TV Welles

Orson Welles, whose birthday is May 6, recently gained renewed currency when Netflix said it would help fund completion of the acclaimed director’s unfinished – and final – project, The Other Side of the Wind.

In the spirit of this reclamation, The Savvy Screener invites readers to discover — or become reacquainted — with some of Welles’ best known – and intriguing – contributions as director, actor, raconteur, Madison Avenue pitchman, magician and TV gadabout. Today, in the final installment of a three-part series, we look at Welles, the personality, as revealed by his passion for sleight-of-hand and camp – not to mention cheap wine. For many who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, this TV version of Welles, not Welles the filmmaker, is best remembered. (If film’s the thing for you, read about three classic Welles’ movies in parts one and two of this series.)

Something Up His Sleeve

Welles was a frequent guest on The Merv Griffin Show, although conversations rarely touched on his film career. Instead, Merv offered a platform for Welles to indulge a favorite pastime – magic.

For Welles, magic was more than a passing interest, as evidenced by an unfinished television special, Orson Welles’ Magic Show, filmed between 1976 and 1985 and edited by the Munich Film Museum in 2000:

TV Gadabout

Welles was not only a frequent visitor on the TV talk show circuit and Dean Martin celebrity roasts: He also took a stab sitting behind the desk! The Orson Welles Show (1979), an unaired pilot, featured Burt Reynolds, Angie Dickinson and the Muppets as his first and only guests. Welles also guest-hosted other series. In this segment for an unidentified show, he interviews one of comedy’s most unusual personalities, Andy Kaufman, about his character Latka Gravas on the TV sitcom Taxi, as well as Kaufman’s foray into professional wrestling:

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow

Welles lent his winking gravitas as narrator for a David Wolper production The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981), a film that speculated about the prophecies of Nostradamus through dramatic recreations and interviews. In this opening, clutching a cigar and using his signature deliberate, winded delivery, Welles invites viewers around the campfire for a good scare:

‘No Wine Before Its Time’

In 1978, Paul Masson, known for its inexpensive wines, tapped Welles as its TV pitchman to give the brand some class. Sales reportedly rose 30% over the course of the campaign, and Welles seemed to savor his lines as much as he did his wines:

One commercial outtake became the stuff of internet legend, as Welles apparently over-rehearsed with the product:

This led to inevitable parodies:


About Larry Greenberg

A former local beat reporter and film critic, co-founder Lawrence Greenberg has more than 25 years’ experience as a writer and public relations executive.

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