Bright Lights Film Journal

Orson Welles and the Death of <em>Sirhan Sirhan</em>: Part II: The Safe House

Screenshot from the F for Fake trailer

Part I of this article told the story of how Orson Welles, while directing his legendary and never-finished Other Side of the Wind, took time out in early 1975 to accept a leading role in an independent conspiracy thriller called Sirhan Sirhan or RFK Must Die. The film, scripted by Donald Freed and to be produced by Ananke Productions, was intended to exonerate the Palestinian refugee Sirhan Sirhan as the lone assassin of Robert F. Kennedy. In fact, it dramatized Sirhan’s duping by a network of intelligence “programmers.” Welles was asked to play the chief conspirator, Dr. William A. Must Jr.

Welles’ co-stars would have been Sal Mineo (as Sirhan) and football legend Jim Brown. The project should have been an easy $125,000 paycheck for Welles, but it didn’t turn out that way. He quickly became the project’s central creative figure. He demanded contractually assured approval of director, script, and cast, completely rewrote the screenplay, and installed his Yugoslavian lover and collaborator Oja Kodar in a starring role.

Part II continues the story in early July 1975. Welles’s reluctance to sign his contract has put the project in doubt. Welles leaves Hollywood for Europe.

* * *

Part II: The Safe House

Welles’s pressing reasons for going to Europe in the summer of 1975 remain mysterious. By this stage he was delaying or avoiding meeting with his Iranian and French production partners on The Other Side of the Wind. Discussions about directing Alfredo Bini’s Italian epic Inferno had apparently been reactivated, although a cable Welles sent to his associate Massimo Ferrara on July 1 suggests more obscure game-playing; Welles sought a non-binding document from Bini that would state the salary offered for Inferno “for diplomatic purposes only” in Welles’s dealings with the Iranians; he would be “unable to obtain liberty for Inferno” otherwise.

Perhaps there were simply personal reasons to be in Europe. Welles’s wife Paola Mori and daughter Beatrice still lived in England, although Welles had his mail that summer directed care of Oja Kodar’s house and ad hoc film studio in Orvilliers, a rural suburb of Paris. Welles later said he became seriously ill in this period and was hospitalised.

His passport shows he reached London on July 6. Welles met his lawyer Arnold Weissberger in mid-July to discuss his roster of planned and possible activities including commercials for Japanese whiskey and Domecq sherry, and film and television offers from Roman Polanski, Herbert Ross, David Susskind, and others. Welles departed London on the 24th, probably for Paris, and then returned to London on August 5.

Welles continued to rewrite the Sirhan Sirhan script throughout the summer. He clearly had no intention of sidelining original writer Donald Freed; Welles had asked in advance that the producers fly Freed to England for at least two weeks in July: “I will already have done a great bit of my own work in [sic] the Must sequences and together we will be reshaping his elements and mind [sic] and hammering them into a coherent whole.”

Freed never made the trip. Ananke’s lawyer explained to Welles’s Hollywood secretary Lynn Lewin on August 1 that Freed would only be sent to England after Welles had signed his contract and had responded to Freed’s latest revisions.

Freed never heard of the invitation to work with Welles in England and told me: “I would have gone in a minute. That would have been a thrill.”

It appears Welles and Kodar finally signed contracts in early August, presumably while they were in Paris. The final version of the accompanying “deal memo” gave Welles all the approvals he requested. Welles’s secretary reported that producer Michael Selsman was “one call away from confirming a deal” with Joseph Sargent, who had just directed a TV movie about Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast. But Sargent turned down the job of directing the Sirhan Sirhan project. He told me:

[Welles] gave me pretty much a first draft of the script and I took it home and I just couldn’t believe my eyes as to how bad it was. And how presumptuous it was to treat the Robert Kennedy murder as a conspiracy. I guess psychologically none of us can really appreciate or want to believe that these things are as random as they are in the hands of a lone assassin. Whatever the reasons for all these conspiracy theories, I certainly wasn’t one of the subscribers to it because there’s just too much evidence. But at any rate that wasn’t my main complaint. My main complaint was that it was so badly put together. It was almost as if Orson was knocking the thing off between dull moments, and certainly very distracted by the other projects he was involved in at that moment. There were at least two or three or four.

