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The 50 Best Commercials: Where are they now?

From the Snapple Lady to the FedEx Fast Talker, EW catches up with TV ads’ finest actors

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It’s hard to imagine them anyplace other than your TV screen, hawking products in those ads everyone knows by heart. But while commercial characters remain static in our pop-culture consciousness, the actors move on and build lives beyond the 30-second spot. Mr. Whipple (a.k.a. Dick Wilson), for example, is spending his days in Henderson, Nev., squeezing the complimentary case of Charmin he receives from Procter & Gamble each month. Madge the Palmolive Lady (a.k.a. Jan Miner) now lives in Southbury, Conn., soaking up various film offers that come her way. And Mr. Clean and the Jolly Green Giant now share a condo in Palm Springs (kidding). Here’s what other favorite ad people are up to.

FED EX FAST TALKER

JOHN MOSCHITTA JR. took flight as the limber-lipped pitchman for Federal Express, whose 450-word-per-minute delivery — now 586 — helped bolster the nearly bankrupt company’s sales (1981).

Signature Shtick: ”Peteyou’redoingabangupjobI’mputtingyouin chargeofPittsburgh.”

Ad Tales: In 1980, the out-of-work actor sent out hundreds of fliers announcing an appearance on That’s Incredible!. ”The show aired on a Thursday, and by the following Tuesday I was negotiating with FedEx and booked on Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Toni Tennille, and Merv Griffin,” says the actor, now 42.

Life After FedEx: Moschitta’s speedy-speech empire included jobs for Minute Rice, the Micromachines Man for Galoob Toys, regular roles on numerous television shows (Matt Houston, Zorro and Son, Half Hour Comedy Hour), and two best-selling books-on-tape. He currently lives in L.A. and will appear in upcoming episodes of USA’s The Big Easy and Lifetime’s It Takes Two.

THE SNAPPLE LADY

WENDY KAUFMAN fulfilled the oddball requests of fans of the fruit drinks in a total of 36 commercials (1993-95).

Ad Tales: Kaufman, who parlayed her real job in Snapple’s order department into an on-air gig, traveled the country granting such wishes as attending a prom with a New Jersey fan and dancing with the Los Angeles Classical Ballet. ”It was thrilling,” she says of the latter. ”Although I almost killed my partner.”

Life After Snapple: Quaker Oats dismissed Kaufman after purchasing Snapple in 1994. Today she’s working on ”Ask Wendy,” a syndicated two-minute radio-advice spot that answers questions posted to her E-mail address (askwendy@aol.com). ”I just wanted everybody to know that I never left them,” says the New York City-based Kaufman, 38. ”Quaker left me.” Perhaps not for good: Now that Snapple is losing money, Quaker is talking to Kaufman about doing more ads.

JOE ISUZU

DAVID LEISURE drove a hard-to-believe bargain as the fatuous car salesman prone to making outrageous claims about Isuzu vehicles, such as ”It has more seats than the Astrodome!” (1985-89)

Signature Shtick: ”You have my word on it!”

Ad Tales: Leisure filmed one of the spots with a broken leg. To make matters worse, he was chained to a Trooper parked atop Utah’s Castle Rock, 1,500 feet above ground. ”Every 15 minutes they’d go, ‘We’re going to have to get you down. There’s a big lightning storm coming,”’ he says.

Life After Isuzu: Leisure, 40, went straight to a seven-year stint as Richard Mulligan’s obnoxious neighbor, Charley, on NBC’s Empty Nest. The Los Angeles-based actor, soon to be married for a third time, appears in the upcoming independent films The Outsider and Hollywood Safari and the ABC-TV movie Dogmatic. Joe Isuzu continues to haunt him, however. Says Leisure, “People say, ‘Hey, aren’t you that a–hole liar?'”

THE NOXZEMA GIRL

GUNILLA KNUTSON steamed it up as Shave Cream’s sexy blond (1966-73).

Signature Shtick: “Take it off. Take it all off.”

Ad Tales: Originally the ad featured a man shaving to bump-and-grind stripper music, sans model. “It wasn’t as effective as they had hoped,” says the Swedish-born Knutson, now 53. “Someone said, ‘Well, we could put a broad in it.’ At first it was a joke, but then they tried it.”

