Strange as it all seems to me now, for a time my main career was as a spokesperson in TV commercials.
This all started when I was in my twenties. (One reason why now it all seems so strange– that’s a lifetime ago!)
I was the face of several grocery chains, some banks, fashion watches, ATM cards, fast food restaurants, a cafeteria, a donut empire, coffee makers, a photo developing chain, (remember those?) a car phone store (remember those?) and many more back when TV commercials still were the gold standard for advertising.
My first, and best “spokes” gig began in 1986 for a chain of Texas grocery stores with the unlovely name of Skaggs Alpha Beta.
I still remember the audition for Skaggs, which turned out to be one of those auditions that changes one’s life.
Tamra and I lived in New York City then, and earlier that same day I had also interviewed for a job painting oversized portraits of cats for a greeting card company in Queens, a job I luckily never had to do.
I had been studying improv at night, while working mainly as a freelance artist, schlepping my portfolio of illustrations around the city, auditioning for commercials whenever I could.
The job was, at the time, for three man-on-the-street spots that would shoot in a grocery store in Dallas. For the audition I had to improvise an interview with a shopper (one of the agency creatives) who had a bag full of fake groceries for me to chat with them about.
I figured out that the real challenge was to be funny, friendly and not at all rude to the shopper, so I applied what I had learned in my improv classes, and was friendly, playful and a little off the wall, but not at all offensive.
My agent called to say Skaggs wanted to hire me. I’d be flown to Dallas to interview shoppers in a couple different stores, and they’d pay me for not three, but five spots. Over scale, too.
We were quite happy.
After the three day shoot, the agency did a fantastic job culling through hours and hours of interviews to find the gems, and arranged them into 30 second spots that were fun, memorable, and very real.
It took a lot of nerve to do that kind of advertising in 1986. Attempting something unscripted like that was an unheard of gamble.
That first set of commercials was so successful in improving the image of the store and improving sales, they offered me a contract for an entire year of TV and radio spots.
I had never even dreamed such a thing was possible.
I wound up being “The Skaggs Man” for five years. It was fun, relatively easy work, and I improvised nearly every word. It opened the door to similar campaigns for a number of different clients, and gave Tamra and I financial stability for the first time in our lives.
Some of my man-in-the-store spots can be found on YouTube, where I posted them after digging them out of my collection. But there were so many that I haven’t posted them all. And frankly, I’m not sure I’m comfortable showing the world some of the wardrobe I had on circa 1988.
Nowadays, real life interview ads are ubiquitous online, but I don’t do them anymore. Why?
That was then, this is now. Like a hurricane, I’ve changed categories; I no longer look like the young people whom most advertisers are marketing to.
As an older actor, the kind of commercials that anyone would want me as a spokesman for I won’t pursue; mainly, the myriad drugs and remedies that are promoted today for every health condition an American is likely to suffer from after a lifetime of eating bad food and getting little exercise.
That’s just not my cup of tea. (Tea would be something I’d love to do commercials for!)
I still do TV spots, but a fraction of what I used to. I’m lucky in that usually when I am cast these days, it’s usually for a memorable and funny spot (like the George Washington ad for Geico) and often involves improv to some degree. You can see a collection of them by clicking HERE.
It might seem odd to people more familiar with my recent career to note that I didn’t use impressions much in most of my man-on-the-street assignments.
The reason was that It was a long time before I recognized that impressions could open doors for me as an actor, so I didn’t make any special effort to feature myself that way.
I was just focused on portraying a friendly, off-beat interviewer asking raw public people questions that had never occurred to anyone to ask before, relating special deals and facts about the stores, while making sure the customer was never the butt of the joke. That took up most of my available bandwidth.
I’ll always fondly cherish the memories of working on those Skaggs Alpha Beta commercials with the wonderful creative people who hired and put up with me on those long, silly days as I learned how to be a brand spokesman, and who started me on my career as a spokesman..
And of course, I’m always ready to do it again for the appropriate product. Maybe some tea company…