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Whatever Happened To These Famous Commercial Actors?

TV commercials have a way of sticking around, long after they've gone off the air. Slogans like "Can you hear me now?" and "I'm lovin' it," often spoken by recurring characters who drum themselves into the collective consciousness, can stay with a person for many years. This makes them pure marketing gold. When a company finds an advertising gimmick that resonates with a wide audience, they'll use it for as long as it increases business and product awareness.

But who's behind these catchphrases and the characters who so charmingly say them? They're all real actors, whose lives are often changed by their successful spots. Some are up-and-coming performers, while others are hardworking character actors making a living. Occasionally, they can be victims of their own success, forever tied to an ad campaign that leads to typecasting. Others, in contrast, go on to work in all channels of the entertainment industry — or leave it altogether. We're taking a look at those famous commercial actors who can't go anywhere without hearing some version of "Hey, weren't you the guy in ... "

John Gilchrist - Life Cereal

According to MeTV, child actor John Gilchrist appeared in more than 200 commercials. But the one that made him famous is the one he filmed for Life cereal in 1971. According to Newsday, he was only three at the time, and doesn't fully remember creating the classic commercial. The fact that he also didn't have any lines probably didn't help in that regard. Gilchrist played a legendarily fussy eater named Mikey whose voracious approach to a bowl of Life surprises his brothers (played by Gilchrist's real-life siblings). "He likes it!" they exclaim. Thus, a catchphrase was born.

Gilchrist quit acting in his late teens after losing the lead role in the 1979 movie "The Champ" to Ricky Schroder. He entered the advertising business, and ended up working in radio, at ESPN, and eventually for MSG Networks, which controls New York's Madison Square Garden. Since 2006, Gilchrist has held the position of director of media sales.

Demetri Goritsas - Slim Jim

Remember those completely surreal and frenetic Slim Jim commercials that aired in the '90s, often on MTV and during extreme sporting events? In these bizarre segments, a single bite of the spicy meat stick sends a wiry monster banging around stomach walls. Demetri Goritsas played that skinny, frightening, Slim Jim-activated monster. Since those heady days, Goritsas has built a respectable career of character acting, as well as voiceover work: He's narrated more than 100 documentaries about things like earthquakes and volcanoes, and been part of commercials for everything from orange juice to beer. 

Outside of his Slim Jim costume, Goritsas is pretty much unrecognizable as the stomach-borne agent of chaos. Viewers may have spotted him in such popular works as the 2015 movie "Everest" and the social media-skewering "Black Mirror" episode "Nosedive." He also appears as Parker in "Saving Private Ryan" and Levene in "X-Men: First Class." Goritsas has even hit the stage, starring in productions of celebrated plays like "Boy Gets Girl" and "Ear for Eye."

Pete Gardner - NBA 2K15

Hollywood is a competitive and overcrowded place, which means having a "hook" can be a tremendous asset to an actor. Pete Gardner's is distinctive: he's known far and wide for his impressively bushy mustache. Gardner and his facial hair have been part of many commercials for many different clients: He played a goofy dad in a Postal Service ad, a patient listening to his kids' Wii U sales pitch for Nintendo, a truck-loving salesman in a Chevy commercial, NBA star James Harden's "beard guru" in a spot for "NBA 2K15," and a guy in a locker room who can make his armpit talk for Juicy Fruit gum. Gardner also boasts a résumé full of interesting roles on movies and TV shows that goes back decades. Viewers might remember him as the supportive and emotionally open lawyer Darryl Whitefeather on musical-comedy series "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."

John Moschitta Jr. - FedEx

John Moschitta Jr. became a well-known (if minor) celebrity in the '80s because he possesses a singular, impressive talent: He can talk really, really fast. We're talking Guinness World Records-certified fast. Once upon a time, he could get through 586 words a minute. This record has since been beaten, but it remains mind-blowing. Moschitta made the rounds of talk and variety shows at the time to demonstrate his talents; he wowed audiences on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," "The Merv Griffin Show," "The $10,000 Pyramid," and in lots and lots of ads. 

