My Theory on the History of Celebrities in Commercials (The Broadway Edition) Part I

In my 5 questions for Rafael Ferrer, Rafael mentioned an old Paul Masson commercial from the early 80’s featuring John Gielgud (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhZv8aIr55k) and the perception that serious actors doing commercials was the virtual “end” of a career. 30 years later, times have changed so dramatically that Matthew McConaughey (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcGhLcVqxf0) is currently driving around in a Lincoln only six months after winning Best Actor. When did the celebrity rush to commercials begin? I’m going to lay out my trajectory on the celeb evolution into commercials but keep in mind… I’m not old enough to know what was happening day to day at the talent agencies prior to the 90’s and much of what I’m “throwing out” here is somewhat theoretical (BTW… ask anyone who knows me: I’m always willing to have a theory). Regardless, of all my conjecture and innuendo I think I’m on the right path but if anyone can fill in the gaps, please email and I will annotate it with any interesting notes.

I started in the business in 1992 at Don Buchwald and Associates and at the time, the biggest celeb working in commercials was James Earl Jones who was the on-camera spokes and voice of Bell Atlantic (the Baby Bell precursor to Verizon). At DBA, we didn’t represent James Earl but we did rep some fairly well known actors at the time; Stockard Channing, Ed Herrmann, Jane Alexander and Kelsey Grammar (prior to Frasier - the series). What did James Earl and the others have in common? Two things: 1) they spent a lot of time in New York City and 2) they spent a lot of time in New York City because they were on Broadway.

Thus begins the first migration of actors to commercials starting mostly in voice-overs. Madison Avenue was still the epicenter of commercial production at the time and the Broadway actors of the era knew there was a market for their talents. More importantly, they also knew that if they were going to even approximate the lifestyles they left behind doing television and film, they were going to have to do more than Broadway shows. VO was a very easy way to make up those earnings. The job was mostly anonymous, paid fairly well (even at scale), and took very little time. Such Broadway luminaries of the time including Lee Richardson, Len Cariou, John Houseman, Adolph Ceasar, Jose Ferrer, etc. all were performing in commercials (BTW… you probably noticed there are no women on that list… it was the time men dominated).

Around 1990, the major Advertising Agencies started dismissing their casting directors who acted as the ad agency gatekeepers and were the entrée point for all the great Broadway actors.   This disruption in the day-to-day business of voice-over casting created several dynamics, which would lead to the demise of the Broadway star in commercials.

  • Many of the established casting directors would end up sharing offices together in large loft-like spaces with shared waiting rooms. Whereby there was a prior “clubby” feel to auditioning on Madison Avenue suddenly everyone from kids to on-camera types of all sorts were thrown into the same waiting areas and the established voice actors were not happy with the new cattle call like environment. Many let their feelings become evident and soon a backlash evolved against many of these actors and their “”
  • The recording facilities were almost always rudimentary and the rich sound of these great actors was muddied by inferior microphones and sound quality. No longer could the great subtleties be discerned and the differences between voices became less perceptible.
  • Whereby creatives often sat in sessions where they could zip between floors, they were less willing to travel and many of the tried and true relationships disappeared between creatives and talent
  • Creatives began to get significantly younger as ad agencies economics changed and many of the established guard and their relationships to talent were let go and replaced by cheaper younger workers.

To wrap up Part I, as creatives got younger so did their desires for talent. 28 year old producers were intimidated by the older actors and one by one they began seeking out younger talent. The younger talent were also cheaper and it became a selling point that instead of an older talent for a $20,000 guarantee, they could have a younger guy for scale. The younger guys soon dominated the industry and by 1995, 25-35 year old actors Rafael Ferrer, Tony Hoylen, Marcus Lovett, Colter Rule, Zac Fine and David Slavin were the New York commercial prototypes of the decade.   Women also were finally getting more opportunities and combination of the new men and women led to the great Broadway actors slowly disappearing from the airwaves. The exceptions? The actors who also enjoyed a robust television career.

Next: Invasion of the TV Stars

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