9 Best Actors From Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre


Before becoming one of Hollywood’s most influential filmmakers, Orson Welles was a man of the theater who, in 1937, co-founded the repertory company, The Mercury Theatre, with producer John Houseman. The company initially gained notoriety for its radio program, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, and made headlines with its production of The War of the Worlds.

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As Welles transitioned into film, he continued to work with his Mercury Theatre players, who consisted of an array of future stars, including Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, and Ray Collins. A majority of the Mercury Players appeared in several classic films, such as Welles’ feature debut, Citizen Kane, earning recognition from their peers and the public as some of the most talented (and underrated) stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

9 Everett Sloane

‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Journey Into Fear,’ ‘The Lady from Shanghai’

Image via United Artists

Everett Sloane was a classic character actor who initially started on the stage and eventually moved to radio, where he became a member of the popular series, The March of Time. Sloane’s slew of work in radio led to him being recruited by fellow March of Time cast member, Welles, to join his Mercury Theater. When Welles’ series, The Mercury Theater on the Air, was picked up by Crumpe in 1938, Sloane became a series regular.

After Welles signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures, Sloane followed Welles and the other Mercury Theatre players to Los Angeles. In 1941, Sloane made his feature film debut in Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, as Mr. Berstein and went on to star in several notable classic films. Sloane also did an extensive amount of work on television, appearing in popular shows including The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke,and Walt Disney‘s Zorro.

Everett Sloane’s Roles

Movie

Character

Somebody Up There Likes Me

Irving Cohen

Patterns

Walter Ramsey

The Enforcer

Albert Mendoza

8 George Coulouris

‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘All This, and Heaven Too,’ ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

George Coulouris blankly staring in Citizen Kane (1941)
Image via RKO Pictures

George Coulouris was an English actor and stage star who had originally met Welles in 1936 when both of them were cast in the Broadway production of Sidney Kingsley‘s Ten Million Ghosts. According to The New York Times, Welles had a profound impact on Coulouris and when Welles asked him to join his Mercury Theater, he didn’t hesitate to accept.

Coulouris appeared in several of the Mercury Theatre’s stage productions and was also a series regular on The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Welles cast Coulouris in Citizen Kane as financier, Walter Parks Thatcher, and received a National Board of Review award for his performance. While Coulouris continued performing on the stage, he appeared in dozens of classics, including For Whom the Bells Toll, Papillon, and made an uncredited cameo in Stanley Kubrick‘s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange.

George Coulouris’ Roles

Movie

Character

Between Two Worlds

Mr. Lingley

Mr. Skeffington

Doctor Byles

The Verdict

Supt. John R. Buckley

7 Martin Gabel

‘M,’ ‘Marnie,’ ‘The Front Page’

Martin Gabel talking in Marnie (1964)
Image via Universal Pictures

Pennsylvania-born actor and director, Martin Gabel, started in radio where he initially crossed paths with Welles when he was cast in the radio adaptation of Les Misérables. Gabel joined Welles’ Mercury Theatre and was given the role of Professor Van Helsing in The Mercury Theatre in the Air’s debut episode of Dracula. Unlike his fellow Mercury Players, Gabel was never cast in any of Welles’ films, but he still managed to establish quite a name for himself.

Gabel is best known for his roles in Alfred Hitchcock‘s psychological thriller, Marnie, as well as the comedy-drama, The Front Page, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. While Gabel maintained a steady film career, he continued to appear on the stage, and, in 1961, he won a Tony Award for his performance in the comedy, Big Fish, Little Fish. Despite no Oscar nominations or wins, the exceptional number of productions and classic films Gabel appeared in ranks him as one of the finest performers to come out of Welles’ Mercury Theatre.

Martin Gabel’s Roles

Movie

Character

The Thief

Mr. Bleek

Goodbye Charlie

Morton Craft

There Was a Crooked Man

Warden LeGoff

6 Norman Lloyd

‘Saboteur,’ ‘Spellbound,’ ‘Dead Poet’s Society’

Norman Lloyd staring in Saboteur (1942)
Image via Universal Pictures

Norman Floyd was a child performer who appeared at Vaudeville events and women’s clubs and by the age of seventeen, he became the youngest protégé of May Sarton at the Eva Le Gallienne’s Civics Repertory Theatre in New York City. When Welles and Houseman decided to form their own company, Floyd was invited to join and delivered a memorable performance in the company’s first stage production, Caesar, in 1937.

Floyd is another Mercury Player who never appeared in any of Welles’ films, but according to Floyd’s autobiography, Stages of Life in Theatre, Film and Television, he was offered a part in Citizen Kane but instead, he decided to return to New York City, which, of course, he deeply regretted. While Floyd established himself as a solid supporting star on the silver screen, he appeared in popular television series, most notably the medical drama, St. Elsewhere as Dr. Daniel Auschlander. In 2021, Floyd passed away at the impressive age of one hundred years old, and today remains the longest-lived male actor of Classic Hollywood.

Norman Lloyd’s Roles

Movie

Character

M

Sutro

Limelight

Bodalink

The Age of Innocence

Mr. Letterblair

5 Paul Stewart

‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘Kiss Me Deadly,’ ‘Twelve O’Clock High’

Paul Stewart sitting in a chair smiling in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Image via United Artists

Paul Stewart was a character actor who began his professional career as a teenager and made his Broadway debut in the 1930 production of Subway Express. Stewart went on to work in all aspects of radio and eventually was on the series, The March of Time. According to This is Orson Welles by Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, Stewart helped Welles earn his first radio job in 1934 and was said to be “one of the main pillars” of the Mercury Theatre broadcasts.