Most famously, Moschitta appeared as a harried executive who needs his documents to arrive about as fast as Moschitta can speak in a FedEx commercial, and as a motormouthed pitchman in a spot for Micro Machines, a line of tiny toy cars. He's pulled back from public life a bit, but in 2010, he voiced a character named Keyper on "Adventure Time." In 2014, "Tonight Show" host and nostalgia merchant Jimmy Fallon had Moschitta on his show (via Uproxx) to speedily summarize that year's Academy Award nominees for Best Picture. In 2016, he appeared as an announcer on "American Dad!" and as a fast-talking justice of the peace on "General Hospital."

Lucky Vanous - Diet Coke

Lucky Vanous was the actor at the center of a number of memorable Diet Coke commercials from the mid-'90s. In these spots, he played a heavily-ogled object of desire, which briefly transformed him into a minor sex symbol. In one ad for Diet Coke, Vanous portrayed a hunky construction worker who takes a break to enjoy a can of the beverage each day at precisely 11:30 a.m. A small army of female office employees jockey for a spot in front of the windows to watch this handsome guy drink his soda — and take off his shirt.

This was the big break the actor, model, and Nebraska-born Army veteran (via CNN) needed. The Diet Coke ads led to gigs on quintessentially '90s shows like "Wings," "Pacific Palisades," and "Will & Grace." He even starred in his own workout video, "Lucky Vanous: The Ultimate Fat Burning Workout." Vanous' last role to date was in a 2005 short film called "Widowmaker."

Ben Curtis - Dell Computer

Ben Curtis had good news for TV viewers of the early 2000s: They were getting a Dell, dude! In an endless string of commercials for the then-dominant PC manufacturer, young Curtis played a fratty guy sporting spiky blond hair, an ear-to-ear smile, and hemp necklaces who is always extremely happy to extol Dell's virtues to those in the market for a computer. With his half-closed eyes and laid-back mood, he honestly seems a little stoned. Indeed, when it was discovered that Curtis actually did smoke marijuana at a time when the drug was illegal pretty much everywhere in the U.S., it spelled the end of his Dell pitchman days. 

According to CNN, Curtis was arrested on a drug possession charge after a police officer in New York spotted him buying a small amount of marijuana in 2003. He was immediately terminated and couldn't find any acting work for a while. In need of a new job, Curtis bartended and staged an autobiographical theatrical piece about his experiences as the Dell dude. He also co-founded a yoga-centric gym called Soul Fit NY and works as a life coach. His pithy slogan: "Dude, you're getting well."

Chris Robinson - Vicks Formula 44

It's one of the most famous catchphrases and ad slogans in TV history: "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV." Oddly, it's supposed to imbue the speaker with authority, but also provide a caveat regarding any medical advice given. The first guy who said it on TV was a soap opera actor named Chris Robinson. This line opened an ad for Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup that debuted in 1984. At the time, Robinson portrayed Dr. Rick Webber on "General Hospital." 

According to The Los Angeles Times, Robinson was convicted of tax evasion in 1985. He served a prison term on nights andweekends so he could still tape "General Hospital" episodes during the day. Vicks replaced Robinson in its ad campaign with another non-doctor who plays one on TV: Peter Bergman, who played Dr. Cliff Warner on "All My Children." After that brief bump in life, Robinson continued acting, mostly in soaps, with a role on "Another World" and a couple of brief returns to "General Hospital."

Hallie Eisenberg - Pepsi

Hallie Eisenberg parlayed a career as a child actor in commercials into a career in big movies and major TV programs. She first hit screens as the button-cute, curly-haired star of a series of late '90s Pepsi ads with the voices of Aretha Franklin and Joe Pesci amusingly dubbed in. She then moved on to roles as Minnie Driver's daughter in "Beautiful," Little Miss in "Bicentennial Man" opposite Robin Williams, Helen Keller in a TV version of "The Miracle Worker," and the owner of a talking parrot voiced by Jay Mohr in the family movie "Paulie." 