Sargent concluded:

If anything I probably enjoy the comforting thought that I was maybe one of the few directors – an adoring director of a man of great stature who stood before me in all his glory – to turn him down on a project. Because subsequently all the years since I’ve heard these horror stories of how he could be on the set. I thought, “My God, somebody’s up there looking after me.” I’m so delighted I never got involved in that project, because it would have cost me my health, I’m sure, with the indignities that he could suffer on people.

* * *

Welles returned to Los Angeles late on the evening of September 3. He wrote to Michael Selsman the following morning, remarkably clear-headed despite complaints of jet-lag and his lingering summer illness. He claimed that in England he had finished an “entire script – that is to say, with my scenes and Donald’s placed in order and properly typed.” This script was supposed to have been delivered to Selsman ahead of Welles’s return, but there had been “a whole series of tragic mishaps” while he worked out of a hospital bed: his “temporary stenographer” had mixed up his papers and sent the script to a film lab in Rome by mistake (Welles’s friend Peter Bogdanovich wound up with the lab instructions in Los Angeles).

So that version was lost.

Nevertheless, Welles sent all but two of his reconstructed scenes to Selsman on the morning of September 4. He said he would rewrite the missing scenes from memory and notes. Welles acknowledged that “the placement of my scenes is not definite and I am eager to have Donald’s own thoughts about construction.”

At some point the script was retitled Assassin (it was also apparently known as The Safe House).

The extent of Welles’s labour is confirmed by the almost forty folders’ worth of Sirhan Sirhan/RFK Must Die/Assassin drafts, notes, work pages, and duplicates now on file at the University of Michigan. Establishing an exact chronology of the development of the script is challenging because Welles only occasionally dated his pages and tended to create composites of different manuscripts. Nevertheless, one copy of Assassin, obscurely noted as “photocopy of ‘Non-Helen Carbon’” – which nevertheless features Helen as a character – seems to be the most completely realised version in the archive. Let’s call it PNHC. It is an unnumbered 143-page screenplay in three folders. It seems to be a composite of photocopied carbons of professionally typed pages with a very small number of freshly typewritten pages interpolated (with some repetitions). One fifteen-page segment is misplaced twenty-seven pages too early. There are no handwritten annotations on either this manuscript nor visible on the original carbons it draws from, although occasional traces of inconsistent page numberings are discernable in the upper-left corners.

PNHC was probably compiled after Welles’s return to Hollywood sometime between September and November 1975. It represents a fully realised reworking of Freed’s Sirhan Sirhan and indeed incorporates an entirely new narrative line for Must, Helen, and Sirhan. It is less interested in the mechanics of the conspiracy and much more in the characters. Welles reconceives the film as a story of voyeurism, frustrated desire, and ideological fatigue. Nevertheless, it is probably not Welles’s latest version of the script, which he continued to develop until at least May 1976.

Freed told me he never worked together with Welles on rewrites. As the correspondence shows, Freed did make some brisk revisions in late June 1975 based on Welles’s new story ideas before Welles asserted control and took over. The opening scene of PNHC may have had some origins in Freed’s rewrites because Mark Lane, Freed’s frequent collaborator, appears as himself on a talk show. Lane screens what seems to be the Zapruder film – an improbable occurrence on a 1968 television show – and argues for the existence of multiple shooters in the JFK assassination. The wheelchair-bound Dr. William A. Must, director of the “Pacific Institute for Human Survival,” appears on the panel to rubbish Lane’s conspiracy claims. He says, “the problem before us is not ‘mind control,’ it is tragically gun control!”

