“The Orson Welles Show” (1979)

Thanks to the internet, it’s now easier than ever to follow a celebrity’s decline. Even celebrities no one cares about, such as Kardashians in-laws or former cast members of The Bachelor, get 24 hour coverage, and the more often that coverage catches them doing something undignified, the more entertaining it is. Britney Spears looking fit and happy at the People’s Choice Awards? Borrrrrrring. Britney Spears crying in a Carl’s Jr. parking lot while power eating a Thickburger? Now you’re talking. We’re nothing if not a bit sadistic, particularly when it comes to misfortune befalling the people we envy.

Though tabloid culture certainly existed sixty years ago, it didn’t have that play by play discussion of every failed relationship, coke binge, and nip slip that exists today. Without Perez Hilton around to draw spurting penises on their foreheads with MS Paint, yesterday’s stars fell a little more slowly and quietly, but with no less sadness.

Orson Welles’s career trajectory wasn’t so much sad as it was puzzling. How do you go from writing, directing, and starring in Citizen Kane to narrating a song on a Manowar album? Despite being one of the finest actors and filmmakers in the golden age of movies, Welles, particularly in later years, couldn’t get a nickel tossed in his direction for his projects, most of which, if they ever got off the ground at all, were never completed due to either lack of finances, interest, or both. It’s mind boggling to imagine Orson goddamn Welles having to scrape together his own resources to finance projects, when today producers continue to throw enormous piles of money at people like Adam Sandler, despite ever diminishing returns. Nevertheless, old Hollywood, while more glamorous, was also rather more cutthroat, and Welles, while a critically acclaimed auteur, was never a smash at the box office. If he wanted something done at all, he had to do it himself.

Among Welles’s more interesting failures was a one-man production of Moby-Dick, a television variety show that included a condensed performance of The Merchant of Venice, an early adaptation of Dune, and The Other Side of the Wind, a semi-autobiographical film about a subject sadly familiar to him–an aging filmmaker having difficulty getting funding for a project. One that was completed, but never released, was The Orson Welles Show, a talk show filmed in 1979. It’s clear (and possibly why it never got picked up by a network) that Orson Welles intended this to be less of a “fondue recipes and celebrities promoting their newest movies” kind of talk show and more of an opportunity to discuss the things that interested Orson Welles. His definition of “talk show” was “a show in which I am talking.”

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In this instance, the things that interest Welles are Burt Reynolds, the Muppets, and magic tricks. Sadly, the least interesting of those three gets the largest amount of screen time. You might be surprised to know that more than forty minutes of Burt Reynolds, so laconic he sounds like he’s about to fall asleep, answering softball questions from the audience, with Welles frequently interrupting to mention how great he thinks Reynolds is, isn’t all that exciting. The most notable moment is when an audience member asks “What’s the difference between a star and a superstar, and which one are you?” to which Reynolds bafflingly replies “Only a black guy would ask that question.”

The Muppets appear in the next segment; alas, they’re on for a fraction of the time dedicated to Burt Reynolds. There’s a cute segment where Kermit and Fozzie try to read cue cards clumsily held by Gonzo, and then Jim Henson and Frank Oz show up, both looking sheepish at the effusive praise Welles heaps upon them. It’s shot in an odd way that makes it seem as if everyone, even the Muppets themselves, are in different rooms and talking to each other over television monitors.

The third and final segment is devoted to Welles’s love of magic and sleight of hand. This segment best emphasizes what is both and good and bad about The Orson Welles Show. Despite his reputation as being difficult to work with, Welles is a warm, charming host here, who seems to be enjoying himself, even if it’s a bit slumming. He treats every subject with the same sort of dignified gravitas that would later be lovingly parodied on The Critic, with an animated version of Welles shilling Mrs. Pell’s fish sticks and Rosebud frozen peas (“full of country goodness and green peaness”). Though he’s definitely above interviewing Smokey and the Bandit era Burt Reynolds, let alone being blindfolded and tied to a chair while Angie Dickinson fires a prop gun at him, he does a great job of making you think he isn’t.

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But, oh boy, does he talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. This is probably the most talkingest talk show that ever existed. With commercials this thing would have easily gone over the ninety minute mark, and more than three-quarters of that is just Welles talking. A trick in which he’s able to predict which round in a handgun is live warrants nearly ten minutes of buildup (including one moment in which he  mentions that a panel of experts appeared “before a notary public” to swear that the gun was real), while the trick itself is performed in less than two minutes. Even literally up to the last minute of the show Welles can’t stop talking, filling in the time by reading a poem. This is less a TV show and more of a monologue, with Muppets.

Though still a high demand, respected guest on other talk shows, Orson Welles’s career would continue to decline following the filming of The Orson Welles Show, reaching its nadir with his appearance in 1981′s The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, a 100% bullshit “documentary” about Nostradamus, and how his cryptic writings supposedly predicted Adolf Hitler, both Kennedy assassinations, and the rise to power of a turban wearing Middle Eastern man who would usher in a worldwide nuclear holocaust sometime in the late 1990s (which scared the hell out of Yr. Correspondent, an impressionable 10 years old at the time). Looking like the Criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Welles still lent the movie that same level of understated class, despite later dismissing it as nonsense. The fact that Welles had to go ahead and appear in it anyway, despite knowing it was bullshit, just makes it a little sadder.

Original airdate: none, it never aired

Watch it here

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