After a few more movies and theatrical performances — including a part in a revival of "The Women" on Broadway – Eisenberg (whose older brother is Academy Award-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg) quit acting altogether in 2010. According to Seventeen, she did this to focus on college. Her last credited role was an appearance at the 2013 Tony Awards.

Sean Whalen - Milk

Thanks to the enduring popularity of the smash-hit musical "Hamilton," almost everybody now knows the answer to the question posed in a 1993 "Got Milk?" campaign: "Who shot Alexander Hamilton in that famous duel?" In the spot, an Aaron Burr expert knows that it's his guy, but can't answer because he doesn't have any milk to wash his peanut butter sandwich down. This unlucky historian was played by Sean Whalen, a hard-working performer with more than 140 acting credits to his name.

Apart from the milk ad, Whalen is probably best known for his role as Lion, a member of the creepy McPoyle family on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." He's also well-regarded for his recurring portrayal of retail employee Sal on "Superstore," whose body is found behind a store wall. Beyond these roles, Whalen has recently shown up on episodes of "Magnum, P.I.," "Shameless," "Kenan," and "Ghosts," and as a scientist opposite Seth Rogen in the comedy "An American Pickle."

Charles Stone III - Budweiser

"Whassup?" was as inescapable in the early 2000s as "Where's the beef?" was in the 1980s. This Budweiser campaign was simple, silly, and endearing: A bunch of guys call each other on the phone just to say "What's up?" The question gets louder and more incoherent with each utterance. According to The New York Times, these ads were based on "True," a short film directed by Charles Stone III. In the film and ads, he also played one of the "Whassup?" guys: He's the first to appear on-screen, surrounded by a bunch of his real-life friends. "True" hit the film festival circuit and was discovered by ad agency DDB, which contracted Stone to remake the film as a beer commercial. It debuted during "Monday Night Football" in December 1999. 

Stone had already directed a lot of classic hip-hop videos, like A Tribe Called Quest's "Bonita Applebum," Public Enemy's "911 is a Joke," and The Roots' "What They Do." But the commercial helped push him into feature filmmaking. Among his directorial credits are the 2002 hit musical "Drumline," the 2004 Bernie Mac sports movie "Mr. 3000," and the 2018 basketball comedy "Uncle Drew" — which was, in an appropriate twist, based on a commercial for Pepsi.

Reid MacLean - Partnership for a Drug-Free America

Reid MacLean starred in a commercial that ran for more than 10 years — remarkably long for a 30-second spot. It's an anti-drug public service announcement from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which features a suburban dad who's found his teenage son's drug stash. "Where did you learn how to do this stuff?" Dad bellows. "You, all right?" the son retorts. "I learned it by watching you!" "Parents who use drugs," the narrator intones, "have children who use drugs."

The teen boy trying to be like his daddy was portrayed by a young actor named Reid MacLean. By the time he shot this ad, he'd already done numerous commercials, including another drug-fighting campaign for a rehabilitation center. "All-American boy drug kid. I don't know how I got into it!" Maclean told "Just My Show: The Retro Pop Culture Podcast" in 2008. After touring with a production of "The Sound of Music" and taking a small role in the epic 1993 Civil War film "Gettysburg," MacLean turned from acting to music. Nowadays, he's a soulful acoustic guitarist.

Wendy Kaufman - Snapple

Wendy Kaufman stumbled into her star-making gig as Snapple's spokesperson completely by accident. In 1990, she was working in the company's billing department. According to The New York Times, she took it upon herself to answer letters from customers because nobody else in the office would. An ad executive heard about it, and created a campaign built around Kaufman answering Snapple consumers' questions. Kaufman accurately represents the folksy drink company in these memorable spots, which helped turn Snapple into a major national beverage brand. 