The narrative thread featuring RFK’s fictional public relations officer, the black former Secret Service operative Paul Woods, remains largely intact. Nevertheless, one of Woods’s more hagiographic homages to RFK is now tempered by: “I do not believe the man is a saint. What can I tell you? The Kennedy men mature late.” And perhaps Welles’s FDR-era Lanny Budd activities inspired this new Woods speech to his girlfriend: “Lady, I was once a member of what we laughingly call ‘the intelligence community’ and I want you to know that there are some people in this country that could have blended right in with Adolph [sic] and his gang and never looked back. And between Camelot – no matter how phony – and Buchenwald, I have no problem at all making my choice.”

Helen (aka Eleni) is no longer a scientist from the Neuro-Psychiatric Institute, but now a Marxist revolutionary coerced into the RFK assassination conspiracy by threat of forced return to the Greek Colonels. Must’s “Pacific Institute” is now the source of research into “programming” human behaviour. Must is an intelligence veteran, probably CIA, with shadowy past connections to former German spy Reinhard Gehlen, who later worked for the agency. (Joseph McBride suggests that Must was based on Dr. William Joseph Bryan Jr., a hypnotist who was posthumously accused of being Sirhan Sirhan’s CIA programmer by William Turner and John Christian’s The Assassination of Robert Kennedy: The Conspiracy and Coverup [1978].)

Must installs Helen in a Los Angeles studio apartment – a “safe house” – with “eastern touches in the furnishings and a strong hint of what can only be described as the counter culture.” Occult posters decorate the walls. Helen never sees Must. He observes her from an adjoining apartment either by closed-circuit television or a one-way mirror (either option is proposed in the script). He speaks to her over a loudspeaker, a clever idea that would have taken advantage of Welles’s powerful voice. Helen resents her recruitment by Must’s “secret police” and has no patience for Must or his rhetoric that “assassination, in an age of nuclear overkill” is “the only humane way left to us for waging war.”

Helen wonders why Must has selected an Arab for assassination programming. Must explains: “There’s the Jewish vote, Eleni – Kennedy can’t speak for Palestine; it’s the only minority with a real grudge against him.”

Must previews the violent indoctrination film that will be used on Sirhan. He explains that they will trick Sirhan into thinking he is watching a television program. They will drug him with powerful hashish and “move on to subliminal material.” Helen points out the etymological connection of the Arabic words “hashish” and “assassin,” originating in the ancient story of a cult leader who kept his murderers drugged. Must tells Helen she will obtain power over Sirhan through “magic, drugs and sex.” Must is embarrassed to speak of sex. Helen insists, “I am the whore, you are my pimp,” but Must rejects that characterisation.

Must’s strongman Stryker comes to suspect his boss is sexually besotted with Helen.

An aerial view of Griffith Observatory by Dax Castro – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Under Stryker’s surveillance, Helen baits Sirhan. The two visit the Los Angeles Planetarium (the Griffith Observatory) – an interesting choice considering Sal Mineo’s character Plato is killed at that location in Rebel Without a Cause. Back at the safe house, a drugged Sirhan begs Helen to reveal her secrets. “If I told you, I’d have to make you a part of it,” she says. He promises he will die for her. She turns off the light and takes Sirhan to bed. Must watches jealously through the darkness. Helen tells Sirhan she doesn’t want him to die for her. She wants him to kill for her. He reacts in horror, but Helen distracts him with fellatio.

Later Helen disobeys orders and takes Sirhan to a motel two miles from the Mexican border. Is she attempting an escape? In any case, one of Stryker’s aides is at the scene. Helen confronts the aide in the parking lot. Sirhan wakes from his drugged sleep and attacks Stryker’s man under the illusion of protecting Helen from rape. Sirhan is knocked out.

Stryker reports these events to Must, who makes excuses for Helen and proposes they draw her back into the conspiracy by promising her freedom after the assassination. Stryker is appalled by Must’s naiveté after forty years in intelligence. But for now Must is still in charge.

