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Orson Welles Wasn’t Drunk After All

This infamous Orson Welles too-drunk-to-work video has been having a moment lately, 40 years after it was filmed. Now we’re happy to report on a surprising new twist.

The story in brief: in 1980, Orson Welles showed up to shoot a commercial for Paul Masson wines, and he was a bit… worse for wear. Tapes of the woozy session “spent years circulating on bootleg VHS tapes” before making their way online; the current video is labeled with the snarky title Working With the Master. The three terrible takes are painfully funny. Especially piquant are the faces of the two hardworking extras at the “party” with Welles, doing their best to play it straight.

Trainwreck humor aside, the sad subtext seemed clear: Here was this past master of Hollywood, director and star of the great Citizen Kane, once “recklessly averse to being dull” — now reduced to pitching cheap wine. Filled with revulsion for how far he had fallen, he drank himself into a stupor rather than deliver one more pitch for the cheap wine he detested. Right?

Wrong! Out of the blue now comes the remarkable testimony of one Peter Shillingford, assistant director on the shoot. His report is considerably kinder to Welles. The old boy comes out looking like a stand-up guy instead of a falling-down drunk.

First of all, says Shillingford, Welles was normally a treat to work with:

He would arrive on time in a limo, I’d greet him and he’d remove his cloak and his hat and a makeup girl would dust him down. He’d have a seat and a dozen well-dressed extras would file into the room with all eyes on Orson. The glasses would be filled, then I’d walk in with the clapper and Orson would do a take.

Shillingford even enjoyed lunch breaks with Welles: “He’d tell stories of old Hollywood and they were outrageous. Those were magic times.”

On the fateful day, says Shillingford, Welles actually phoned ahead to say he’d be late. When he arrived, he was in bad shape and admitted it readily: he’d been at an overtime shoot in Las Vegas, and at dawn had been driven across the desert to LA in his limo. Unfortunately, a pill he’d taken to help him sleep in the limo was having a delayed effect. He wasn’t drunk at all! But he was a foggy, word-slurring mess. They tried a few takes anyway, with the disastrous results that we now know and love. The takes were saved so that the producers could collect on insurance for the day. When Orson Welles messes up your shoot, it qualifies as an Act of God.

But now, as Paul Harvey would say, comes the rest of the story. According to Shillingford, Welles crashed in a spare room while the rest of the crew went to lunch. A few hours later he emerged, fresh and joking, and saved the day with an old pro’s reading:

It’s a fabulous story, generously told. (Though we could have done without the deep dive on Welles’s “grubby” and “greying” underpants. Yikes!) It is nice to see Welles end up as a good guy who’s still got it. Still a diva, but then, who doesn’t love a good diva? All’s well that ends well. We’re sorry we ever doubted you, Orson.

And now, as a side note, let’s also give it up for the Paul Masson copywriter who did such a lovely tiptoe around the term Champagne, which is reserved for use only by wines from that special region of France. Thanks to a 100-year-old loophole that dates back to World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, the term California Champagne is still allowed in some circumstances. The copywriter makes the most of it, doing all he can to tie Paul Masson to the French original without actually saying that it comes from Champagne:

The taste of French Champagne has always been celebrated for its excellence. There’s a California champagne by Paul Masson, inspired by that same French excellence. It’s fermented in the bottle, and like the best French Champagne, it’s vintage dated. Paul Masson’s superb taste shouldn’t be too surprising. This champagne doesn’t come from France, but it was created by a man who did: Paul Masson. Paul Masson will sell no wine… before its time.

Like the best French Champagne, it’s vintage dated. Ha! Give that writer a raise. And while you’re at it, give Peter Shillingford a raise, too.

Now please read the whole story:  I Was the Man at the Clapperboard for Orson Welles’ Legendary ‘Drunk’ Wine Commercial »

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