Bright Lights Film Journal

Orson Welles and the Death of Sirhan Sirhan: Part I: The Conspirators

A screenshot of Orson Welles from F for Fake (1973)

2015 marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Orson Welles. Despite numerous biographies and critical studies, we are still piecing together the full story of his wild and complicated career, distinguishing the facts from the myths – many of which he invented himself.

This two-part article draws on extensive archival research and new interviews to explore a fascinating lost episode from 1975 during the making of Welles’s legendary Other Side of the Wind. It is the history of a Welles project that was never made – a politically radical conspiracy thriller about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy – and also a tale from the fringes of Hollywood in a transformative era.

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Part I: The Conspirators

On the day the assassin’s – or assassins’ – bullets hit Robert F. Kennedy, Orson Welles was between stints in Senegal and West Berlin, acting in bad movies for easy money. A prominent political activist in the 1930s and ’40s, Welles had escaped the McCarthy era and for twenty years roamed Europe as a well-paid actor-for-hire, funneling his earnings into guerrilla film projects. He lived far from America’s 1968: its riots, political murders, and the deep fracturing of public consensus.

Robert F. Kennedy giving a speech in 1968. Public domain photo, per Wikimedia Commons

Yet during his expatriate years Welles said: “I have never considered myself as a man without a country. I’m very much an American and I deeply regret my inability to make films on American subjects, because they’re the ones that interest me most.”

An opportunity came his way in 1975, several years after he’d returned to work more regularly in the USA: a leading role in an independent conspiracy thriller titled Sirhan Sirhan or RFK Must Die. It could have been an easy $125,000 for two weeks’ work, the kind of job Welles often accepted to bankroll his barely differentiated life and filmmaking. It didn’t turn out that way. Within weeks Welles had become the project’s central creative figure, a situation that echoed his promotion from supporting actor to writer and director on Touch of Evil (1958). Maybe he saw a chance to repeat the trick. But whereas that earlier film made it through the Hollywood studio system – albeit butchered, reedited, and partially reshot – Sirhan Sirhan was cancelled before even a frame of film was exposed.

So, one more unproduced Orson Welles script. There are dozens going back to 1939’s Heart of Darkness, projects even less tangible than the many other films Welles wholly or partially shot but never finished.

For decades the non-appearance of many of Welles’s projects helped give credence to critic Charles Higham’s reductive but pervasive theory: Welles’s psychological inability to complete his work. Archival research only reveals that each unfinished project was subject to unique and lamentable circumstances that made it impossible to realise within the realities of the international film industry. Despite his desire for elusive commercial success, Orson Welles was radical not just in his aesthetics but also in his methods. He put his own money into his movies, describing himself as “an amateur director … in the sense that ‘amateur’ derives from love.” In later years he avoided binding contracts and traditional accounting. He always worked with great energy, but his time-consuming filming and intricate editing process, sometimes lasting years, became less and less compatible with film business demands. Welles seems to have responded to this problem in two ways, depending on the malleability of his producer of the moment: either to try to overcome the incompatibilities or to pretend to conform to norms of commercial practice while continuing to work in his own way. From this perspective, each completed Welles film must be considered a triumph of his doggedness against varied oppositions.

Expected to conform to a conventional filmmaking paradigm, Welles worked under scrutiny. His celebrity meant he rarely had the luxury of finishing even his self-financed projects with discretion, “as an author [would] finish it, [in] my own good time”; seemingly everybody asked him about what he began to call When Are You Going to Finish Don Quixote?

That said, the details of many of Orson Welles’s later activities still remain obscure. The Sirhan Sirhan project, for example, remains almost entirely unknown. Joseph McBride, in his estimable career defense What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? (2006), gave brief attention to one version of Welles’s rewrite of the screenplay, retitled Assassin or The Safe House. Still, not even the year of the project nor its chronological relationship to the uncompleted Other Side of the Wind is known to the public. Fortunately, Welles’s later papers have recently become available to researchers. Archived at the University of Michigan, the documents provide a wealth of new information.

Screenshot of Welles at the editing table

With a better understanding of Welles’s radical methods, the most helpful question is not “why did Welles fail to finish his films?” but “why did each particular unfinished project fail to get off the ground or move to completion?’ Sirhan Sirhan should not be considered an emblematic failure of a long and troubled career. It is a specific case – Welles’s attempt to work within the model of politically radical independent filmmaking in a transformative era of Hollywood and American politics.

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Had any American films more bravely illustrated the mechanisms of corruption than Citizen Kane (1941) and Touch of Evil? Perhaps only Sweet Smell of Success (1957) so unflinchingly depicted the workings of the moral cesspool of American power. Film noir and the Western certainly transmitted powerful visions of corrupt officials – sometimes radical, sometimes reactionary. But direct acknowledgment of the darkness in the heart of the corporate oligarchy and the military-industrial complex – even in the executive government of the United States – did not go mainstream until the gloomy Watergate years. The conspiracy thriller flourished at this time of deep disillusionment and pessimism. The best of these films are Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1973), Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), and two films by Alan J. Pakula: The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976).

One of the earliest and boldest of these conspiracy thrillers is now largely forgotten. Executive Action, directed by David Miller in 1973, dramatized one John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory. It began with a disclaimer: “Although much of this film is fiction, much of it is also based on documented historical fact. Did the conspiracy we describe actually exist? We do not know. We merely suggest that it could have existed.”

