Was Orson Welles Drunk On Paul Masson? These Outtakes Were The First Viral Videos

Icons | May 10, 2019

Left: Orson Welles in action on the set of the bumbled Paul Masson Champagne commercial. Right: Welles in a print advertisement for Paul Masson. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For TV viewers around the turn of the '80s, Orson Welles' Paul Masson wine commercials raised so many questions -- including "Who is Orson Welles?" and "Why do we care what reasonably-priced wine he drinks?" And finally, "Is this guy ok?"

The first thing you learn in film class is that Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, from 1941, is the greatest film ever made. So that answers the first question -- brilliant writer/director/actor. You might care about his choice of wine because his voice sounds very cultured and his morbid obesity implies that he is an expert at eating and drinking things. As to whether he's ok in the ads -- no, he's not ok. He's drunk.

In the spots that made it to TV, Welles comes off as weird and pretentious, but those were the cleaned-up versions. In the outtakes, which were somehow smuggled away from the production company for the benefit of us all, we see a man who seems to have sampled quite a lot of the product.

Orson Welles was Paul Masson's pitchman from 1978 to 1981, offering its catchphrase on TV and in print ads: Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time. For those four glorious years, television audiences were treated to the melodious baritone of Orson Welles as he sang the praises of Paul Masson’s inexpensive wine.

The Paul Masson commercials starring Orson Welles lived on long after the director passed away in 1985. People taped the ads off the TV to pass them around to friends, and outtakes from the sessions made their way online in recent years. These delirium-inducing commercials are strange, but like a fine vino, they grow better with age. 

Orson Welles Was At End Of His Career When Paul Masson Called

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Welles made more than Citizen Kane -- other acclaimed masterpieces to his credit include The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Stranger (1946), and Touch Of Evil (1958). He was also a noted Shakespearean actor and director, and it was Welles who famously excited listeners by reading H.G. Wells' War Of The Worlds on the radio way back in 1938. 

But by the late 1970s, Orson Welles was no longer the whiz kid. He left several projects unfinished in the late '60s and early '70s, which isn't a good way to continue working as a director. Even if no one wanted to give him money to direct, companies felt that his baritone voice gave their products gravitas, which is why Welles shilled for so many bottom shelf items.

Even audiences who weren’t familiar with his work knew Welles by the sound of his voice. He seems to have taken any job he could get: frozen peas, Swedish food, and of course, Paul Masson wine.  

Paul Masson Makes Orson Welles Their Brand Ambassador

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The first Paul Masson commercial featuring Welles was for the "Emerald Dry" white table wine. As delicious as that sounds, the white table wine needed a boost in sales and the former director was just the guy to do it. In the commercial Welles states that it took Beethoven four years to write his fifth symphony -- and like an immortal symphony, a wine as fine as Emerald Dry can’t be rushed.

This was the first instance of Welles saying the famous catchphrase, “We will sell no wine before its time.” He’s not totally off the deep end in this commercial, but he's clearly coming at viewers with a sense of self-importance that they might not have appreciated. 

You can imagine a salesman walking up and saying "sir, this is the housewares section of Sears," to which Welles would reply "Don't you know who I am?"

It’s Impossible To Look Away From These Commercials

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During the filming of his eight ads for Paul Masson, Welles was reportedly a pain in the neck to work with. But he was worth it -- with his voice and presence, Welles is said to have singlehandedly brought sales up by 30 percent.

Watching these commercials back to back to back is kind of like watching an episode of Tim and Eric Great Job. His performance is so strange that you can’t look away. Sure, the commercials are funny, but not in a way that’s easy to explain.

The Outtakes From These Commercials Are Something Else

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Welles might have been difficult for the director and crew to handle, but he made sure he was having a good time. One of the contractual obligations that the former director held Paul Masson to was a big lunch before shooting, during those pre-shoot meals he usually finished off all the red wine in the room. Understandably, all of his wine chuggings made it hard to memorize his lines.

If anything, these outtakes show that while it’s not the fanciest wine in the world, Paul Masson will do the trick if you just want to drink by yourself in the middle of a party. The most well known, and best, of the outtakes happens during one of Masson’s champagne commercials.

In this outtake you hear someone call “Action,” and after an uncomfortable delay Welles asks, “He doesn't do anything,” referring to the actor holding the bottle of unpoured champagne. His two different readings of the line "Ah, the French" (both wrong) are comedy distilled to its purest form.

The Commercials And Outtakes Are Cult Classics On The Tape Trading Market

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No one knows exactly how the outtakes made it out of the studio, but whoever leaked the footage was doing the Lord's work. Initially, the outtakes were just on VHS tapes and fans of these strange videos made their own copies and passed them around along with the commercials. Until YouTube came along, the outtakes existed as copies of copies of the original VHS tape.

Some of the clips are in better condition than others. The videos are hypnotic, a real look into the mind of a guy who’s been to the top of the mountain and lost everything. Don’t get too bummed out while you’re watching the videos, just think about how much wine Orson Welles was drinking and you’ll be just fine. Open a bottle of Paul Masson Chablis while you're at it.

Tags: Commercials | Orson Welles | Remember This?... | Wine | Viral Videos

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.