Commercial work can make celebrities feel degraded and look ridiculous – no one knew that better than Orson Welles. In his declining years, Welles became dependent on voiceover work when Hollywood found him too difficult to work with. Although his commercials were very popular and financed him in his later years, it was considered a huge letdown for a genius who’d made “Citizen Kane” at the age of 25.
After Welles’ death in 1985, a bootleg recording from one of his voiceover sessions became widely circulated. On it, Welles narrates several TV commercials while two directors make suggestions for his delivery, which he finds absurd. Although it has been played many times on radio shows over the past two decades, Welles might’ve been embarrassed out of his mind to learn that the whole thing is a big hit on the Internet.
It has an article devoted to it on Wikipedia, which includes an audio file, a description of the recording and even a transcript. The entry is titled “Frozen Peas” for the product advertised in the first third of the clip. After reading “Every July, peas grow there” from the script, Welles discusses his delivery with the directors: “That’s about where I say ‘in July.’” When one of the directors suggests that he emphasize the word “in” for the next reading, Welles points out that it’s impossible to start a sentence with “in” and emphasize it. “Show me how you can say ‘in July,’” he challenges, “and I’ll go down on you.”
Welles proceeds with the next commercial – while reading a description for fish sticks, he complains about the wording of the script: “It’s full of things that are only correct because they’re grammatical, but they’re tough on the ear.”
Welles continues, only to be stumped again by the line “crumb, crisp coating.” After he demands that the line be altered, the directors chatter among themselves before eventually caving in: “Take ‘crumb’ out.”
He reluctantly presses on for another commercial, this time for hamburgers. After mentioning “the finest prairie-fed beef,” Welles is advised to emphasize “beef.” He argues: “You can’t emphasize ‘beef,’ that’s like he’s wanting me to emphasize ‘in’ before ‘July’!…I wouldn’t direct any living actor like this in Shakespeare! ‘Will you do this?’! It’s impossible!” He tears up the script, mumbles “No money is worth listening to…” and finally leaves. Welles’ complaints are delicious to listen to, so much so that to spoil any more of them here would be criminal.
For all of its popularity, “Frozen Peas” is by no means the only time Welles ever got in trouble during a recording session. After becoming the spokesman for Paul Masson wine in the ’70s, outtakes from one of the recordings began to surface. On video, a drunken Welles misses his cue on the first take and slurs his speech on the next two. The footage has been uploaded by various sources on YouTube, which boasts about 100 million hits daily. It’s humiliating, yes, but as one YouTube member comments, “At least he doesn’t have to say ‘crumb, crisp coating.’”