The original story (and tie-in novel) was co-written by UCLA professor Donald Freed and assassination specialist Mark Lane. The formerly blacklisted Dalton Trumbo took the principal screenwriting credit. The result was a talky movie lacking personal drama that nevertheless caused a major controversy when released briefly to theatres in November 1973. The eeriest scene shows assassins rehearsing triangulated sniping in the desert prior to the attack at Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

Trumbo’s Executive Action backed away from accusing the CIA of direct involvement in JFK’s assassination. Co-producer Dan Bessie recalled in his memoir Reeling Through Hollywood (2006) that original scenarists Freed and Lane, along with some critics, “didn’t seem to understand that in 1973 a major Hollywood film would simply never have been distributed, let alone be made, had it fingered the U.S. government and the Central Intelligence Agency as being directly responsible for the assassination.” In the film the culprits are ex-operatives of secret intelligence organisations – that murky milieu. The cash comes from a right-wing Southern tycoon (Will Geer). The motive is JFK’s stance on civil rights, his test ban treaty, and his intention to withdraw from Vietnam. Kennedy threatens to thwart the genocidal ambitions of the assassination kingpin (Robert Ryan), who explains to a fellow conspirator (Burt Lancaster):

In two decades there will be seven billion human beings on this planet, most of them brown, yellow, or black, all of them hungry, all of them determined to love. They’ll swarm out of their breeding grounds into Europe and North America. Hence, Vietnam. An all-out effort there will give us control of South Asia for decades to come. And with proper planning we can reduce the population to 550 million by the end of the century … the techniques used there can be used to reduce our own excess population: blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, poverty-prone whites, and so forth.

Sirhan Sirhan’s mugshot, May 23, 1969. Public domain photo per Wikimedia Commons

Amid the controversy of Executive Action, Donald Freed was developing another joint novel/screenplay which dramatized the theory that Palestinian refugee Sirhan Sirhan had been “programmed” to take sole blame for the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. (Freed was also developing a James Earl Ray script project with Mark Lane titled Slay the Dreamer.) The RFK project never settled on a definitive title. The novel was called LA 12:14 in its final draft before galleys but would be published as The Killing of RFK. The Freed script bound and distributed to actors in early 1975 was titled Sirhan Sirhan but referred to as RFK Must Die in subsequent correspondence and legal documents.

This bound version of the script was probably completed by early 1974. In summary: it begins with Ted Kennedy’s eulogy at RFK’s funeral. In the tradition of Executive Action, the script called for the integration of archival and newly shot footage. Fictional characters inserted into the funeral scene include Paul Woods, a black former Secret Service agent under President Kennedy and subsequently a public relations man for RFK.

A flashback to early 1968 introduces conspirator Dr. William A. Must Jr.. He uses a New Orleans associate to recruit a would-be RFK assassin, Osgood, under the cover of Black Muslim radicalism. But Osgood suspects duplicity after the murder of Martin Luther King. He runs into a church screaming, “These vicious honky pigs gonna pen us all up in concentration camps – they’re playing the Nazis but we ain’t gonna play the Jews!” Must has Osgood’s recruiter murdered, but Osgood escapes.

Paul Woods discovers FBI Agent William Thurman in the process of bugging RFK’s hotel room for the senator’s own “protection” after an anonymous tip (presumably from Osgood). But somebody has beaten Thurman to the job with more impressive bugging technology. The men form an alliance. Woods decides to investigate the informant. He heads to New Orleans, where D.A. Jim Garrison is lecturing on the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination. Garrison advises Woods: “Intelligence can take mob torpedos [sic], political mental cases, exiled Cubans – the denizens of the gutter – and weave the whole crew into a seamless web of conspiracy … Then they’ll plan it, pay for it, staff it, and after the job’s done, break it down into its original pieces again – and each piece is a cover.”

Meanwhile, William A. Must visits a “Neuro-Psychiatric Institute” to meet Dr. Helen Dukmejian, “in her late twenties with huge almond-shaped eyes, a perfect complexion and a magnificently proportioned body.” Helen demonstrates the institute’s range of innovative but cruel “behavior modification” techniques. Must explains the RFK assassination plot and asks about the possibility of “programming” an assassin. Helen replies: “There is no ‘Manchurian Candidate’ if that’s what you’re looking for. We can ‘modify’ behavior but if you want to set somebody up, then traditional methods will be necessary.”

A mysterious Orthodox priest – revealed in Freed’s novel as a former assassin with the Yugoslavian Ustaše – has already provided Must with a file on Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, injured jockey and Palestinian Christian refugee. He’ll be the fall guy now Osgood has revolted.

“Controlling him won’t be enough, doctor,” Must tells Dukmejian. “You’ve got to give him politics: suicidal revolutionary politics – Black Panthers – Al Fatah!”

What is Helen’s motive for cooperating with Must’s mysterious organisation? Must promises to spare the life of her long-lost father. She is haunted by memories of him under torture in Greece. Freed’s novel explains that her father is a former fascist terrorist of the Ustaše. Helen seduces the insecure Sirhan, pretending a mutual interest in the occult. She claims to be an Armenian refugee who was also exiled by Israel and recruits Sirhan into a phony organisation of Palestinian guerrilla fighters. Helen performs “a provocative belly dance” to seal his fate. She toys with Sirhan’s insecure masculinity. She takes him to the institute in a drugged and hypnotised state. He watches a film of violent images (The Parallax View features a similar hypnotic indoctrination film). When Sirhan baulks at shooting an empty gun at an image of RFK, she says: “Child of violence! They have sown the wind – we will reap the whirlwind!” The code name to trigger Sirhan’s violence will be “Saladin.”

Must justifies the planned assassination to Helen. “These Kennedys are fanatics. Their appeal is to the anarchists and the rioters. Outside your antiseptic laboratory is a nation edging toward chaos! The decent people have an obligation to stop this army of criminals, and it’s Utopian to think they can be pacified one by one with your ‘psycho-technology.’ This is the first stage of a new civil war, and you and I are just taking orders.”

