The Orson Welles Show (Orson Welles, 1979)

Eclipse LogoDirected by Orson Welles under the name “G. O. Spelvin,” The Orson Welles Show was the famed filmmaker’s effort at the TV talk show, although it was considered too intellectual by the networks and never saw broadcast.  Welles interviews Burt Reynolds, Jim Henson, and Frank Oz before a live studio audience, performs two magic tricks with Angie Dickinson, and includes taped segments with several of The Muppets.  With lively camerawork, audience interaction, and a more passive role by its creator and host, The Orson Welles Show is a carefully constructed reimagining of the familiar talk show mode.

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The Orson Welles Show Title ScreenOrson Welles collaborated with producer and editor Stanley Sheff in 1978 to record a pilot for a television talk show.  The resulting 76-minute episode of The Orson Welles Show was completed in 1979.  The show makes specific amendments to the typical talk show format, while also toning down some of Welles’ more dominating tendencies, leaving more room for his interviewees than provided in Portrait of Gina.

Burt and OrsonThe obviousness of these changes can be most observed during the segment with Burt Reynolds.  Welles, oddly wearing the same outfit as Reynolds, takes a backseat to interviewing the star, preferring to moderate questions and interactions from the studio audience.  Sheff has advised that the audience questions served to bridge portions of the interview that originally lasted 3 hours.  Reynolds is followed by banter between Welles and the Muppets, a performance of the Mummy’s Curse magic trick (originally intended for Orson Welles’ Magic Show, but used here with Muppet reaction shots intercut), a brief segment with Frank Oz and Jim Henson, and a final pair of magic tricks performed with the assistance of Angie Dickinson.  The first of these illusions is a card trick, while the second involves Welles predicting whether bullets shot by Dickinson are blanks or live rounds.

As usual for many of Welles’ later attempts at TV, reviews are mixed.  While The Orson Welles Show is often credited for appearing slick, professional, and even superior in look to other shows, the episode is often thought of as lacking spontaneity, a cardinal sin for a talk show.  More specifically, the program, particularly Welles and the pre-written audience questions, is considered too rehearsed and leadenly profound.  Studios continued to doubt Welles’ reliability for a weekly series, and one wonders if his efforts to tone down his presence and abide by a script were compensatory.  Still, access to Welles during this period is too limited to cameos and talk show appearances, and so the opportunity to spend greater time with the legend, especially in a context where Welles is its creative mind, remains invaluable, offering a breadth to this Eclipse set that is both necessary and rewarding.

Credits:  The essay on The Orson Welles Show provided at Wellesnet has been an excellent resource for this post, particularly as it includes comments and insight from Stanley Sheff.

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