At night in their adjoining apartments, Must confesses his motives to Helen, reaching out for understanding: “God save us from the ‘machos’! The Bomb – for a macho president – is the final extension of his own masculine potency. Remember when macho Jack went up against old Kruschev [sic] and played chicken with eternity? He proved his virility – the game didn’t go on. But just suppose it had? Do you think we can afford to play those kind of games?”

And of the work of his institute: “My kind of work’s condemned as an unholy tinkering with the human soul. But really, what we’re learning to change is the human species. Soon – very soon – bio-chemistry will complete the process. Man’s last accomplishment will be the greatest – to replace himself with something better. To design and produce a new creature to inherit the earth.”

Must and Stryker continue to argue about Helen’s post-assassination future. Must has promised her safety; Stryker accuses Must of “a teeny little tingle in your crotch.”

Now there are two scenes closely adapted from Freed’s novel that did not appear in his Sirhan Sirhan script. Stryker visits a right-wing gun nut in “semen stained pajamas,” interrupting his “biweekly masturbation ritual,” and orders him to kill Helen on an anti-communist pretext. And in another conversation, Stryker talks of his plans to obtain funding from the mafia by falsely suggesting RFK will re-open the JFK murder investigation when elected. So who were the actual perpetrators of the JFK murder? Part of a renegade assassination team unleashed to assassinate Fidel Castro by RFK himself. When the Kennedy brothers called off the assassins, the team was left available to the highest bidder. Actually Stryker is sure the investigation will never be re-opened. “Does he want the country to know he was ultimately responsible for his brother’s own assassination?” Stryker says. “The chickens came home to roost.”

Because conversations at the safe house are taped, Must secretly lures Helen to a department store phone booth. He calls and supplies her with a post-assassination escape plan. She should disobey the official instructions – which will lead to her death – and wait for him at the Roosevelt Hotel. To prove his sincerity, Must reveals himself in a neighbouring phone booth. This is the only Must scene that occurs outside of the safe house.

The assassination takes place. Helen escapes. In the final scene the safe house is being dismantled while Must watches the RFK funeral on TV. In a not entirely satisfactory conclusion, Must gives up Helen’s location to Stryker under threat of violence. Then Must realises he too will die. He is wheeled out of the safe house as Ted Kennedy delivers the eulogy.

* * *

Michael Selsman suffered dental problems the week of Welles’s return to Hollywood. Welles, himself recently “in the hands of the quacks,” sent along notes of sympathy. (Selsman recalls in his memoir that the men shared the same Hollywood dentist, one “Painless” Dr. Phil Rubin.) Welles was able to spend the next few days tidying up the script. For now he camped out at Chez Bogdanovich at 212 Copa de Oro Road in Beverly Hills. There are two pages of living expenses in Welles’s files for the month of September totaling $2,460.03 including Welles’s first-class round trip from England to Hollywood, salaries for two secretaries, typing, and parking expenses.

As Joseph Sargent had passed on the project, it is not clear who, if anybody, was now lined up to direct. Come September 15 the film had yet to begin shooting. Communications from Welles to Selsman were still amicable, but Welles was worried. He wrote that Oja Kodar was still in Europe but had already closed up her house, prepared to come to Los Angeles on short notice. She had cancelled her participation in “a Yugoslavian film and a television job” in order to be available in September. There was still the matter of her wigs and wardrobes to organise in advance of the shoot. But Selsman had now advised there was no need for Kodar to come to the U.S. so urgently. Welles, who said he’d “[assumed] that we are going to start in very short order,” started to have serious doubts about the production.

Selsman had lately reported unspecified trouble with lawyers from the independent studio and distributor Avco-Embassy, and that he was awaiting a definitive reply from them in a matter of days. This prompted Welles to wonder about the state of the film’s finances: “It should have been clear to me at once – as it is now that for some reason the addition of Avco is essential to your financing. Is this because you lost some other source? Certainly, there was no question before of your not having completed financing, and Avco’s participation was never mentioned.”