Life After Noxzema: Knutson went on to become spokesperson and vice president of sales for Rose Milk skin cream, and later published an exercise book, Beauty and Health the Scandinavian Way. Today she works as a wine taster for Sabrina Wine Importers and also as a gymnastics instructor at the Buckley Elementary School in Manhattan.

THE ALKA-SELTZER WIFE

ALICE PLAYTEN served as a cooking-impaired newlywed whose list of questionable recipes elicits groans from her young husband in one of Alka-Seltzer’s most memorable spots (1970).

Signature Shtick: “Poached oysters!”

Ad Tales: Playten’s squeaky voice and offbeat looks created a new category for women in commercials, previously limited to models or moms. “My agent got calls saying, ‘We’re looking for an Alice Playten type,’ ” says Playten, who subsequently starred with Chevy Chase and John Belushi in the 1974 National Lampoon comedy revue Lemmings. “He’d say, ‘We represent her.’ They’d say, ‘We’ll look at her type today and if we don’t find her, we’ll call Alice.'”

Life After Alka-Seltzer: While Playten and her costar in the ad, Terry Kaiser, were offered a sitcom based on their commercials, she instead continued with theater and voice-over work in New York. The fortysomething actress currently voices Beebe Bluff on ABC’s cartoon Doug and will appear in the upcoming musical Schlemiel the First at the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles.

MOTHER NATURE

DENA DIETRICH was all the rage as a very cranky Mother Nature, who sparks lightning and earthquakes when tricked into mistaking Chiffon margarine for butter (1971-79).

Signature Shtick: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

Ad Tales: Dietrich thought the role was unlandable, since “they had a sheet describing Mother Nature as heavyset, blond, and motherly,” says Dietrich, who was then working in theater. “I was thin and brunet, so I didn’t really give a damn. They handed me a bunch of daisies and I got crazy, throwing them around the room and making a fool of myself.”

Life After Chiffon: Dietrich, now in her 60s, went on to appear in several sitcoms (Adam’s Rib, The Ropers) and also held the recurring role of Phil’s wife, Phyllis, on Murphy Brown. She lives in West Hollywood and continues to do TV, film, theater, and voice-over work.

THE KID WHO LIKED LIFE

JOHN GILCHRIST chewed up the scenery as chipmunk-cheeked Mikey, the kid who “hates everything” but Life cereal (1971-87).

Signature Shtick: (from his astounded siblings, played by Gilchrist’s real-life brothers, Michael and Tommy) “He likes it! Hey, Mikey!”

Ad Tales: No, Mikey’s stomach did not explode after he downed fizzy Pop Rocks and a Coke. “People don’t believe [I’m alive],” says Gilchrist, 29. “I’ll meet someone in a restaurant and it’ll come up [that I’m Mikey], and they’ll be like, ‘You’re not him. He’s dead.’ I’ve heard a million different things about Mikey—like he bit off a G.I. Joe’s head and choked.”

Life After Life: Gilchrist, who declined to be photographed, appeared in more than 250 commercials for such products as Pepto Bismol, Skippy peanut butter, and Jell-O before quitting in 1988. He currently works as an advertising executive at CBS Newsradio 88 in New York. Brother Michael, 32, is now a labor negotiator for an East Coast electrical union, and Tommy, 34, is an account exec at MCI.

UNDERWOOD’S HAM

MASON REESE was worth his weight in gold as the mop-topped lover of Underwood Deviled Ham (1972).

Signature Shtick: “It’s like having a borgasmord!”

Ad Tales: To up the cute-little-kid quotient, producers told Reese to mispronounce “smorgasbord,” but the junior thespian wasn’t having it. “Being a very precocious, intelligent, proud 7-year-old, I said, ‘I know how to pronounce the word,'” says Reese, 31. “I was like, ‘I want America to know I know the word.'” He finally acquiesced after the ad’s director told him “borgasmord” was the Swedish word for “smorgasbord.”

