On this very night in 1938, Orson Welles’s production of the H. G. Wells classic, The War of the Worlds, convinced many unwary radio listeners that a Martian invasion was underway. The next day, Welles told reporters he was deeply sorry for scaring people—and you can watch his “apology” below.
Welles’ radio production of The War of the Worlds has become legendary, because of the fact that many listeners were unaware of its fictional nature. Owing to the news bulletin format of the production, as many as 1.7 million Americans were duped into thinking it an actual invasion from Mars.
The next day, the program’s director, the 23-year-old Orson Welles, was called into a press conference to explain himself. Here’s an excerpt:
Reporter: Were you aware of the terror such a broadcast would stir up?
Welles: Definitely not. The technique I used was not original with me. It was not even new. I anticipated nothing unusual.
Reporter: Should you have toned down the language of the drama?
Welles: No, you don’t play murder in soft words.
Reporter: Why was the story changed to put in names of American cities and government officers?
Welles: H. G. Wells used real cities in Europe, and to make the play more acceptable to American listeners we used real cities in America. Of course, I’m terribly sorry now.
The best moment of the media scrum came during Welles’s formal apology (which is at 5:17 in the video above.) Looking like a contrite puppy who just peed in the corner, he gazes up at the camera with eyes wide open and explains just how very sorry he was for the incident. To this day, many people remain unconvinced as to just how sincere Welles’ apology is—but you can judge for yourself. He definitely seems to be reveling in all the attention.
The War of the Worlds fiasco brought instant notoriety to Welles, leading to a Hollywood contract and his first great feature film, Citizen Kane. But for a man on the cusp of cinematic greatness, this performance at a press conference proved to be among his greatest.
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