Paul Woods reports strange cars following RFK on the campaign trail; RFK’s minders consider Woods unduly paranoid. Then Osgood appears in person to tell Woods of the assassination plot; he points to the involvement of the New Orleans mafia and the CIA. By now Thurman has been demoted by the FBI for his independent sleuthing and turned to drink. He takes note of Helen and Sirhan at a bar in Pomona where RFK has just appeared.

One assassination attempt in San Francisco on May 31 is aborted. Sirhan is suicidal. Violent Arabs replace Helen as his main controllers. Thurman spies Sirhan in TV coverage of RFK’s campaign. He remembers him and reports the sighting to Woods (it’s not clear why Thurman should be suspicious). On the night of June 5, Woods’s girlfriend is dispatched to meet Thurman in Pomona and have an artist’s sketch made of Sirhan for identification purposes. Alas, she is unable to return in time to the Ambassador Hotel. Must has prepared another assassin disguised as a guard. Helen wears a polka dot dress, identifying her as the mysterious woman famously seen running from the scene screaming, “We shot him! We shot him!” RFK is hit in the pantry and Sirhan arrested for the crime. The dream of another President Kennedy is dashed. A young college student yells, “Fuck this country! Fuck this country!”

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An assassinations researcher named Jack Kimbrough had a partial co-credit – a “with” – on Freed’s original Sirhan Sirhan screenplay. Today Donald Freed recalls Kimbrough merely encouraging him to write the project and helping with research by delivering library books. The break in Freed’s association with Kimbrough is confirmed by a May 6, 1974, letter from Freed to Kennedy researcher Harold Weisberg. Freed wrote that Kimbrough’s name had to remain on the script for legal reasons.

Kimbrough was the self-published author of The Killing of Robert Kennedy: An Assassination Scrapbook (1972). In early 1968, a few months before RFK’s murder, he had sent the senator a song in tribute to the slain president. It is too single-minded to have been anything but a passive-aggressive provocation. To the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Kimbrough’s doggerel explicitly implicates “hired assassins” shooting not only from the Texas Book Depository but also from “of course that grassy knoll” and “the Dal Tex building.” RFK responded a few weeks later with a short form letter politely thanking Kimbrough on behalf of the Kennedy family for “the talent you have devoted to honoring the late President” – sidestepping any engagement with Kimbrough’s conspiracy claims.

From at least early 1974 Sal Mineo was attached to the role of Sirhan Sirhan. Thirty-five and of Sicilian heritage, Mineo was nevertheless a good physical match for the twenty-four-year-old Palestinian. Although Mineo was long past his Academy Award-nominated roles in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Exodus (1960), he was still active in dinner theatre and on television. Having made his reputation playing sensitive youths driven to violence, in 1974 Mineo played a vicious killer in the series S.W.A.T. The actor was pooling his performance fees Orson Welles-style to fund a film project based on Charles Gorhan’s gay-themed novel McCaffery (1961). Mineo had served as a campaigner for RFK in 1968 and was skeptical of official explanations. He called the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of JFK “totally bullshit.”

Sal Mineo (left) and Vic Morrow in an episode of the TV show Combat. Public domain photo, per Wikimedia Commons

Donald Freed’s agent Michael Selsman assumed the job of producer and attempted to sell Sirhan Sirhan to Hollywood. He found no takers. Selsman explained in his 2009 memoir All Is Vanity, “the political climate was swinging to the right, which was inimical to the establishment funding yet another ‘The CIA murders anyone who poses a threat to the established order’ movie.” Inimical, perhaps, but not totally impossible: Paramount Pictures’ Three Days of the Condor, released September 1975, would show figures within the CIA authorising the murder of the agency’s own bookish researchers.

Donald Freed told me that his FBI file, declassified at his request under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals the agency monitored his meetings with Sal Mineo to discuss Sirhan Sirhan. As a left-wing activist, Freed had endured a history of surveillance and intimidation.

The Hollywood establishment passed on the project, but a Los Angeles businesswoman with almost no experience in the film industry offered a seed investment of $300,000. Orson Welles would come to refer to her in correspondence as the “lady producer” (and as she prefers to remain anonymous, I’ll call her that, too). Selsman began seeking additional investors to complete a budget of what he recalls was initially $1.5 million. The movie would be produced by the newly formed Ananke Productions (the word is Ancient Greek for “necessity”).

A press release in early 1975 announced the upcoming Sirhan Sirhan starring Sal Mineo. New Times reported that “news of the planned motion picture led John G. Christian, another assassination buff, to talk Mrs. Mary Sirhan into dismissing her son’s lawyer, Roger Hanson, on the ground that he had no right to discuss a film with Freed. Hanson and Freed denied any collaboration.” In any case, Freed pointed out that Mrs. Sirhan had no reason to worry because the film intended to exonerate Sirhan Sirhan as the lone assassin.

One thing that would attract investors to the package was the commitment of stars. Co-producer Dan Bessie claims to have polished Freed’s “way too didactic” script before it was sent to former football player Jim Brown, who accepted the starring role of Paul Woods. Michael Selsman asked Hollywood agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar for other casting ideas. Lazar was a legendary dealmaker who had been given his nickname by Humphrey Bogart. In his memoir, Selsman recalls that Lazar often sought work for actors he did not officially represent. Lazar suggested Orson Welles.

As it turned out, Selsman’s favourite film was Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane. Public domain photo, per Wikimedia Commons

In late April 1975, Selsman sent the script to director Peter Bogdanovich, who was acting as Welles’s representative in Hollywood. Welles was offered the role of William A. Must.

