Orson Welles Terrified Frank Beacham—Then Changed His Life Forever
Frank Beacham was working in reality TV when Orson Welles called one day, wanting to work on a new project. The next ten months, until Welles' death, was a thrilling rollercoaster.
Orson Welles bought his fist hard down on the table at Ma Maison, his favorite restaurant in Hollywood.
“Do you have the money?” he demanded of producer Frank Beacham.
Remembering the moment many years later, Beacham told The Daily Beast, “I didn’t, but I knew if I told Orson that he would walk. I thought to myself, ‘The producer has to lie occasionally,’ and I knew this was my moment, seven months into knowing Orson, to lie. I told him I had the money to make our show. I didn’t have it, and this was a pivotal moment of my relationship with him.”
Welles, then 69 and in what would be his last year of life as one of Hollywood's most controversial, legendary and visionary figures, had first called Beacham, then 35, in January 1985.
Welles died, aged 70, in October that year, and in the 10 months the men knew each other they came close to making a TV show together using then-innovative Betacam camera equipment.
“We had nearly a year that started with a lunch and ended up with me raising money for him,” Beacham told The Daily Beast. “The night before he was due to start shooting, he died. He was found dead at his typewriter. It was a wild ride that went nowhere.”
Well, not quite nowhere. Beacham’s experience has become a play, Maverick, that is now playing at the Connelly Theater in New York City, written by Beacham and George Demas, who plays Welles in the production.
At the time of knowing Welles, Beacham was working as a producer on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. “I had one foot in the reality TV sewer and then the other was in creative nirvana with Orson. It was pulling me apart, and quite an adventure. Orson had reinvented radio with The War of The Worlds (1938), he had reinvented film (with Citizen Kane, 1941, which he co-wrote, starred in, directed and produced), he had changed theater when he co-founded (with John Houseman, in 1937) the Mercury Theatre, and I wanted to be there when he reinvented video.”
At the time, Lifestyles was a forerunner in TV technology; the show had built the first interformat edit bay in the nation (Betacam to one-inch), and Lifestyles was the first major magazine show to be shot using the new format. Paul Hunt, a freelance editor for the show, had done some sound work for Welles, and told Welles about the new facility. Welles told Hunt he wanted to meet Beacham.
“I knew he would be calling, and I remember that first call,” said Beacham. “It was the like the voice of God calling you.”
Welles wanted to work as independently as possible; he saw big studios, networks and producers as, Beacham said, “bean counters” who interfered with his creative vision, as with Touch of Evil (1958) which was substantially changed by studio bosses away from Welles' vision prior to its initial release. There were many other well-documented conflicts Welles had with studios and producing partners in other film and theater projects.
HBO had offered him money to film the show he ended up working on with Beacham, but he didn’t want it. “He wanted me, because he knew he could control me,” said Beacham.
Welles was very charming the first time they met. “I tried to call him Mr. Welles. He said, ‘No, call me Orson. I live in the here and now.’ He didn’t like going down memory lane. I learnt that quickly. He liked to look to the future. He didn’t want to talk about the past.”
In Ma Maison at their first meeting, Beacham also met Welles’ dog, Kiki, who had a special place setting at the table. Kiki nipped at Beacham’s legs, “but I couldn’t kick Orson Welles’ dog. Orson found it all very funny.”
Welles told Beacham that he felt he had done his most creative work in radio, and theorized that because there was so little money in radio, the bean counters left it alone.
“It was an intense conversation,” recalled Beacham. “One thing you never did with Orson was chit-chat, you had to back up whatever you said. I learned that quickly. We got along fine. At first he was very gentle, very charming. He wouldn’t let me pay for lunch.”
Then Welles put Beacham through a series of tests, as Beacham put it. One night, at 3 a.m., Beacham’s phone rang. It was Welles asking why he was getting popping sounds in a radio edit. Beacham correctly deduced that the razor blade Welles was using as an editing tool had become magnetized over time.
Why was Welles, “the man who invented radio,” asking such a thing, wondered Beacham, as he explained the likely magnetization and the popping.
“Exactly,” said Welles. “See you at lunch.”
The TV show Welles wanted to make with Beacham was a magic show. He had loved, and practiced, magic since childhood, even sawing actress Rita Hayworth (his second wife) in half in one of the shows he performed during World War II, Beacham said.
The idea for the TV project was to film a magic show Welles would perform at UCLA, including levitating a human being over the heads of the audience, an illusion designed by Doug Henning.
Welles wouldn’t give Beacham and his colleagues a script. “It was an impossible situation, but I was not willing to say no.”
Welles wanted Beacham to raise $300,000 for the project. He told Beacham he was competitive with Picasso. “Picasso can get $4 million upfront for any painting. Why can’t I? I’m as good as Picasso.”
