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"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." This was what Welles said about this unsold pilot for a television talk show. I have come across some obscure unsold pilots in my time as an old tape collector, but I am still reeling from seeing this one and learning that the networks collectively passed on it.
The Orson Welles Show had no shortage of brilliance. Few people on the stage and screen fill the shoes of a host better than he did in this endeavor. Regrettably, I am not too familiar with Welles' work as a director or a performer. I have seen only a few of his movies, and Citizen Kane was not among them (something I still need to remedy). Nevertheless, the man is difficult to dislike for those familiar or unfamiliar with his work. For 1979, his idea for a talk show is a step above his predecessors, combining one part variety show, one part magic act, one part Ripley's Believe It or Not, and one part Inside the Actors Studio. Welles' interview with Burt Reynolds was candid and consisted entirely of questions from the audience. There was an intimacy to it because there was no stage: Reynolds and Welles discussed the trials and tribulations of directing with the audience surrounding them and sitting only a few feet away.
Welles filmed the entire pilot with a single camera. It became obvious through the course of the pilot that several takes were required to deliver what Welles intended. This detracted from the realism in the sketch material, but fortunately it had little effect on the interview segments. It could be jarring at times and clearly was a difficult effort. The Muppet performance suffered the most. It seemed as though none of them wanted to spend a great deal of time between cuts and takes to struggle to make each Muppet's lines and actions come close to what an audience expects to see with the limitation of Welles' camera equipment. The result was a far cry from what a Muppet audience expects to see but somehow more intriguing to watch because it felt like a dress rehearsal for a Muppet show. The personalities of the puppeteers themselves seemed to come through their respective Muppets more than the characters of the Muppets themselves. There were obvious multiple takes to put close-ups on each Muppet to hold the illusion because the puppeteers did not have a custom-built stage to hide them from sight, but they made it clear they were reading from cue cards (as Gonzo struggled to hold up the cards for anyone to see). They got through it, stumbling and ad-libbing on occasion to fill in the holes of the cue card routine. Welles reminded the audience that this was more a demonstration of what goes into producing a professional talk show, and that absence of seriousness showed.
The show took a sharp turn from interview to stage performance as Welles displayed his love of the history and spectacle of stage magic. This is the point of the show that made it seem like production costs might have been more than a network was willing to pay for even a weekly show. Welles showed prerecorded footage of a card trick he performed with Angie Dickinson (which also suffered from the multiple camera cuts), eventually taking the stage with her to perform a suspenseful psychic Russian Roulette trick inspired by the death of early 20th century magician Chung Ling Soo. The performance provided more in its history lesson than its execution, but, again, this was a pilot and not a semi-annual television special.
The Orson Welles Show had virtually no competition for the kind of show it was for 1979. Orson Welles tried to be a jack-of-all-trades, but he was anything but a master of none. I can imagine the sort of challenges it would have presented for Welles and any network that might have taken this show, but it is no less disappointing that no one even gave it a chance. It would be hard to imagine Welles doing one of these shows once a week let alone every weeknight because of the amount of energy that comes off the screen. Welles was a film director, and television was a different entity. Still, Welles showed ample knowledge and respect for the industry itself, and he did not seem to subscribe to the idea that television viewers were on some lower intellectual plane (though it might have insulted the intelligence of a few network executives). The only time the atmosphere was uncomfortable was when someone in the audience asked a loaded question that caused Welles or his guests to hesitate. Some audience members asking the questions seemed to want Welles and his guests to denigrate their peers in Hollywood, or they simply wanted to shine a spotlight on the crowd to proclaim, "I'm a (wannabe) actor, too." Welles and his guests took it in stride.
The personality Welles had was perfect for a variety show, but, sadly, he had a limited window for displaying it. He might have been known more as a director than anything else, but the man knew how to deliver lines. Any information or anecdote he shared always was delivered with his signature enthusiasm, eloquence and dry sense of humor, an on-screen personality comparable to Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock. Welles was well-read and quoted literature often, but he could tell a joke, too. In this reviewer's opinion, he came through on his vision to put something together that would engage and entertain a television audience, but the fact that this obscure gem is all but lost to history seems to prove I am alone.
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