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In February 1975, Welles had accepted a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute. He capitalised on the televised opportunity to preview scenes from his long-in-progress feature The Other Side of the Wind. He hoped to attract new investors to buy him out of an unhappy situation with the Paris-based, Iranian-financed production company Astrophore, which was headed by Mehdi Boushehri, brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran.

Josh Karp, author of the forthcoming Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, told me recently: “Welles went into the AFI ceremony with incredibly high hopes. But after the show there were no offers, even though there have been phantom reports of a really good one that was turned down. Thus what began as a very optimistic situation gave way to a very depressing result.”

Still, despite the lack of US financiers willing to bet on the obviously experimental Wind, Welles had stirred some interest in himself. Alfredo Bini invited him to direct an epic production of Dante’s Inferno; Welles refused, thinking it impossible to realise in less than five or six years, even though, as he confided to his Roman associate Massimo Ferrara, “I am very much in need of money.” That summer Welles would be asked to direct Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy (not made until 1990 by Beatty himself). Retiring James Bond producer Harry Saltzman, who had produced Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965), wanted him to appear in an unspecified film opposite Roger Moore. And Franco Zeffirelli invited Welles to play Herod the Great in the epic TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth. Welles was interested but baulked at appearing undressed in a Turkish bath.

“I am fat,” he confessed to Zeffirelli, “and although this ugliness might be very useful to your purposes, it is not something I would be happy to exploit.”

(Zeffirelli subsequently called on the talents of Peter Ustinov.)

Welles later estimated to Mehdi Boushehri that he’d been offered “more than two million dollars” worth of work in the year or so following the AFI Tribute but turned it all down to be available for The Wind. This was not strictly true. Welles accepted RFK Must Die in 1975 and made time in his schedule.

Why this particular project over the others? The controversial political subject? The convenience of a Hollywood shoot? The fee? The initial offer was top billing and $100,000 plus expenses for two weeks’ work that July and August; Lazar bragged to Orson he had managed to bump the fee up to $125,000. An advance check for $25,000 (less Lazar’s 10%) would be handed to Welles on signing the Player’s Contract. Welles committed to the picture, although he disputed some conditions of the drafted contract and put off signing until it met his satisfaction, thus delaying the advance payment.

In late April 1975, Welles moved his operations to a house owned by director William Wellman at 628 North Hillcrest in Beverly Hills. The obliging Bogdanovich paid the rent until he could be reimbursed by Astrophore. Welles pressed on with his fifth year of shooting and editing The Wind regardless of his disintegrating situation with the Iranians. Around this time Welles rebuffed “Swifty” Lazar’s repeated requests for a personal meeting, saying that he was “working with two secretaries, two film editors and a full camera crew seven days a week for never less than 18 hours a day.” While Welles may simply have been avoiding the obsequious Lazar – who was also eagerly offering to represent Welles’s wife Paola Mori and one of her screenplay ideas – the schedule was probably not much of an exaggeration. Welles worked with a crew headed by his dauntlessly loyal cinematographer Gary Graver.

Michael Selsman met Welles for the first time at Wellman’s house in late April or early May. It was early morning, and Welles had worked through the night. In his memoir Selsman recalls what appeared to be a plentitude of dog turds on the front lawn. He soon discovered these were actually Welles’s discarded half-smoked cigars. At this time Welles was “at least 350 pounds – maybe more.” He wore a caftan that revealed “his lower calves … heavily striated with bulging, blue veins. He walked, I thought, with difficulty, as though it was painful.” Welles had read Freed’s script and was enthusiastic. In consideration of his weight, Welles requested changing the story so his character Must could be filmed sitting down. Selsman agreed, “almost giddy” in the presence of the director of his favourite movie.

And yet Selsman embarked on this new professional association in the mistaken belief that Welles had not finished a film of his own since Citizen Kane (in his 2009 memoir, Selsman still holds to this myth). In fact, a total of twelve feature-length Orson Welles films had been released up to 1975, and Welles had been able to approve the final cut on the previous four. One of these, Chimes at Midnight, is considered by many his greatest film; Welles said it was the film he would offer up to secure a place in heaven. But Welles’s European films – the last twenty-five years of work – never obtained wide distribution in the United States. There were indeed several unfinished films over a long career including It’s All True (1942) and Don Quixote (c. 1957-69), and Welles didn’t help himself by so publically heralding the long-in-gestation Other Side of the Wind at the AFI Tribute, but his films had appeared at consistent intervals of every three or four years until 1968. Following that, the innovative essay film F For Fake had made a quiet United States debut at the Los Angeles Filmex Festival in March 1974 (a 2014 Sight and Sound poll would list it as one of the greatest documentaries every made). But the facts did little to challenge public perceptions. Charles Higham’s “completion fear” explanation took on the force of myth. Selsman’s belief was typical of the time and place. And the reason Welles couldn’t finish anything? Selsman writes: “He couldn’t bear having any films of his compared to Kane, for masterpieces are awfully hard to replicate.”

Then in his late thirties, Selsman had worked as a public relations agent for Marilyn Monroe and was divorced from actress Carol Lynley. Fast friends, Welles and Selsman each expressed hope for an enduring professional relationship. Within weeks Selsman had sent Welles the pilot for a TV series called The Interview, which would feature conversations with dead historical figures in the style of Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds. Selsman invited Welles to be “co-owner, host, and occasional director/star.” He wanted him to play Stalin. What was Welles’s reaction?

I recently asked Michael Selsman by email. He told me: “Of course he said yes. He always said yes. Until he said no. The project never went anywhere.”