Welles was still Bogdanovich’s houseguest but said he must move on soon, “which means that I will begin to be a burden on your budget in the matter of living expenses.” But he was most concerned with being able to return to The Wind. “There is a very strict limit to the amount of time I can give up for our project above and beyond the actual shooting time. For Oja these questions are just as crucial … You will understand that she is very reluctant to seem to be delivering any sort of ultimatum – just as I am.”

If a start date could not be confirmed within two days, Welles would “have no choice but to return to Europe and get back to work on my own film. This does not mean I cannot do the picture at a later date – just that I cannot afford to wait around in California while your basic financing set-up is being negotiated and finalised.”

Despite his worries, Welles remained in Hollywood. Oja Kodar soon joined him.

* * *

Filming remained postponed through October. Orson stayed in California without any compensation for his time and efforts and continued to rewrite the script.

In an undated letter, probably from early November, Welles wrote to Freed of his and Kodar’s delight that a final script was close. He then admitted: “The additional material which has been provided does in fact, come mostly from [Kodar]. I have kept this pretty quiet because experience has shown me that male chauvinism is rather more widespread than might be imagined. We are, however, confidant [sic] that you are free of any such taint – hence the unmasking.”

On November 12, Welles sent another letter to Selsman. He claimed that despite his and Kodar’s considerable contribution – “more than half of a totally original script” – he was only interested in screen credit alongside Freed in order to secure royalties on hypothetical publication and other “residual rights connected with the film script.” Welles insisted that before such rights had been worked out contractually, his and Kodar’s work “must remain our property … the story and screenplay is complete within itself and has considerable potential marketability.”

Selsman responded that Donald Freed was “ecstatic” with the changes to the script and would be happy for Orson and Oja to be co-credited. Future royalties would be halved equally between Freed and Welles-Kodar.

On November 15, the newest draft of the script was sent to Stacy Keach, presently living in the luxurious Hotel de LaVille in Rome and probably filming the mafia thriller Street People with Roger Moore. Keach was offered an unspecified role, possibly Stryker. But the offer to Keach was sent in the wake of a new crisis, a break in the till-then amicable relations between Welles and Selsman.

In early November, Welles had suddenly requested a percentage of the film’s gross. He felt that his and Kodar’s considerable contributions to the script deserved this compensation. In his memoir Selsman recalls Welles asked for a staggering 50%. Whatever the percentage, Welles’s demand was unworkable. Selsman was startled and responded that the financiers would absolutely refuse his request.

Welles wasn’t moved. He told Selsman that “this is like saying the world is round. Of course, backers do not reduce the conditions under which they promise money. You certainly know as well as I do that in these cases – which occur all the time – it is the producer and the packager who must make the sacrifice.” He characterized Selsman’s response as “mistaken tactically and morally.” He also claimed Selsman was avoiding him. “It seems very clear that Oja and I have continued to work hard entirely on a speculative basis … this cooperative spirit has not been met from your end.”

The same day, Selsman responded with an impassioned letter in which he begged Welles to be reasonable. He admitted he had expected “an amendment to our arrangement, based in all fairness on your extensive contributions to the screenplay,” but was startled by the timing of Welles’s request “immediately after cruel and vicious negotiations for the production funds.” After all, Ananke had just made “full disclosure and signed contracts with our financial people” – whoever they were now.

Selsman explained that nobody involved was going to obtain a percentage of the gross because this would make it impossible to attract a distributor, “knowing it would take that much longer to recoup their outlay for the film, for prints, advertising and overhead.” Selsman’s two years’ work on the project had been entirely uncompensated aside from expenses. He was operating without a contract or a percentage deal doing “speculative work” in the “espirit d’corps.” Nevertheless, Selsman promised he was attempting to “work out something fair and equitable” for Welles and Kodar.

