The Bootleg Files: The Orson Welles Show

BOOTLEG FILES 605: “The Orson Welles Show” (1979 unsold television pilot).

A copy is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A few minutes were included in the 1995 documentary “Orson Welles: One Man Band” that appeared on the DVD for “F for Fake.”

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lack of perceived commercial value.


During the 1970s, Orson Welles became a ubiquitous figure on the television talk show circuit. His appearances on the programs hosted by Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, Dinah Shore, David Frost and Tom Snyder were always entertaining, with Welles charming audiences via amusing lo-fi magic tricks and richly spun displays of his raconteur talents.

In the late 1970s, ABC executives toyed with the idea of having Welles host his own late-night talk show as competition against Johnny Carson. While the network dropped the idea almost as quickly as it picked it up, Welles took it upon himself to direct and produce a pilot episode for a potential talk show. The result, to be polite, was an interesting failure.

In his pilot, Welles insisted on deviating as much as possible from the well-established talk show protocol of the era: the opening monologue by a host, the one-on-one questioning of guests, and interludes for musical performances by the more tuneful guests. “The Orson Welles Show” staked out very different ground that was intriguing at some levels and ponderous at others.

From the opening, it is obvious that no one would confuse “The Orson Welles Show” with Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin’s endeavors. Welles is first seen at the center of what appears to be a theater in the round, surrounded by an audience that laughs at almost everything he says. The editing and camera panning is uncommonly rapid by television standards, with Welles being filmed at different angles. After announcing his guests and pausing for a rueful cue to a commercial break, the show launches with Welles’ first guest, Burt Reynolds – and, oddly, both men are wearing the same black jacket and open-necked red shirt. (Not to be catty, but the fashion didn’t look good on either of them.)

Rather than have Welles interview Reynolds, Welles turned the questioning over to the audience, which peppered Reynolds (and, occasionally, Welles) with inquiries regarding career, the Hollywood scene and the role of women as filmmakers. For the most part, Reynolds is droll and delightful, particularly in a lengthy anecdote when he recalled his disastrous first screen test. “My only great hope is that I will be alive when the AFI recognizes me,” Reynolds joked.

After Reynolds’ sequence, Welles shares the stage with several stars of “The Muppet Show” – Kermit, Fozzie, Sam the Eagle and Gonzo (as an inept holder of cue cards). During this segment, audience’s laughter sounds canned and the camera never offers a clue that real people are sitting in a theater watching this part of the show. Welles intercuts a wonderfully hokey magic act involving an “Egyptian princess” being sliced into thirds in an enclosed box, with reaction shots of the Muppets looking on in wonder. After the magic act, Muppet maestros Jim Henson and Frank Oz emerge from the shadows for a surprisingly dull on-camera conversation with Welles.

This is followed by two magic acts where Angie Dickinson assists Welles in his trickery: one segment involves plucking cards from a box, the other has the “Police Woman” star firing a gun at a tied-down and blindfolded Welles who claimed he could using his hearing to determine which of the bullets in the gun was real and which was a blank before they were fired. The Dickinson segments also appears to have used canned laughs to pad the soundtrack, and a quick cut to the audience giving a standing ovation at the end of the scene looks suspicious. Welles ended the show with a poem recitation, with the star shot in tight close-up.

“The Orson Welles Show” has one G.O. Spelvin credited as director. That was a pseudonym for Welles, and it is not clear why he did not want to take credit for the work. Stanley Sheff, who edited the project, would later reveal that Welles shot the pilot with a single camera, rather than using the multiple camera set-up common for television. Because Welles needed to change camera positions in order to achieve his visual effects, production was longer than usual for a television episode – during the Burt Reynolds segment, Welles’ hair combing changed a few times during his close-ups, suggesting the sequence was shot over a period of days. Welles also had the audience’s questions for Reynolds scripted in advance, and one must assume the audience members were vigorously rehearsed to laugh and applaud when needed.

“The Orson Welles Show” was produced between September 1978 and February 1979, but was never aired – it is unclear whether Welles made any effort to push the pilot in front of network executives or syndication outlets. It is also uncertain whether the show, if had gone forward, would have been a daily, weekly, monthly or occasional endeavor. Welles’ sole comment on the project: “It was frankly an attempt to enter the commercial field and earn my living as a talk show host. It was just a flop, that’s all, nobody wanted it.”

“The Orson Welles Show” was never made available in its entirety on any home video format. A few minutes of footage was used in the 1995 documentary “Orson Welles: One Man Band” that appeared on as a special feature on the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray for Welles’ “F for Fake.” It is possible the episode may turn up someday on another Welles-rooted home entertainment release. But until such time, the offering is available in a complete (if less than pristine) YouTube posting.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with new episodes every Monday.