For his part, Welles saw in Selsman a potential producing partner beyond the RFK project that summer. He sent along a copy of an eight-minute “trailer of sorts” for an unfinished commercially oriented thriller, The Deep, based on Charles Williams’s 1963 novel Dead Reckoning. The trailer had been prepared for the AFI ceremony but not used (part of it can be seen in the 1995 documentary One Man Band). Welles told Selsman the film was “in Europe in final cut – except for a sort of prologue I would like to shoot before the main titles,” some “underwater second unit shots,” and some post-syncing by Jeanne Moreau. The trailer may have simply bolstered Selsman’s belief that Welles didn’t finish his films. The bulk of the movie had been filmed nearly eight years earlier off the Dalmatian Coast of Yugoslavia, and although Welles had told writer Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1972 that The Deep would not date – and was therefore not an urgent priority to release to theatres – time had obviously marched on. Fat and clean-shaven in the summer of 1967, Welles was by now almost debilitatingly obese and grey-bearded.

Screenshot of Oja Kodar in The Deep

If completed, The Deep may have been best remembered for introducing a beautiful young Yugoslavian actress named Oja Kodar, who is first seen diving nude into the blue Adriatic.

Welles had first met Kodar in Zagreb during the shooting of The Trial (1962). The two were in and out of contact for several years before reuniting in Paris, where Kodar studied sculpture, modelled underwear, and appeared in films by Jean Becker and Roger Vadim. Later, Welles and Kodar lived and collaborated wherever his work took him for the rest of his life.

Despite his lengthy absences, Welles never divorced his Italian wife Paola Mori, who raised their daughter Beatrice in Spain and England. Welles’s relationship with Kodar was exposed by an Italian newspaper in February 1970; soon the pair were in the United States filming The Other Side of the Wind. Kodar also featured prominently in F For Fake, including a segment about Picasso based on a story she had written herself years earlier.

But as of 1975, Fake awaited distribution in America, The Wind was unfinished, and Oja Kodar was still an unknown name in the United States.

* * *

Donald Freed recalls meeting with Welles on only two or three occasions. Presiding over a huge lunch, Welles drank Fresca diet sodas – “his concession.” Welles was intrigued by the conspiracy theory presented in Freed’s script and spoke of his activities as one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unofficial secret agents, “which would have made him a kind of Lanny Budd character,” says Freed.

Michael Selsman had put together an attractive package: a taut script and a cast of prominent actors. The shoot was rescheduled to commence in September. But who would direct RFK Must Die? The version of events presented in Selsman’s memoir has Welles requesting (and easily obtaining) the right to approve a director shortly after their first meeting. Selsman called in six potential directors to meet Welles at home. Welles requested prints of their films to view on one of his editing desks, but ultimately vetoed all six. He finally offered to do the job himself for “half a million dollars and twenty-five percent of the film,” which inflated the budget and made the project unworkable. Nevertheless, Selsman writes, he continued to try to seek the necessary financing, excited by the prospect of producing what might become Welles’s final film. But then Welles contrived to install Oja Kodar as his co-star and raised their joint demands to “a full fifty percent of the film, and $700,000 of our $2.1 million budget.”

Selsman’s damning verdict is: “[Orson] sunk [the movie] like he sunk all films from Citizen Kane on because he was afraid anything he finished would be unfairly compared and he would be remembered as a flop.”

The original documents in the Orson Welles-Oja Kodar Papers at the University of Michigan – script drafts, working pages, notes, contracts and correspondence with carbons of many of Welles’s outgoing letters and memos – record the history of this project in great detail. They confirm that Welles quickly escalated his position from top-billed supporting actor to a more central creative figure. This proved remarkably easy. The key people in the young production team were awed by Welles and his past achievements, and the lack of a director driving the project created a power vacuum. Nevertheless, the documents on file don’t support the notion that Welles ever officially committed to directing the picture, although he absolutely demanded director approval in his contract as a condition of his continued participation.

What were Welles’s intentions? Was he angling to direct all along?

Donald Freed told me: “I don’t think [Welles] would say what he wanted, frankly. I admired his enormous genius, but I think he was almost gratuitous in his game-playing.”

Despite having agreed to act in the picture, Welles was not satisfied with his character’s scenes in Freed’s script and hoped a director would be able to implement changes that would make it “interesting and worthwhile as a starring vehicle for myself.”

This stance triggered a crisis in mid-June that threatened to end the project.

Welles’s correspondence actually indicates an unnamed director had been attached from the outset. Welles set down his version of the crisis in a long memo he wrote on June 25, probably to the “lady producer”: “The director originally envisaged for RFK Must Die … made embarrassingly clear during our meeting that, not only did he have no ideas for the character of ‘Must,’ but was deeply sorry that he had to have me in the picture at all. As a result of these and other revelations, Mike [Selsman] fired him. I had no part in this.”

Welles’s reaction was not to walk away from a project to which he was still not contractually bound, but instead to cancel “my day’s work [on The Other Side of the Wind] with an expensive crew and [give] concentrated, emergency attention to the job which obviously had to be done if the movie was to be made at all.” According to Welles, “I was lucky. Indeed, I think we were all lucky,” because that day he invented a totally new conception for his character’s part of the narrative which was “enthusiastically received by both Donald [Freed] and Mike [Selsman].” He claimed to be “repeatedly opportuned to take on the job of directing the picture” by Freed and Selsman. “I repeatedly declined,” Welles explained, “stating that I would only consider this if no other solution mutually agreeable to all concerned could be found.”