After 17 years with the iced tea and lemonade giant, Kaufman left Snapple in 2008 in the wake of a corporate takeover by Quaker Oats and a failure to negotiate a mutually agreeable contract. In 2005, she appeared on VH1's weight-loss reality show "Celebrity Fit Club," the same year she made a few more ads for Snapple. In 2015, played a small part in the indie comedy "College Debts."

Jerry Lambert - Sony PlayStation

Jerry Lambert has starred in many major advertising campaigns. This success is due in large part to his everyman face, which reminds a lot of people of their father or their boss. He's worked for Geico, Wendy's, Burger King, and, most notably, Sony. In an ad for that company's PlayStation game console, he played Kevin Butler, the company's comically smarmy (and fictional) vice president. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Lambert lost the gig in 2012 after he appeared in an ad for Bridgestone. These spots promised customers who buy new tires a free Wii, made by Nintendo — one of Sony's biggest rivals. Sony sued Lambert, but the case was settled when he agreed not to appear in any video game advertisements for two years. 

Fortunately, roles in television series started to roll in. Since his fake-corporate days came to an end, Lambert has popped up on "Key and Peele," "Maron," "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp," "Modern Family," "Family Guy," and "American Housewife," where he had a regular gig as bumbling Principal Ablin.

John Hodgman - Apple Macintosh

John Hodgman had just landed a gig as a contributor on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" when Apple's "Get a Mac" campaign kicked off. He played PC, the bumbling, ancient-technology foil to Justin Long's Mac, the youthful and cool alternative. This campaign spawned 66 ads (not including its many parodies and ripoffs) and made Hodgman a recognizable face and media personality. He's since gone on to do stand-up, hosted the mock-trial podcast "Judge John Hodgman," and published several books, including the fake trivia volumes "The Areas of My Expertise" and " More Information Than You Require," as well as the memoirs "Vacationland" and "Medallion Status."

Hodgman also works as an actor, and is generally cast as — you guessed it — a stodgy nerd. He's popped up on "The Tick," "Parks and Recreation," "Mozart in the Jungle," and lent his voice to "The Venture Brothers," "Ducktales," and "Dicktown," an FXX detective series he also co-created. Ironically, in real like, Hodgman is a Mac guy, as he revealed to Engadget.

Matt Frewer - New Coke

A computer-generated TV host from the future, Max Headroom was created for a 1985 British dystopian sci-fi movie called "Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future." He proved so popular that he got his own music video show, which led to a dramatic TV series that aired on ABC called "Max Headroom." Coca-Cola also landed the rights to use him in commercials for New Coke, the company's woefully misguided and short-lived 1985 attempt to reformulate its flagship product.

Max wasn't really CGI, though — he was actor Matt Frewer under what he told G4  were multiple layers of make-up and prosthetics, meant to make him look digitally-created. When the character's popularity faded, Frewer (who had a second role on "Max Headroom," as a reporter named Edison) returned to his career as a quirky character actor. He voiced tremulous demon Panic in Disney's "Hercules," neighbor Big Russ in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," Moloch in the 2009 "Watchmen" movie, mysterious clone master Dr. Aldous Leekie on "Orphan Black," Logan on "Fear the Walking Dead," and Judge Wright on HBO's "Perry Mason" revival.

Vanessa Branch - Orbit Gum

In a series of early 2000s Orbit gum commercials, the chew-worthy product is touted as being able to make one's mouth feel clean under any circumstances. The spots prove this by having an upstanding, white-clad, British woman expose hapless individuals to a series of dirty ordeals. Muddy dogs, road dust, and tennis court dirt cover them from head to toe, but Orbit gum keeps their teeth a pristine white. "Fabulous!" the smiling woman declares.

Vanessa Branch played this cheeky pitch-person from 2002 to 2005, returning to the gum brand in 2010 for some print advertising work. She's a very busy working actor beyond commercials as well. You might remember her as Giselle, a flaxen-haired beauty from the pirate island of Tortuga in the first three blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. Branch has also popped up on episodes of "Entourage," "Lost," "Gilmore Girls," "CSI Miami," and "Bones." In 2013, Branch served as a judge on the VH1 marketing-and-modeling reality show "Model Employee." Her most recent credit is from a 2017 short film called "Silent Kingdom."