Selsman also reassured Welles: “Whatever we accomplish with this film, I would like you to know that in my 21 years in the film business, I have met several people whom I admire greatly. I have not, however found myself either in awe or at a loss for words” as he had with Welles. “Beyond this place, I would like to be of service to you in the future. No obligation, as they say in the insurance business. If you need something done, in Los Angeles, or elsewhere, I would be pleased to undertake efforts on your behalf.”

Welles had proposed as director his most loyal collaborator, cinematographer Gary Graver, who had directed exploitation movies such as Sandra: The Making of a Woman (1970) and Erica’s Hot Summer (1971). That year, under the pseudonym Robert McCallum, Graver directed his first hard-core porn film, 3 A.M., which Welles is rumoured to have partially edited. Selsman reported that the completion guarantor would not approve Graver “as overall director due to his lack of a track record.” Selsman promised to arrange for the guarantor a showing of F for Fake to demonstrate Gary’s cinematography and Oja’s acting.

A new list of potential directors was sent to Orson for comments: Ivan Passer, Joseph Hardy, David Greene, Don Medford, William A. Graham, Daniel Petrie, and Bruce Geller. The delays in production meant Ananke’s contract with Jim Brown would expire if the shoot did not commence by December 10. After that date, Ananke could be sued. A new nominee for Sirhan, an actor from San Francisco, would audition for Welles on November 13; if he didn’t satisfy, casting director Pam Polifroni would call in candidates Welles had selected from a casting book.

* * *

Screenshot of credit from F for Fake

Welles and Kodar resigned from the project on November 23 after eleven weeks waiting in Hollywood to start production, thereby withdrawing their original contributions to the script. Orson was about to depart for Barcelona, probably to film his small role in Stuart Rosenberg’s Voyage of the Damned (1976). In light of the failure of Assassin to commence, Welles had no plans to come back to Hollywood anytime soon.

Welles wrote to the “lady producer” of his record of “undaunted cooperation and quite impeccable patience” during the entire association. He wrote of how

we were given every reason to believe that [the shoot] would be functioning in short order and with this understanding continued to wait over this very long period of time in California. When Mike [Selsman] considered it advisable to raise my morale, he would come and tell me how much money my film was bound to make at the box office. I have pointed out to him since that this was scarcely an encouragement to me since I had no share in the profits. Nor did Oja. As you know, I have made no attempt to press any claims against you for your inability to live up to your signed contract.

Welles was particularly annoyed that he had been sidelined from ongoing discussions about the finances; he also disapproved of one of the financial people now involved. Nevertheless, he wrote of his “favourable impression of yourself and Mike also. We have expended much creative effort and lost a great deal of time in the interest of your project so that even if our personal feelings were less than warm, we would still be sorry to see things ending as they are. But quite frankly, I do not see how you can expect it to be otherwise.”

* * *

Selsman writes in his memoir of how “Orson’s attachment to the film had become one of the chief fund-raising attractions and he knew it.” But on September 15, Welles claimed he had been under the impression the budget was secured from the outset. He seemingly knew little about Selsman’s wild quest for investors in New York and in Fort Lauderdale, as entertainingly recounted in his memoir. The surviving documents suggest Selsman negotiated with no end of potential investors and encountered endless frustration. Two years of work came to nothing. His memoir admits that he and the “lady producer” were never able to raise anything beyond her original $300,000. So there is little chance Assassin could have been made even if Welles hadn’t increased his financial demands.

Dan Bessie blames Ananke’s insurance company for the film’s budget blowout. The insurers demanded a deposit of $250,000 as a safeguard against the possibility that Sirhan Sirhan might sue from prison.

Today, Donald Freed says: Whether it would have worked out with or without Orson, I have no idea. It’s typical of filmmaking. It’s more or less the exception to the rule when things do get made. A film like Executive Action had to get made, but it took really sustained concentration by Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, [producer] Edward Lewis, and others for a very small budget. It made a fortune for the investors, but it took real discipline and commitment. None of that existed for the Robert Kennedy film.”