Screenshot of Welles in 1971

It seems Welles made no request at this time to increase his fee. But he insisted it was reasonable he be granted the right to approve a director to ensure compatibility of vision. He also sought key cast and final script approval. In fact, he made these three conditions non-negotiable for his continued participation in the project as an actor. If the producers preferred to continue without his involvement, they would of course lose his new ideas for the script.

The producers committed to keeping Welles and his script ideas while attempting to keep the project on track for a September start date.

Selsman’s memoir recalls Donald Freed as “positively childlike in his dealings with Orson, madly scribbling ideas down and faxing them to Orson for his comments.” It seems attempts were made to incorporate some of Welles’s new script ideas with speed. Promised an imminent revision by Freed, Welles wrote to Selsman on June 23: “Whatever miracles Donald Freed may be capable of, an entirely new script by tomorrow is surely a bit more than we can hope for. Anyway, there are lots of ideas still to be developed, so I imagine that what we will be getting is some sort of rough draft indicating the new construction.”

When Freed’s rewrite duly arrived the next day, Welles wrote to Selsman: “The script just arrived. Frankly, I am rather appalled at the rush. We are in serious danger of losing many of our most important dramatic elements if we continue to be wedded to the notion that the most important thing is this sort of super speed.”

The following day, Welles wrote to the “lady producer”: “I do not know and indeed cannot conceive why Donald felt called upon to paste together a complete script in the terrific rush which he did. As a demonstration of his enthusiasm, I welcome it. As an example of what will be filmed, I, of course, deplore it – as he must, too – for the rough sketch that it is.”

Welles explained that because his ideas for the script “were not vague or sketchy, but represented an entirely new story for that part of the film that deals with the conspirators themselves, I assumed that the task of writing this new material would be a collaborative effort. Donald gave me verbal and written reasons to believe that this would be the case.”

(For the record, I did not find any such written assurance from Freed among Welles’s documents.)

On June 28, Welles wrote a two-page memo in response to Freed’s latest rewrites. By now a character named Stryker had been introduced who assumed many of the actions formerly performed by Must. The invention of Stryker meant Welles would not have to play any scenes that required physical activity.

Welles sent Freed judicious criticisms. He pushed for the elimination of undramatic political speeches. “Forgive me,” Welles wrote, “but this is a fatal turn off to a movie audience.” He urged Freed to prepare a scene-by-scene synopsis to “get some sort of objectivity about the narrative and dramatic line.” This would allow the elimination of inessential material that was causing the story to be “confused, muffled, or fragmented.” Welles identified the “main story” as that of Must, Helen, and Sirhan. He estimated it should consume about 40% of screen time. “Purely documentary material” – stock footage from news reports and campaign advertising – might count for 30%. The remaining 20% would be for “incidental or peripheral characters.” The proposed changes meant Jim Brown would be demoted to a supporting actor even more drastically than Charlton Heston had been on Touch of Evil.

Welles wrote: “The scenes with Must, the girl, and Sirhan – yes, and with Stryker, too, must not be merely expanded. Much of this story awaits conception. An important part of the work can be accomplished after a rough draft of the final shooting script has been completed.”

Welles began rewriting alone. He soon informed Selsman that he had “cancelled virtually everything else to concentrate completely on the script. The social aspects of the weekend were roudly [sic] disregarded at a friend’s house where I hold [sic] up with a typewriter. I have sent a long scene to Donald and [am] awaiting his reaction.”

Freed told me that several days after his final meeting with Welles he had been taken entirely by surprise by a messenger with “a hundred and some odd pages of the script. But this one was by Orson Welles … I remember thinking that if they were improvements they were minimal. And otherwise it had lost, I thought, a good deal of its cohesion.”

But Welles was not finished with his rewrites. Although he was pounding out new drafts with his typical speed, he was adamant that the producers’ expectation of a “final shooting script” by August 1, six weeks before the proposed start of shooting, was unworkable and also unnecessary. Welles proposed instead a “rough final draft” by the middle of August for pre-production purposes with the promise that the rewrites would not increase the existing budget of the picture. “This situation,” he assured the “lady producer,” “is so unusual in filmmaking as to be practically unique.”

He also told her, “I am breaking old commitments and totally changing my summer program in order to make your film possible.”

* * *

Before he left the United States for Europe in early July, Welles succeeded in installing his regular cameraman Gary Graver as cinematographer of RFK Must Die. He also proposed Oja Kodar for the potentially star-making role of Helen Dukmejian.

In his memoir, Selsman recalls Welles casually screening a film clip of a nude woman running in slow motion. As if by total coincidence, the actress happened to be waiting upstairs; she came down “elegantly gowned and made up.” Selsman was hardly fooled by this staged introduction. And while Welles never acknowledged a personal relationship – he introduced her merely as his co-star in The Wind – Selsman quickly discovered that Oja Kodar had been Welles’s mistress for years.

Freed was similarly introduced. He told me Welles screened for him a clip from The Other Side of the Wind: a sex scene in a car between Kodar and actor Bob Random. Freed recalled it as “erotic in its intentions, and very effective.” But the ostensibly casual showing of this clip amid the bustle of Welles’s crew also seemed contrived to Freed: “I could see, a bit, through his magic.”

Nevertheless, the producers accepted Oja Kodar. And why not? Freed’s script called for a beautiful Yugoslavian actress, and Welles the part-time magician had seemingly been able to pull one out of his hat. Kodar was relatively untried as an actress but certainly beautiful enough to play a honey trap. Selsman recommended a theatrical agent. Welles almost immediately sent Selsman one of Kodar’s own film treatments; Selsman acknowledged receipt and said he was anxious to read it. According to letters to Welles from his secretary Lynn Lewin, that summer Selsman reported he was seeking funding for Kodar’s film from a “Lebanese oil man” and his “heiress girlfriend from Ft. Lauderdale.”

