Pop Culture

Welles’ last role? Original ‘Transformers’

The new “Transformers” movie boasts a good cast, but it’s got nothing on the original.

In a classic bit of movie trivia, the little-seen 1986 animated film “Transformers: The Movie” was Orson Welles’ last film. Yes, that Orson Welles.

The filmmaking legend who remade cinema with “Citizen Kane” (which just again topped AFI’s list of 100 greatest movies), directed “Touch of Evil,” starred in “The Third Man,” impeccably adapted Shakespeare to the screen and panicked the nation with his infamous radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” — concluded his career by playing Unicron, an evil shape-shifting planet moon.

Welles was 70 at the time and in poor health. His last released film was 1987’s “Someone to Love,” but that was shot before Welles lent his voice to “Transformers.” Late in his career, Welles often took to commercials and narration work as a source of income.

Author Barbara Leaming spent many days with Welles in his last three years for her book, “Orson Welles: A Biography.” She recalls Welles telling her shortly before he died that he had spent the day “playing a toy.”

“That was for him a way of earning a living and a way of trying to finance the films that he wanted to make,” says Leaming. “Obviously in those years, there’s a tremendous sadness except that the thing he used to always say to me was, ‘The one thing that’s helped me to survive is that I’m not bitter.”’

Having built his reputation in theater and radio, Welles’ immediate, astounding success as a 25-year-old filmmaker with “Citizen Kane” (1941) is Hollywood legend. Though he went on to create a number of masterpieces (among them “The Magnificent Ambersons” and “Othello”), he is often viewed as failing to recapture his early brilliance.

‘A job of work’In his later decades, Welles had great difficulty gaining financing for his film projects. Leaming says he used to refer to parts like “Transformers” as “a job of work,” but says he was nevertheless full of ideas and spoke passionately of plans for various movies even on his deathbed. He died of a heart attack in October 1985.

“He was absolutely the same man who made ‘Citizen Kane,”’ says Leaming of the aged Welles.

His voice work in “Transformers: The Movie” was so weak that it was altered with synthesizers until it hardly sounded like him. Flint Dille, story consultant on the film, remembers Welles’ warm, magnanimous personality.

“He came in ... and said, ‘I’m playing an entire planet!”’ Dille recalled on a DVD of the film released last year.

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The part is in some ways typical of the characters to which Welles was drawn. Film critic and historian David Thomson, who wrote “Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles,” once described Welles as being attracted to “distorted portraits of grandeur.”

Welles was not the only famous talent to lend his voice to “Transformers: The Movie.” He was joined by Eric Idle (“Monty Python”), Leonard Nimoy (“Star Trek”), Judd Nelson (“The Breakfast Club”) and Robert Stack (“Unsolved Mysteries”). In this way, “Transformers: The Movie” presaged a contemporary commonplace: cartoons voiced by stars. Today, an animated film wouldn’t dream of not casting well-known performers.

“It was groundbreaking to introduce these famous actors in an animated feature,” “Transformers: The Movie” producer Joe Bacal says on the DVD.

Back in 1986, though, it wasn’t the payday it is now. “Transformers: The Movie” yielded less than $6 million at the box office. The new live-action “Transformers,” which opens in theaters July 3, hopes to reap that in a matter of hours. The path of “Transformers” reflects the changed nature of Hollywood. What began as a toy for children in the early ’80s, has now become an enormous, global Goliath of pop-culture product, meant as much for adults as kids.

It’s a destiny for “Transformers” that few could have imagined in 1986, even Welles himself. Indeed, “Transformers: The Movie” is set in the distant future: the year 2005.

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