“We will sell no wine before its time.”
That was the tagline was from a wine commercial from the 1970’s. Orson Welles, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, was cashing in during his later years. Who could blame him.
Welles’ principal occupation was film director, but he pursued many avenues to earn a living, finance his film projects, and channel his artistic drive. After the 1940’s, Hollywood had had its fill of the auteur. Film directing jobs, if he could find one, usually included him as an actor. He spent time in Europe, and when he returned, Welles had new star power, not as a film director, but as Orson Welles.
Welles found that even more than his film talents, his distinctive baritone voice was in demand for narration, commercials and other voice work. In his later years, he tried to finish several personal film projects, with varying degrees of success, but he never stopped pursing his artistic vision. He also seemed to enjoy all that came with being Orson Welles – the curiosity, the awards, the controversy, and just being a cultural phenomenon. Being Orson Welles was a full-time job. He also needed the money, having IRS debts to pay off, and to fund his lifestyle.
Welles’ battles with Hollywood and the film industry in general, are well documented. The man behind Citizen Kane, arguably the most influential film of all time, had a difficult job finding work. In his career, he only directed 13 feature length films. He often hired himself out as an actor, undertook voice-work, and leveraged his name to finance his own film projects.
Welles challenges the traditionalists, including audiences, with his non-linear storytelling, his use of unconventional lighting and camera angles, and hard to like characters. If you expected Hollywood cookie-cutter film-making, Welles was not your man. He had an entirely different recipe. Welles’ films didn’t make the kind of money that made the studios want to deal with him, yet some of his films (Citizen Kane, The Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil) are considered American film classics.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, he found the wanting medium of television: as a talk show guest, television series appearances and commercial pitchman. Being Orson Welles had commercial value. With the rise of nostalgia, this phenomenon for things of the past, Welles found himself not only popular, but his film work gaining a new audience and appreciation.
Pitching wine and liquor was right up his alley. His name and face didn’t always appear, you might simply recognize his rich voice. That was the voice that gained notoriety on the radio back in the 1930’s, or in one of his many stage performances. He was also the unseen voice of Robin Masters on Magnum P.I., in case that comes up in Trivial Pursuit.
Welles, usually in a dark suit, his salt and pepper beard and his ever present cigar, was perfect for late night television. He came armed with fascinating stories about his films, his adventures, old Hollywood, magic, art, or any one of the many subjects he could converse about.
Welles sat for a number of interviews, aside from Johnny and Merv, where his film-making was the subject matter. He was even more popular than a Beatle. On television it was Dick Cavett, who delved into the man and his art form. He was also developed relationships with filmmakers Henry Jaglom and Peter Bogdanovich, who recorded their conversations over the years that resulted in book projects.
Hollywood might have washed it’s hands of Welles the filmmaker, but the entertainment industry in general was his oyster. He worked right up until his death, hearing the applause and people hanging on his anecdotes. Whatever failures he had were in the past. He was beloved. Something Charles Foster Kane never had.