And yet, having easily gotten his way on the casting, Welles was unhappy with Kodar’s proposed fee. She was a newly emerged European star fielding many offers – “her press book is quite incredible” – thus, “it is very difficult to get her to understand how modest American producers may expect her to be until she has had some impact over here.” Welles suggested that in lieu of an upfront fee Kodar be given “some points” on the film in exchange for investing in the picture through her “Swiss company” – which may have been Welles’s own Swiss company Roprama – although Welles insisted: “I dislike having to [negotiate on her behalf] myself as I am neither her agent nor connected in any way with her business in Switzerland but here in America she has no-one else to speak for her.”

Welles also attempted to squeeze out somebody who had been, from the beginning, a key cast member: Sal Mineo. On June 23, Welles wrote to Selsman about “the rather awkward question of Mineo. I am relying on your confident assumption that this can be dealt with without too much loss of blood.”

Why did Welles want Mineo off the project? Did he have somebody else in mind for Sirhan Sirhan?

I asked Selsman, who said: “Orson was a control freak … He didn’t object to Sal Mineo as such – he just wanted to control the casting … Mineo would have been perfect.”

When I told Freed of Welles’s plans to remove Mineo, he was surprised and described it as “another example of gratuitous gestures, scheming and hidden agendas and so forth … After Touch of Evil he was very weak in his casting.”

In any case, Mineo seemed unaware he was on the outs. Interviews published in August reported that Mineo was preparing to play the role of Sirhan Sirhan. Mineo told The St Petersburg Evening Independent: “The script raises enough questions to warrant reopening the case, I think, and enough questions that I’m willing to pursue that role … I think more people are ready to believe conspiracy since Watergate.”

* * *

On June 27 Welles told the “lady producer” he did not want “a director to be signed until the fundamental work on the new script has been completed. But there is nothing to stop us from lining up the various possibilities and you would be quite correct in expecting a decision from me not later than four weeks before the date of principal photography.”

Welles and Selsman probably met with potential directors shortly before Welles’s departure for Europe in early July. A typed list of contenders included Daryl Duke (A Cry for Help, 1975), Stuart Millar (When the Legends Die, 1972), Richard T. Heffron (California Kid, 1974), and Joseph Sargent, who had recently directed the superb thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Documents confirm Welles approved Sargent for the job.

When the call came to meet Welles, Sargent was just a few days from completing his direction of The Night That Panicked America, an ABC TV movie dramatising Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast.

I had a long chat with Joseph Sargent by telephone a few months before he passed away aged 89 in December, 2014. He told me: “I had heard through the grapevine that Orson Welles was very upset with Paramount Pictures because they were recreating the entire broadcast without giving him any remuneration for it … When I got the call I thought, ‘Oh, boy, here we go. He’s going to rake me over the coals and lecture me on stealing something from a creative artist.’”

Screenshot of Welles painting, circa mid-1970s

Expecting a dramatic tirade from the legendary filmmaker, Sargent put a tape recorder in his bag to secretly record the meeting. He went to Welles’s rented home in Beverly Hills. Welles and his producer were waiting for him by the swimming pool.

Sargent remembered:

I had not seen pictures of Welles gaining all that weight, so I was taken aback. This jolly fat man said, “Hello, Joe!” I was, of course, beside myself. Instead of a tirade, he never once mentioned the subject of The Night That Panicked America, never once even allowed me to believe that he knew that it was going on. And he never once was anything but charming. He was offering me a job. I was so absolutely shocked that I thought I must be having a midday nightmarish dream and I was going to wake up any minute. But sure enough, he was serious.

I said, “But Orson, explain to me exactly why you would want me to direct you in a project that you should be directing as well as acting in.” He said, “Well, my boy, I happen to be involved in two or three other projects.”

I was expecting him to pull the rug out after this magnificent reception and then say, “How dare you be doing my broadcast without paying me?” – as if I had anything to do with that. But it was for real. He wanted me to direct it.

And there I was with my Walkman buzzing away inside my bag. And then suddenly a cold wind blew up my back because I realised this had been going on for almost an hour and I was rapidly running out of tape. And if you remember an old Walkman, when you run out of tape it lets you know it. It beeps. And this very secretive surreptitious little recording I was making was about to announce itself very loudly to Mr. Welles and I was going to be in hot shit.

But it never happened because just as I thought “we’re going to run out any second now,” the meeting was over, I’m taking the script, and just as the door closed behind me the beep went off. So I was within seconds of embarrassing the shit out of myself.

(Incidentally, Sargent’s tape recording of the meeting has gone missing.)

* * *

From the beginning, Welles had been unhappy with the details of his Player’s Contract. Both he and Lazar considered the first draft particularly amateur from a legal point of view. Drafts went back and forth between Welles, Lazar, the “lady producer,” and various attorneys. Welles was exasperated by what he felt was unwarranted pressure to sign the contract quickly. In comparison, according to Josh Karp, Welles avoided ever signing a director’s contract for The Other Side of the Wind.

Following the crisis moment in mid-June and the “new state of affairs” with his expanded creative role as co-writer, Welles had asked the producers for an additional “deal memorandum” or “side letter” contractually assuring those approvals of script, director, and principal cast.

Attorneys for Ananke wanted to conclude the deal quickly. On June 24, Selsman explained to Welles that some of the film’s investors needed to deposit funds in escrow before June 30 for tax reasons, and they were reluctant to do so without the contractual assurance that Welles would star in the picture.

