Orson Welles was always hard up for cash. Though he directed, co-wrote and starred in Citizen Kane — often regarded as the greatest film ever made — at just 25 years old, his career after that was famously tumultuous. While he was a brilliant creative force, he was also relentlessly obstinate, which caused him to clash with the studio powers-that-be on nearly every picture he made. The result of this was a great number of burned bridges and regular efforts to strike out on his own.
But making movies on his own took money, which meant the great man needed to subject himself to work that was well beneath his talents, like recording radio commercials for frozen peas and doing television spots for a cheap wine company named Paul Masson, which touted the slogan, “We will sell no wine before its time.”
The Paul Masson commercials starring Welles were national TV spots airing all over the country, but today, they’re best remembered for something that didn’t air at all: A series of three outtakes that show an obviously drunk Welles, who is in such a bad state that he’s unable to make it through even a single line of copy.
Filmed in 1980, the outtakes spent years circulating on bootleg VHS tapes before showing up online. But for British commercial producer and director Peter Shillingford, he didn’t need some fuzzy VHS tape to know about those commercials: Shillingford was there, operating the clapperboard and trying to help stop Welles from falling over. Here’s his account of the legendary event.
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“We will sell no wine before its time,” that was the slogan. There was nothing about quality or taste or even the value for your money, it was just, “We will sell no wine before its time,” that’s all Paul Masson thought was needed. It’s no wonder that some of the crew people changed it, saying things like, “We will sell the swine no more wine until it’s brine!”
The star of the commercials was the genius Orson Welles, who was no doubt doing it because he always needed money. I was the production supervisor on about four of those commercials, and I helped to put them all together by hiring the crew and looking over the budget. Once the actual commercials began, though, I became the assistant director, which meant that I was in charge of the floor. I was a bit of a control freak when it came to a set like that and a personality like that, so I grabbed the clapperboard because I didn’t want some clapper boy to come in and knock him over or whatever. I also made sure none of the crew, the extras or people from the agency were coming up to Orson.
The agency was particularly an issue, because they used to all want to chat with him, especially because he was always changing their dialogue. I never saw an outburst from him, but there were confrontations between him and the agency, even though he always changed their dialogue for the better. They kept approaching him, though, and I had to tell the agency, “No! He’s not going to deal with all of you. Select a spokesperson and that person will tell me or the director, but it can’t be all of you at once!”
Orson loved how I handled them, and we connected on set. He would take the piss out of me and make parodies of my name and have fun with my accent — he was a bundle of laughs. I’d stay with him at lunchtime too. I’ve read that he’d demand these huge meals, but he never ate lunch on the shoots I did with him. I’d sit with him and have a snack and he’d tell stories of old Hollywood and they were outrageous. Those were magic times.
Normally, the shoots went great. We’d film them at various mansions in Hollywood. We’d get ready, and Orson’s double-sized piano stool would be put front-and-center. 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. Inevitably, the agency guys would crowd around the camera and get in Orson’s eyeline. He hated them, so he’d shoo them away but they normally didn’t listen until I’d move them further back. We’d get a few more takes like that, and that would be it.
That was how things would normally go, but on one shoot — the one that would become famous — he called us to say he would be late. We were supposed to begin at 10 at a mansion in Los Angeles, and the crew and the extras and the agency people were all waiting for him. Finally, at noon, the limo arrived at the mansion and the driver came and found me and brought me outside. The agency men also followed along. When I got out there, Orson beckoned me into the back of the limo.
“I’m in trouble, Shillingford,” Orson began. He was puffing on a cigar and looking very untidy. His hat was on the floor, his tie was loose and his shirt was buttoned up wrong. He was pissed [i.e., drunk], he was sleepy and he was mumbling. “Last night I was filming in Las Vegas. We had camera problems so the shoot went late — to dawn! I have not slept at all!” he told me. The agency men tried approaching, but I waved them away. Orson explained that he’d taken a sleeping pill when he left Las Vegas to sleep in the limo, but it had only just begun kicking in and his speech was beginning to slur. He finally asked me, “What do you suggest?”
I told him that the camera and the extras were already in place, so let’s give it a try. I knew he couldn’t do it, but I told him that I had to put him on camera for insurance reasons, so that we could show that he was all over the place and that we couldn’t do the job — that way we’d have insurance coverage for the day because of the actor malfunctioning. He understood, so I helped him out of the vehicle; he held onto my arm and we walked in. The makeup girl ran up but he shooed her away, then we plonked him on his piano stool and began.
We did three takes and what you see on camera makes it clear how they went. After I came in with the clapper on the first take and the director yelled, “Action please,” Orson had no idea he was supposed to begin. The director said, “Action” again, and Orson mumbled, “He doesn’t do anything?” indicating the actor at the table with him. On the second take, Orson began with an “Ah!” and then went on about the French champagne as the actors with him tried not to crack up as his words slurred. Finally, on the third take, Orson let out this sort of chuckle at the beginning. He went on to say most of the dialogue right, but he was so obviously pissed that we couldn’t use it.
I then turned to the director and one of the men from the agency, and we all agreed there was no production here, so I sent everyone to lunch and asked the owner of the mansion — a very nice lady — if we could bed down Orson for a couple of hours. She was thrilled and told me that the maid’s room was just over there — I wouldn’t be surprised if she later put a plaque there saying “Orson Welles slept here.” So I put Orson in the maid’s room and helped him out of his jacket and his trousers, and he took his shirt off. He was standing there with just his little grubby underpants on and he climbed into the daybed. Then I went and handed his clothes to the wardrobe girl.
The agency men were furious. They were talking about suing him, talking about firing him. They hated him anyway, so they’d be happy to be rid of him, but I thought, if we maybe gave him a couple of hours, we could salvage the day.
A couple of hours later, I knocked on the door to the maid’s room and Orson shouted, “Where are my clothes Shillingford!? Have I been robbed!?” He was just having a bit of fun, though. He was a professional, and he was good to go now. I sent the wardrobe girl in with the pressed clothes and a cup of coffee, and she came out of the room, stunned, after seeing this huge man in his greying underpants.
By 3 p.m. he’d been seated, and he delivered the lines perfectly. We were done by five, getting everything we needed without overtime. I remember him grinning at the furious agency guys as he walked away from the set. Later on, after a few more commercials, they’d fire him, but I wasn’t around for that.
On the way to the limo, he thanked me and said, “Lunch tomorrow, Shillingford, Ma Maison! One o’clock?”
Of course I accepted. How could I refuse?