Morgan Smith - Wendy's

When Dave Thomas opened the first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers in Columbus, Ohio in 1969, he named the business after his daughter, Melinda. Her brothers and sisters couldn't pronounce that name, so they called her Wendy instead. The real Wendy has occasionally appeared in Wendy's TV commercials, but in 2012, the company wanted to promote itself with a living mascot. Thus, they hired an actor to play the fictionalized Wendy: Alabama-born Morgan Smith, who dyed her naturally dark blond hair for the role, according to The Hamilton Spectator.

The campaign lasted about two years for Smith. After all that exposure, she landed a role in a never-aired reboot of the TV sitcom "Coach," and played the recurring role of Candi Caruso, the president's chief of staff on the Emmy-collecting HBO series "Veep." More recently, she popped up on episodes of "Why Women Kill," "Messiah," and "9-1-1."

Jake Stone - State Farm Insurance

To demonstrate that it offers round-the-clock customer service assistance, State Farm ran an ad in the 2010s featuring a suburban man speaking quietly and apparently provocatively to an unseen caller. The man's wife discovers him and assumes he's engaged in a tawdry phone call. She confronts whom she guesses is a mistress on the other end of the line, asking what she's wearing. It's then revealed that her husband has been speaking to a State Farm insurance agent named Jake Stone, who answers, "Uh, khakis?"

These State Farm commercials feature a real State Farm employee by the actual name of Jake Stone, according to Muse by Clio. The clip of the khakis-wearing customer service rep responding to the angry wife was so successful, State Farm decided to base a whole campaign around the character. But they also made one major change: They swapped out the real Jake Stone for one played by an actor named Kevin Miles. Meanwhile, the real Jake Stone retired from acting. According to The Pantagraph, he left his insurance gig and took a job as a seasonal employee for the city of Normal, Illinois while also holding down a bartending position.

Diane Amos - Pine Sol

There are a lot of cleaning products out there, but the makers of Pine-Sol set theirs apart by touting how they smell like evergreen trees. A long-running ad campaign starring a persistent and outspoken fan of the stuff took them to especially lofty heights. This dynamite spokeswoman is the Pine-Sol Lady, and she's been the center of the household cleaner's marketing campaign since 1993.

Stand-up comedian and actor Diane Amos got the gig early in her career, which she's gone on to balance with work in a wide variety of movies and TV shows. Amos played a dental hygienist opposite Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine," a coffee shop server in "Sweet November," a nurse in "Nine Months," and landed guest spots on "Blunt Talk," "Chance," and "Murder in the First." According to Amos' Twitter account, she also does a lot of public appearances and works as an inspirational speaker.

Tim Williams - Trivago

In 2013, a German travel pricing aggregator called Trivago launched an English-language ad campaign in which a middle-aged guy walks around a blank set promising low prices on hotels while graphics appear around him. According to Rolling Stone, the Trivago Guy, as he became known, turned into an odd viral phenomenon. Pundits pointed out how unique his wrinkled clothes and pronounced stubble are among pitchmen, and internet commentators debated whether the results were off-putting or attractive.

The man behind this brief phenomenon is Tim Williams. According to ABC13, he's a Houston native. His acting career began in the '90s, but his breakthrough role was definitely that of the Trivago Guy, whom he played in multiple TV spots. Prior to these commercials, he landed guest parts on "My So-Called Life," "The Sopranos," and "Law & Order" before finding work in German productions. His last role to date is Commander Jones in the post-World War II miniseries "Unsere wunderbaren Jahre."

In April 2019, police in Houston charged Williams with drunk driving when he was discovered asleep at the wheel in the middle of traffic. The charges were later dropped, per the New York Daily News.