If Welles had not known already that he was essential to the survival of the project, he could hardly have had doubts now. But he wouldn’t be rushed. A June 25 meeting with the “lady producer” left him fuming. He reported to Selsman that he suspected she was unwilling to grant him the approvals – and questioning his commitment to the film. He insisted, “I am trying to get things settled and constructive underway. I deplore this atmosphere of suspicion. Please tell your lady associate that I am a pussy cat of the world in time of mutual trouble. We are now at a stage where everybody should be cooperating full-out and not making futile jestures [sic] of caution or whatever this might be.”

To the “lady producer” directly, the same day: “Does anyone imagine that I am attempting to exploit the deadline of your tax shelter deal by forcing unmerited conditions out of an emergency situation?” He speculated inexperience at the production company might be to blame for his treatment. “Like all filmmakers, I have suffered the usual list of indignities from the executive side of the movie business. But this one is entirely new and makes no sense at all.”

In another letter to the “lady producer,” Welles explained his reasons for demanding script approval: “Since I am taking no credit as co-author and enjoy none of the authority of either a co-author, a director, or a producer – since these changes of my own devising are a consideration for me doing the job at all – it is painfully obvious that I must be allowed to decide whether my conditions have been met after I have signed our contract. The script approval clause is the only thing that will make this possible.”

But as this clause could theoretically enable Welles to walk away from the project if his conditions were not met, he volunteered to forego the advance payment of $25,000.

“The truth is I had forgotten about that advance payment which was to be made to me on signature of the contract,” he wrote. “Thinking about it now, I realise that you might well feel you had put your investors in some jeopardy if you paid me money without the certainty that you had my services. I, hereby, absolve you of the necessity to pay this advance and remove it as a condition of me signing the contract.”

The June 30 tax deadline passed. It would seem the failure to officially lock in Welles scared off those investors and put the project in doubt. On July 1, Welles sent pages to Freed and Selsman so they would “have some notion of the direction my work has been taking in that hopeful period when I was revising the script.” The wrangling over the precise wording of the approvals in the “deal memorandum” continued. On July 2, Welles told the “lady producer” that “the time is really past when I can continue to wait patiently for a formal response to my requests. I am leaving for Europe, having put off the trip as long as I possibly can.”

Nevertheless, the producers persisted with Welles and the film.

Next Week: Part 2: The Safe House (conclusion).

* * *

SOURCES

Author Interviews

Telephone interview with Donald Freed, 27 July 2014; Telephone interview with Joseph Sargent, 28 August 2014; Email interviews with Michael Selsman, 18 July and 26 August 2014; Email interview Josh Karp, 9 July 2014.

Special Collections Library, University Of Michigan

The Inferno (1975) [subseries]: Pre-production/development material, 1975, Box 9, Orson Welles – Oja Kodar Papers

Assassin (1975-1976): Original Version (as “Sirhan Sirhan” by Donald Freed with Jack Kimbrough) (photocopy of typescript), undated (3 folders), Box 9, Orson Welles – Oja Kodar Papers

Assassin (1975-1976): Draft (photocopy of “Non-Helen Carbon”), undated (3 folders), Box 9, Orson Welles – Oja Kodar Papers

Assassin (1975-1976): Development/Pre-production materials, 1975-1976 (2 folders), Box 10, Orson Welles – Oja Kodar Papers

Name and Topical [series]: Weissberger, Arnold, 1973-1976, Box 21, Orson Welles – Oja Kodar Papers

Name and Topical [series]: Zeffirelli, Franco, 1975, Box 21, Orson Welles – Oja Kodar Papers

Passports and British work permit, 1968-1983, Box 22, Orson Welles – Oja Kodar Papers

Books

Anile, Alberto (trans. Perryman, Marcus), Orson Welles in Italy (Indiana University Press, 2013).

Bessie, Dan, Reeling Through Hollywood: How I Spent 40 Fabulous Years in Film and Never Made a Nickel (Untreed Reads, 2011 [2006]).

Biskind, Peter, My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles (Metropolitan Books, 2013).

Drössler, Stefan (ed), The Unknown Orson Welles (Belleville/Filmmuseum München, 2004).

Estrin, Mark W. (ed), Orson Welles: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2002).

Freed Donald, The Killing of RFK (Sphere, 1977).

Karp, Josh, Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).

McBride, Joseph, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career (University Press of Kentucky, 2006).

Michaud, Michael Gregg, Sal Mineo: A Biography (Crown Publishing Group, 2010).

Selsman, Michael, All Is Vanity: Memoirs of a Hollywood Operative (New World Digital Publishing, 2009).

Online Sources

Donald Freed to Harold Weisberg, 6 May 1974: http://jfk.hood.edu/Collection/Weisberg%20Subject%20Index%20Files/F%20Disk/Freed%20Donald/Item%2016.pdf. Accessed 23 September 2014.

Robert F. Kennedy to Jack Kimbrough, 22 February 1968: http://jfk.hood.edu/Collection/Weisberg%20Subject%20Index%20Files/K%20Disk/Kimbrough%20Jack/Item%2002.pdf. Accessed 23 September 2014.

New Times (n.d.) http://jfk.hood.edu/Collection/Weisberg%20Subject%20Index%20Files/F%20Disk/Freed%20Donald/Item%2026.pdf. Accessed 23 September 2014.

Wright, Fred. ‘Sal Mineo: Dual Roles for Dream’, St Petersburg Evening Independent, 6 August 1975. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=950&dat=19750806&id=euQLAAAAIBAJ&sjid=OFgDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7075,1047554

Films

Orson Welles: The One Man Band (Vassili Silovic & Oja Kodar, 1995).