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The end of the world as we thought we knew it

Prior to watching the American Experience presentation of “War of the Worlds,” I assumed that John Lennon’s apology for his comments on the popularity of Jesus relative to the Beatles was the first mass media act of contrition. Wrong.

Watching the 23-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles apologize for causing mass panic with his infamous radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells Martian invasion tale 28 years earlier, in 1938, is a case study of how to put the “me” in mea culpa. One claimed to be bigger than Jesus, the other simply scared the b’Jesus out of a large portion of the East Coast. And then became a film god.

Produced by American Experience, the documentary mines the fallout of Welles’ infamous “Mercury Theatre on Air” production broadcast on CBS, using interviews with  talking heads like Welles’ daughter and perennial “Orsonista” Peter Bogdonavich, among others. Likewise, the doc, which first airs at 9 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 29, on KQED (75 years to the day-ish of Welles hysteria-inducing adaptation), makes splendid use of letters from the listening audience who feared that New Jersey had been laid to waste and would’ve learned the disappointing truth had they waited for the next station ID.

Among Welles’ detractors was a gentlemen who wrote that Welles was a human “carbuncle.” Having no idea what that meant, I Googled it and now I can’t get the image out of my mind. Proceed with caution. NSFW would be an understatement. It’s more like NSFL: “Not Safe for Lunch.

Predictably, Welles was both pilloried and celebrated for his virtuosic performance – both that of the fateful broadcast and later his wide-eyed, “Who me?” apology, which some say was the performance of a lifetime. In the footage, Welles’ broad, usually babyfaced cheeks are shadowed by stubble, his hands are folded in his lap and his brows knit with befuddlement and concern. Looking back over the course of his career and the characteristic commitment to his roles, from “Harry Lime” to his latter days as a pitchman for Paul Masson wines, it’s hard to imagine anything other than an actor, whose genius bordered on sociopathology, was caught on that newsreel.


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