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Orson Welles, Lifelong Friend

by Leonard Maltin
August 26, 2013 2:18 PM
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Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts by Todd Tarbox
BearManor Media Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts by Todd Tarbox

Various people have bid fair to become Orson Welles’ ultimate Boswell, so when three of them agree on the value of a new book, it’s well worth noting. Peter Bogdanovich, Simon Callow, and Jonathan Rosenbaum all praise the publication of Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts by Todd Tarbox (BearManor Media), and with good reason. Rather than depending on research or recollections, it reproduces a series of telephone conversations between Welles and the man he considered his mentor, friend, and in some ways his surrogate father. Roger Hill was a teacher and later headmaster of the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, where the dauntingly precocious Welles spent his formative years, which he later called the happiest of his life. Orson was 11 when he arrived at Todd and Roger, son of the school’s founder, was exactly twenty years his senior. They formed a bond that never frayed in the seventy years to come.

In fact, Roger Hill outlived his prodigious protégé, and in planning a revised edition of his memoir, obtained Welles’ permission to record their telephone calls in the 1980s. (He was also urging Orson to work on his own autobiography, and thought the transcripts might be helpful.) They form the basis of this book, which is gracefully edited and presented by Hill’s grandson, Todd Tarbox.

Here are refreshingly candid conversations between two adoring friends who shared an abiding interest in language, literature, theater, and art. We learn of Welles’ current and forever-frustrated projects (such as untangling the ownership of The Other Side of the Wind), his everyday activities, his beloved canine companion, and much, much more. Both he and Hill are apt to break into long quotes from famous poets and playwrights at the drop of a hat: these are no ordinary phone calls.

What I take away most is the love of learning that the Todd School fired in Welles, who was already well-traveled and something of an autodidact. He also treasured the fellowship of his schoolmates and the opportunity to spread his wings in all forms of arts and letters. (Wait till you see his prose and pictures for the official school pamphlet.)

Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts doesn’t take long to read, in part because it’s hard to put down. How lucky we are that Todd Tarbox has allowed us to eavesdrop on two such extraordinary men.

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  • Michael Dawson | August 30, 2013 3:16 PMReply

    Mr. Maltin I could not agree more. In one word a GIFT. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is culturally inclined or interested in the philosophical understanding of the artistic process by one of the greatest artist of the 20th Century. Mr. Tarbox has provided us an enduring and heart warming glimpse of a wonderful and unique relationship that was mutually beneficial. Roger and Hortense Hill’s mentorship of Welles resulted in a life long friendship that is both insightful and inspirational. I for one, will be making multiple purchases so I too can pass on Mr. Tarbox’s GIFT.

    Michael Dawson

  • James Saxon | August 29, 2013 9:14 AMReply

    In an era when people point and grunt at each other on Internet social networking sites, the dialogue presented in this fascinating eavesdrop is almost miraculous in its level of impromptu eloquence and literary allusion. For anyone who wants to relive a time when people "conversed" rather than hiccuped, I highly recommend "Orson Welles and Roger Hill, a Friendship in Three Acts."

  • max fraley | August 26, 2013 9:22 PMReply

    Your recommendation and the subject of Orson Welles make for a "must read". I'm looking forward to meeting Mr. Hill.

  • J.C. Vaughn | August 26, 2013 6:54 PMReply

    Thanks for this great review, Leonard. I hadn't heard about this book previously and now will put it on my list!

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