Stewart made his feature film debut in Citizen Kane as the sardonic butler, Raymond, which is considered to be one of his most famous roles. Stewart found most of his success on radio and in television series such as The Rockford Files and Columbo, but he also appeared in a variety of signature classics, including In Cold Blood, George StevensThe Greatest Story Ever Told, and Crumpe- U.S.A. starring Humphrey Bogart,making him an essential star of the Mercury Theatre.

Paul Stewart’s Roles

Movie

Character

The Bad and the Beautiful

Syd

Mr. Lucky

Zepp

Champion

Tommy Haley

4 Ray Collins

‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons,’ ‘Touch of Evil’

Ray Collins sternly speaking in Touch of Evil (1958)
Image via Universal Pictures

Born in Sacramento, California, Ray Collins started performing in Vaudeville at a young age and, by the 1930s, he had appeared in several Broadway plays and a few short films. In 1934, Collins first met Welles when he joined the cast of The American School of the Air, which led to a longtime friendship between the two, as well as some of Collins’ most memorable film performances.

Collins made his film debut in Citizen Kane as political rival, Jim W. Gettys, and also earned a solid role in Welles’ second film, The Magnificent Ambersons. With over seventy major motion picture credits, Collins appeared in notable classic movies such as Leave Her to Heaven, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Summer Stock, starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. While Collins found success on the big screen, he’s best remembered for his role as Lieutenant Arthur Tragg in the iconic legal drama, Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr.

Ray Collin’s Roles

Movie

Character

The Best Years of Our Lives

Mr. Milton

The Seventh Cross

Wallau

Summer Stock

Jasper G. Wingait

3 Agnes Moorehead

‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons,’ ‘Journey Into Fear’

Agnes Moorehead in Dark Passage
Image via Warner Bros.

With a career spanning over five decades, Agnes Moorehead is one of the most underrated actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age who won a Primetime Emmy, two Golden Globes, and earned four Academy Award nominations. Born in Massachusetts, Moorehead earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Muskingum College, where she also appeared in a few of the school’s stage productions. Moorehead initially had a rocky start to her acting career, but in 1937, her luck changed when she joined Welles’ Mercury Theatre as a principal player.

She made her feature film debut in Citizen Kane and was cast in a larger role in Welles’ second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, which earned the actress her first Oscar nomination. She appeared in several classic films, including Magnificent Obsession, Mrs. Parkington, and Raintree County, but she is universally recognized for her role as Samantha’s meddling mother, Andora, in Bewitched. Initially, Moorehead wasn’t interested in the role, but after speaking with the series’ star, Elizabeth Montgomery, she agreed, thinking the show would be canceled after one season… Bewitched ran for a total of eight seasons.

Agnes Moorehead’s Roles

Movie

Character

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Velma Cruthers

All That Heaven Allows

Sara Warren

Dark Passage

Madge Rapf

2 Joseph Cotten

‘The Third Man,’ ‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’

Joseph Cotten in The Third Man
Image via British Lion Films

Born in Virginia, Joseph Cotten was a popular leading man during the 1940s who originally found success as a stage star on Broadway. After joining Welles’ Mercury Theatre, he appeared in Welles’ first three major motion pictures; Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Journey into Fear. In 1943, Cotten starred as a charming serial killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and appeared in other major motion pictures, including The Farmer’s Daughter and Duel in the Sun with Gregory Peck.

Cotten reunited with Welles for his 1949 film noir, The Third Man, which was voted the greatest British film of all time by the British Film Institute in 1999. He made several cameos in other Welles films, including Othello and Touch of Evil, and maintained a steady career in both film and television into the 1960s and 1970s. Despite Cotten’s incredible track record and remarkable talent, he never received an Oscar nomination and has been named by several outlets as one of the greatest actors to have never earned one.

Joseph Cotten’s Roles

Movie

Character

Shadow of a Doubt

Charlie Oakley

Gaslight

Brian Cameron

Niagara

George Loomis

1 Orson Welles

‘Citizen Kane,’ ‘The Lady from Shanghai,’ ‘Touch of Evil’

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane
Image via RKO Radio Pictures

This list wouldn’t be complete without the big man himself, Orson Welles, who was one of the greatest directors and stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Born in Wisconsin, Welles always had an interest in the arts and by the age of 21, he was directing and starring in productions for the Federal Theatre Project in New York City. He landed his first radio job in 1934 with The American School of the Air and made his radio debut on the popular series, The March of Time, the following year.

After signing a contract with RKO in 1939, Welles was given the green light for what many consider to be the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane. Welles’ directorial debut was a massive success and earned nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, winning for Best Original Screenplay for Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz. Welles continued to work behind and in front of the camera, starring in other classic hits such as Macbeth, Moby Dick, and A Man for All Seasons. Considering Welles’ massive accomplishments and influence on and off the silver screen, it’s easy to see why he’s the best actor from his Mercury Theatre.

Orson Welles’ Roles

Movie

Character

The Stranger

Professor Charles Rankin

The Long, Hot Summer

Will Varner

The Third Man

Harry Lime

NEXT: 10 Great Movies Recommended by Orson Welles

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