Life After Underwood: Reese went on to publish The Memoirs of Mason Reese in 1973, sell Munchkins for Dunkin’ Donuts, and star in a pilot, Mason, which aired on ABC in 1977. After recuperating from breaking both his legs in a motorcycle accident in 1990, Reese opened Nowbar and the restaurant Standard Notions, both in New York City.

CHEERLEADER

JOBE CERNY cleans up as the unflappable, music-loving Cheer detergent pitchman who silently removes stains with tools like a cocktail shaker or flower vase (1987-present).

Ad Tales: A one-man commercial empire (he’s performed in 2,500 spots to date), Cerny has seen his Cheer gig attract some frighteningly fanatical followers. “One guy likes to do drawings of me. Another dresses up like me and sends pictures of himself,” says Cerny, 49. “It’s scary sometimes.”

Life After Cheer: Cerny still films the Procter & Gamble ads (they’ve run in more than a dozen countries) and is also the voice of the Pillsbury Doughboy (“I’m not allowed to talk about that,” he says). In addition to theater and TV guest spots (Chicago Hope, Early Edition), he runs Cerny/American Creative studio in Chicago (producer of comedy commercials and short films), and is writing a textbook for acting students, I Could Have Been a Cabdriver…But I Became an Actor Instead.

B-O-L-O-G-N-ABOY

ANDY LAMBROS was the 4-year-old with a fishing pole who propelled “My bologna has a first name” into pop-culture orbit with his rendering of the Oscar Mayer song (1974).

Signature Shtick: “How’s that?”

Ad Tales: Lambros’ pudgy mug became so popularized by the commercial that he endured a child-star rite of passage: “I had a couple of kidnapping threats,” says Lambros, 27. “It was one or two small incidents. I didn’t have bodyguards or anything.”

Life After Oscar Mayer: His lunch meat gig led to about 40 more commercials (Morton Salt, Pringles) and several TV and feature film roles, including Fatso. Later Lambros opened an exotic pet store in Woodland Hills, Calif., and today runs the California-based Internet service company CyberWeb (www.cyberweb1.com) and the educational site AnimalWeb (www.animalweb.com).

BARTLES’ SILENT PARTNER

DICK MAUGG was Ed Jaymes, sidekick to Frank Bartles (David Rufkahr) in a series of down-home Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler ads. The duo helped parent company Ernest & Julio Gallo take the No. 1 spot in wine cooler sales (1985-91).

Signature Shtick: (from Rufkahr) “Thank you for your support.”

Ad Tales: Maugg, a general contractor who first met execs at Hal Riney & Partners, Inc. (formerly Ogilvy & Mather/SF) when he built their San Franscisco offices, didn’t own a TV until three years into the commercials’ run. “I really wasn’t aware of how popular they were,” he says. “They’d send me tapes [of the ads] and I’d go over to somebody’s house and see them.”

Life After Bartles & Jaymes: After doing some regional spots with Rufkahr (who died of a heart attack last April), Maugg, 65, returned to his contracting business, Maugg Construction. Last year he finished building a home in Mexico, but plans to return to his hometown of Santa Rosa, Calif., and work in construction with his son, Richard.

THE TASTER’S CHOICE SOAP STARS

Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan embodied the chic couple having an ongoing romance with Taster’s Choice instant coffee. (The ads originated in England in 1987; an American campaign was launched by Nestle, which owns Taster’s Choice, in 1990.)

Ad Tales: American fans of the popular spots do a double-take when they see the London-based Maughan with her real-life spouse, Trevor Eve, who plays her ex-husband in recent ads. “It’s always [Maughan does a nasal American voice], ‘So who’s it going to be? The husband or the lover?'” Head—a fellow Brit now dividing his time between London and L.A.—says he’d consider dueling Eve to settle the romantic triangle: “I’d love that—fighting at dawn,” he says. But lovers of the commercial soap may never learn the fate of these two, since Nestle has yet to decide whether it will continue the ads.

Life After Taster’s Choice: After a stint on Fox’s sci-fi series VR.5, Head, now in his 40s, landed the role of a high school librarian with an interest in the occult on the new WB series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Maughan, also in her 40s, has appeared on Masterpiece Theater and Inspector Morse, and is currently writing screenplays for the television and film production company Projector Productions, which she owns with her husband.