Paul Marcarelli - Verizon

In an omnipresent advertising campaign from the 2000s, Verizon Wireless told customers that they took the coverage and clarity of calls on its network seriously. These commercials depict "Test Man," a bespectacled, uniformed Verizon employee who traipses around all kinds of terrain while remaining in contact with company headquarters. "Can you hear me now?" he repeatedly inquires, proving the strength of Verizon's connection.

Ads starring this fictional tester aired from 2002 to 2011, according to USA Today. Who played the unforgettable Test Man during this period of time? He was brought to life by actor Paul Marcarelli. After Verizon cut him loose, the theater-oriented performer moved into film, according to The Atlantic. He wrote indie films "The Green" (starring Julia Ormond) and "Clutter," and acted in some short, low-budget projects. One of Marcarelli's splashiest roles since he left Verizon is actually connected to the performance that made him famous: He played himself in a series of ads for competitor Sprint that reference his history with Verizon.

Carly Foulkes - T-Mobile

According to PCMag, T-Mobile debuted a series of ads in 2010 that attempt to put a human face and personality on the invisible product of cell phone service. This campaign centers around the "T-Mobile Girl," a 20-something woman invariably wearing dresses in T-Mobile's signature magenta. Played by Carly Foulkes, she politely extols the benefits of T-Mobile's calling and data plans. The company went on to reboot the campaign, reimagining their pitch-person as a leather-clad, motorcycle-riding action hero.

The ads ended production in 2013, leaving Foulkes free to do other things. Having worked as a model before she became the T-Mobile Girl, she moved into acting after the campaign wrapped, appearing in a series of short films and a music video by the band Collapsing Scenery. After 2018, Foulkes largely moved from working in front of the camera to behind it. According to her Instagram, she now operates as a photographer and director, and still dabbles in modeling.

T.J. Jagodowski and Peter Grosz - Sonic

Sonic is an old-fashioned drive-in burger joint with locations around the United States. In the early 2000s, it advertised its wares with a campaign called "Two Guys," according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. The commercials play like 30-second comedy sketches that traffic in familiar character archetypes. Two guys sit outside a Sonic, enjoying their fast food selections. One of them is kind of dumb, while the other is humorously exasperated by his dim dining buddy. The continuing saga of these friends drove dozens of Sonic ads until 2010, when the company decided to go in another direction. Undeterred, the actors who appeared in the mostly improvised "Two Guys" ads produced their own self-made ads, which, along with an online petition, restored their gig with Sonic, according to The New York Times. "Two Guys" ended for real in 2020, according to Marketing Dive.

The two guys behind "Two Guys" are T.J. Jagodowski (the dumb guy) and Peter Grosz (the voice of reason). Jagodowski has recently popped up in "Chicago Fire" and "Get Hard," while Grosz has written for "At Home with Amy Sedaris," "Late Night with Seth Meyers," and played the sommelier in 2022's "The Menu."

Jonathan Goldsmith - Dos Equis

Dos Equis' "The Most Interesting Man in the World" campaign invites consumers to be more like its fabled subject. A deep-voiced narrator admiringly intones this guy's accomplishments, which sound like classier takes on the "Chuck Norris Facts" meme. Some of the qualities of this fascinating individual: His shirts don't wrinkle, he bowls overhand, he tips 100%, and he's won a lifetime achievement award twice. Each ad cuts to a bearded man who's surrounded by women as he hoists a bottle of Dos Equis. "Stay thirsty, my friends," the Most Interesting Man in the World advises.

Jonathan Goldsmith portrayed the Most Interesting Man in the World, capping a career as a character actor that began in the early 1960s. Goldsmith guest-starred on almost every major TV drama of the 1980s, including "Knight Rider," "MacGyver," "The Fall Guy," "Dynasty," "The A-Team," "and "Dallas." He appeared on 19 episodes of the latter series as Bruce Harvey and Joe Smith. Following his work as the Most Interesting Man in the World, Goldsmith popped up at the end of 2018's "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" as Brother Cienfuegos, who is looking for some late-in-life romance. Goldsmith also published his memoir, "Stay Interesting," in 2017.