The only thing to emerge from the mess was Freed’s novel The Killing of RFK, which promised “Soon to be an explosive movie!” It was published as a paperback original by Dell in the summer of 1975. This fast-paced thriller cautiously avoids mentioning the name Sirhan Sirhan. The character of the convicted assassin is always referred to as “the prisoner” or by his code name “Saladin.” The book was in galleys before Welles took over the script.

* * *

Sal Mineo was stabbed to death outside his apartment in West Hollywood on February 12, 1976. Pizza delivery man Lionel Ray Williams was convicted of the seemingly random murder. Some have speculated that the killing had something to do with Mineo’s participation in the Sirhan Sirhan film – as if in his preparation for the role he had learned too much. But this is entirely fanciful. The project had been cancelled months earlier, and Mineo had anyway been sidelined because Welles had casting approval.

There is one final letter from Welles to Selsman in the files dated March 30, 1976. By this time Welles had moved towards redeveloping his original storyline for the Must and Helen characters into a new script independent of Freed’s components.

I asked Selsman about this development, and he told me: “Orson was always desirous of replacing everybody and their work with his own.” But in the case of this new script, Welles refused to commit to a deadline. Selsman believes Welles kept in contact on the project as a way of

retaining me as his connection to the money, whether it was [the “lady producer’s”] or anyone else’s … Orson knew that none of the studios, aka “Old Guard,” would touch him because of his past, and that being in my thirties I was conversant with the alternate funding that was coming in to make movies in the ’70s.

Orson had lots of ideas for films he wanted to make and took acting roles to fund completion of films like Wind until he was too large or sick (meaning insurance problems for producers) to do that anymore. He was all alone, except for Oja, and the temporary acolytes, and he needed Oja to take care of him. Therefore, he had to keep her in tow by promising stardom under his tutelage.

What seemed like a good idea at that particular moment, to continue on with the Freed story, minus Freed, most likely was short-lived. His next thought was probably about what restaurant he could con Henry Jaglom or Peter Bogdanovich into paying for in exchange for another spinning of yarns at dinner.

The latest date on draft pages for Assassin is May 6, 1976. By then Welles’s Other Side of the Wind situation had become even more complicated. The film’s finances were about to be audited by the Iranians. Welles would never complete the film. Despite ongoing attempts to make other features up to his death in 1985, Welles would complete only the low-budget essay Filming Othello (1978) for West German television and an unscreened pilot for a U.S. talk show in 1979.

* * *

In 1978, Jack Kimbrough, whose name appeared co-credited on the original Sirhan Sirhan script, sued Donald Freed for the rights to The Killing of RFK novel and any prospective film adaptation. The two writers appeared before a court in Los Angeles on April 11 to settle the dispute. Kimbrough was granted the rights and $5,000 (or half that amount if Freed paid up within 90 days).

Kimbrough, who had not been involved at all in the aborted production nor seems to have had any other filmmaking experience, almost immediately invited Welles to restart the project as actor and director. There’s no record Welles ever responded to Kimbrough’s invitation.

Freed remembers Jack Kimbrough today as “just part of the detritus of the film industry”.

* * *

What remains of a project that ultimately came to nothing?

Donald Freed, who continues to write plays and teach writing seminars in Los Angeles, remembers Welles as “a great cultural hero” whose “genius betrayed the systems in which he had to work.”

Welles’s letters show his genuine affection for Michael Selsman. And in turn Freed says, “I think Michael was devoted to him.”

Today Selsman says: “Naturally I was flattered that the great man wanted to work with me. But it was always about Orson, all the time. I’m sure he said the same thing to anyone who he thought could be a source of funding for him. He was difficult but I really thought I was going to produce what would be Orson’s last film – the only one he would complete before he died. I had a great time just being around him.”

No feature film has ever been made to exonerate Sirhan Sirhan. He continues to serve a life sentence at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, California.

* * *

Thanks to Dr. Noel King, Josh Karp, Kate Hutchens and the staff at the Hatcher Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

* * *


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


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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).

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