merv.

Before filming the Oct. 9th show, a staffer of Griffin’s asked Welles if he would reminisce about Rita Hayworth (Welles’ ex-wife), Marlene Dietrich, William Randolph Hearst, FDR- all the legends he had known. He told Welles they planned a 90-minute tribute to his fabulous career, including, of course, clips from his films, most especially “Citizen Kane”. Welles angrily cursed the staffer out. “I do not take walks down memory lane. I talk about today and the future!” he declared huffily.

Griffin remembered, “As a talk show host, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m dead.'” But Griffin needn’t have worried, for whatever reason, the day of the show, Welles changed his mind.

Earlier that day, he called Griffin over, “Merv, you know all those little questions that you’ve been wanting to ask me all these years; the little gossipy things you always wanted to know and I wouldn’t let you ask me; the things about Rita and Marlene, Hearst, and all that?” he said. Griffin nodded. “I feel very expansive tonight. Ask me.”

Merv Griffin must have felt like a gold miner who had just hit the mother lode. Griffin interviewed a very chatty Welles that night and listened rapt, as Orson told great stories and anecdotes about his films, his women, his life.

Welles did some magic tricks too.

He even gabbed amiably with Barbara Leaming, an author who had recently written an unauthorized biography of Orson. All were extremely happy with the show and Welles and Leaming even had dinner together afterwards at Welles’ favorite local eatery, Ma Maison.

A man named Patrick Terrail joined Welles after Leaming had left their table. “He was happy about everything that night”, said Terrail. “He was happy about the Griffin show because he thought it went well. Everything was going his way, and he was in a good mood. He was just in good spirits all the way around.”

Welles finished his dinner, went home, and died.

He was 70 at the time of his death. He is estimated to have died about than three hours after the taping of “The Merv Griffin show”. Welles was discovered by his driver, Fred Gillette, the next morning lying on a bed on the second floor of his home.

A portable typewriter sat balanced and still on the dead man’s stomach. “He always liked to type lying down”, said Terrail.

It was later ruled that Welles died of a heart attack while in the process of typing. That same morning, actor Paul Stewart was at the Director’s Guild building when someone ran in saying that Orson Welles had just suffered a heart attack. Stewart immediately rushed to Welles’ home.

An eerily reminiscent feeling came over Stewart as he approached Welles’ dead body. More than four decades earlier, Stewart had appeared in “Citizen Kane” with Welles. But more than that, it was Stewart’s character, Raymond the butler, who discovers the dead body of Charles Foster Kane, Welles’ character, in the opening scene of the classic film.

In the movie, Stewart (the butler) describes the death scene to a reporter. And of course, in the movie, Stewart never hears Kane’s last word: “Rosebud”. “And if that isn’t an incredible case of life imitating art”, said a friend, “then there is no such thing.”

“The Merv Griffin Show” featuring Orson Welles aired five days later, on October 14, 1985, in its entirety. You can see a small portion of that interview below:

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  • Re your piece about the lack of panic and hysteria across the U.S. during and after War Of The Worlds, it is my understanding that when the play was broadcast in the same way in Colombia, an angry mob stormed the radio station and killed all the cast.

    • …something like that did happen, but not in Colombia. A Chilean radio station attempted to do the Welles adaptation of “The War of the Worlds” in 1944 by translating Howard W. Koch’s script into Spanish and resetting it to Chile from New Jersey and New York City. (Koch had just had a hand in completing the shooting script of CASABLANCA a couple of years earlier.) A panic was caused there too, and Newsweek claimed one electrician at the producing station’s transmitter site died on the job from a heart attack. Someone then took the Chilean translation of the script to HCQR Radio Quito, owned by the largest newspaper in Ecuador, El Comercio, and they produced the thing again on 12 February 1949. The Ecuadorans were even more heavily panicked, and became so furious when they learned it was a hoax that rioters set fire to the El Comercio/HCQR building, causing about a dozen deaths and US$350,000 worth of property damage…

  • Jason Shusterman

    My grandparents were in the studio audience and my grandfather was randomly selected to take part in what is assumed to be Orson’s final magic trick. I’ve had a difficult time finding the full episode, but he’s the tall slender man in the plaid shirt.

  • I’m confused. In Merv’s autobiography “Making The Good Life Last” he says that Orson Welles appeared on his program with him 50 times over the years.

  • My mother and father were a young married couple living in southern California when Mr Welles program was broadcast. They told me that they were both quite frightened and ran outside before learning it was a hoax.