Welles liked the fame and celebrity around him. “He was aware of it,” said Beacham. “At Ma Maison, women would line up for the women’s restroom in front of his table, and he would say, ‘Ladies, you’re taking an awfully long time.’ Once a rat ran through the restaurant, and Orson stood up and said that it would not be a great European restaurant without a rat and that people should enjoy it.”
Welles loved talking to Beacham about the technical aspects of their production: the camera set-ups, and the electronic non-linear editing suite, which Welles wanted to buy for himself.
“I’m sad he never got to do it. He died before his time,” said Beacham. He left every lunch “exhausted” with Welles’ fast intellect and curiosity. Welles didn’t tolerate profanity, Beacham said, not because he objected to it morally but because he saw it as a recourse of the linguistically lazy.
Beacham occasionally watched Welles record voiceovers for advertisements, and reprimand directors for sloppy sentence construction. Welles told Beacham of his many artistic fights and disappointments.
“A lot of directors wanted to have lunch with him, to say they had had lunch with a legend. But not a lot wanted to deal with having to work with him,” said Beacham.
Welles told Beacham that he found it ironic that Steven Spielberg had spent $55,000 on the Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane, but no one would give him money to finance a new film, “and what a sad commentary on his life that was.”
Oja Kodar, Welles' girlfriend, told Beacham that Welles would cry when he would watch The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) on TV, his tears flowing because of what he saw as the butchery of the studio-enforced edit of it.
“He took every film very hard,” said Beacham. “In this play I give my take. I feel Orson was a creative genius up until the end. His problem was money, and his inability to take money from places that had money. They all wanted accountability, and Orson couldn’t give them that.”
For their project, Welles directed Beacham that they shoot directly into bright lights and he didn’t want to hear any technical objections.
“Call Sony and tell them to make it work,” Welles demanded of Beacham. “Don’t ever tell me no.” Sony sent two engineers to help Welles push the video envelope on the project. Then, around seven months in, came that day when Welles asked if Beacham had the money, and Beacham’s lie that he had.
Welles lived with Kodar in the Hollywood Hills, while his third wife, Paola Mori, stayed in Las Vegas with their daughter Beatrice.
Beacham had no idea Welles was ailing. He knew Welles had tried to cut back on wine and eat more carefully. He ate fish—halibut, Beacham recalled—at lunch. The day before his death they had talked about technology needed for the first day of shooting. “There was no indication anything was wrong.”
The afternoon preceding his death, Welles recorded an interview with Merv Griffin, “in which he went down memory lane, which he never did, so if there was any indication that was it maybe,” Beacham said. At the same time, Beacham was working with the film's engineers. The two men were due to speak in the morning. Instead, Beacham was contacted with the news that Welles had died of a heart attack during the night.
He was found slumped over his typewriter, working on their script, Beacham said. A Welles assistant called Beacham and said bluntly: “Frank, the project has been canceled.”
“I was totally shocked,” Beacham recalled, then laughed softly. For some weeks, Gary Graver, Welles’ late cinematographer, drove around with Welles’ ashes in his car trunk. “What if Gary had had a fender bender, and Orson Welles’ ashes had gone flying all over the LA freeway?”
Some months later, Beacham said, Welles' ashes were buried in Ronda, Spain, on the property of a longtime friend, retired bullfighter Antonio Ordóñez.
After Welles’ death Beacham teamed up with Tim Robbins to finish Cradle Will Rock, a film Welles had tried, and failed, to produce. He also made a documentary talking to the actors Welles worked with at the Mercury Theatre. “Many of the male actors had been told by their wives they had to choose between Orson and them, as Orson was so consuming in his control and the time he demanded from people. We joked that we were slaves, not just to a man but also the idea of unlimited creative freedom.”
Beacham’s life changed after Welles' death. “When you’re touched by genius, as I was lucky enough to have been with Orson, you know life is going to be different. I couldn’t go back to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I went freelance and began to do the work I wanted to do.” Beacham is now the same age as Welles when Welles died, and about to start work on a network TV project.
This play is his first, and Demas is so like Welles (though without his deep voice) that Beacham occasionally emerges from their lunches as exhausted as he was after lunch with Welles himself.
Welles, Beacham said, would have welcomed all the innovations in technology, particularly in filmmaking, that have taken place in the last 30-plus years.
Had he been alive, Welles would be using all this new technology to make movies. Whenever Beacham sees a new camcorder, or an upgrade to an Apple application like iMovie, he thinks of Welles. “If he were alive today, he’d be making his movies without regard to raising huge amounts of money.”
“Orson would have 225 iPhones,” Beacham said, laughing. “He was always heading to the next big areas of innovation.”
“I would love to thank him for changing my life,” Beacham said of Welles. “I didn’t know it at the time. I was aware I was going through incredible changes because of the contrast of Orson’s world of total creativity and the world of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous which was so much about taking the pay check. Orson gave me the freedom to let go of it. If I could speak to him today I would thank him eternally for that.”
Maverick is at the Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th Street, NYC, until March 2.