That Time Orson Welles Got Drunk Filming a Wine Commercial
Orson Welles played nearly all the roles. From director to writer to leading actor, Welles was an innovative creator whose keystone production, Citizen Kane, effectively changed the course of moviemaking in the '40s.
But throughout much of his career, his established independence and his frequent squabbles with other producers on film projects meant he often found himself taking odd production jobs to keep afloat, where he also butted heads with others.
In one such instance, hired for some narration work sometime around 1970 by the Swedish frozen food brand Findus, Welles can be heard on tape breaking from script and firmly insisting that the dialogue he's being asked to read is terribly written. He eventually storms out, unwilling to work with such amateurs.
"You're such pests ... now, what is it you want?" he says. "In your depths of your ignorance, what is it you want? Well, whatever it is you want, I can't deliver because I just don't see it." The clips have now become famously known as "In July" and "Yes, Always."
Listen to Orson Welles' Infamous Frozen Peas Commercial
Still, Welles needed money, which is how he came to star in a series of ads in the late '70s with Paul Masson California wine. The commercials themselves were considerably average, but the real entertainment came when outtakes of the shoot arose, first on VHS tapes and then on the internet. The clips featured a remarkably drunken Orson Welles stumbling through his lines. In a new interview, Peter Shillingford, the assistant director, clapperboard operator and man who ultimately kept Welles on his feet that day, revealed how Welles managed to pull it together for the final shoot.
"Normally, the shoots went great," Shillingford said. The series of commercials were filmed at various Hollywood mansions and typically went according to plan. "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."
But one morning, Welles called to say he would be late to the shoot. After showing up two hours after call time, he pulled Shillingford aside and informed him he was "in trouble."
"He was puffing on a cigar and looking very untidy," Shillingford recalled. "His hat was on the floor, his tie was loose and his shirt was buttoned up wrong. He was pissed [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!'"
Thinking on his feet, Shillingford told Welles to set up in front of the camera anyway -- the insurance coverage from the studio for an "actor malfunctioning" would cover them for the time being. With the camera rolling, the now famous takes were captured on film. Welles' could not even utter most important line of the commercial, the wine company's slogan "We will sell no wine before its time,” without slurring his words.
Watch Orson Welles' Drunken Outtakes for a Wine Commercial
It was clear those takes could not and would not be used, so Shillingford's next move was an attempt to sober up Welles and salvage the afternoon. He asked the owner of the mansion if they would let Welles bed down for a few 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,'" he said. "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."
Having slept the worst of it off, Welles stepped back onto set and nailed the take.
"By 3PM he’d been seated, and he delivered the lines perfectly," Shillingford said. "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."
Watch a 1980 Paul Masson Wine Commercial With Orson Welles
Years later, Welles would recall the Paul Masson days with distaste. "I have never seen more seedier, about-to-be-fired sad sacks than were responsible for those Paul Masson ads," Welles told fellow filmmaker Henry Jaglom in Lunches With Orson Welles. "The agency hated me because I kept trying to improve their copy."
John Annarino, the advertising executive in charge of the Masson account also remembered the conflicts on set. "I'm often asked, 'What was it like working with Orson Welles?'" he wrote in The Desert Sun in 2014. "'Well,' I answer, 'it was no picnic.'"
But Shillingford saw the other side of Welles - the funny, lighthearted, talented professional who could get things done when he needed to. "I’d sit with him and have a snack and he’d tell stories of old Hollywood and they were outrageous," Shillingford said. "Those were magic times."