Celebs in Voice-Overs Part II — The Rise of the Television Star

At the end of Part I, I detailed how the first celebs in commercials were Broadway actors but by 1990, there was a great decline in demand for theatrical voices. Scale voices were getting younger for several reasons 1) casting directors were younger, 2) agency creatives were younger and 3) younger talent was cheaper and would work at union scale. All three factors would lead to the next celeb wave, which was the rise of the TV actor in commercial voice-overs. 25 years ago, there was still a strong separation between TV actors and film actors. Occasionally, someone like John Travolta would cross between screens but generally there was a caste system in Hollywood whereby TV actors were not offered major films and film actors would rarely work in television. Neither did commercials - voice-overs or on-camera. There were exceptions but, while Martin Sheen, Donald Sutherland, Alec Baldwin and Peter Coyote bucked the system, 99.9% of Hollywood actors ignored the commercial industry with the full support of their agents and managers.

What changed? In 1990, Northern Exposure aired for the first time and John Corbett and Rob Morrow were introduced to television audiences. John Corbett’s character was a DJ and it didn’t take a Madison Avenue genius to realize that John had “an interesting voice” and he was an actor. Very quickly, John Corbett became a familiar prototype in the scale world, but, ironically, Rob Morrow was the real inspiration to the rush of TV actors into voice-overs.

There’s perhaps a lot of mythology here but I’m going to illustrate it as I remember the story. Sometime in late 1992/early 1993, MasterCard was looking for a new voice for their ''It's more than a credit card; it's smart money'' campaign. McCann Erickson (MasterCard’s ad agency) was searching for a scale voice but one name kept coming up; Rob Morrow. As the story goes, someone very high up in the MasterCard food chain had a daughter and she, had a crush on Rob Morrow. Rob, prior to landing Northern Exposure was a New York actor and like most New York actors made ends meet with commercials.   Fred Schiffman was still Rob’s commercial agent and he still had Rob’s contact info so Fred called him. Keep in mind, Rob, like most commercial actors knew that voice-overs was the gold standard of commercials but Rob likely hesitated knowing successful TV actors didn’t do commercials.   Fred got around the conflict by throwing a number out to Rob. If Fred could get “the big number” would Rob agree? Rob did and Fred threw the number back out to McCann Erickson. I’m sure Fred was told he was crazy but when the MasterCard exec discovered Rob was interested, he green lit the number.

Rob and the commercials received a tremendous amount of publicity but Rob’s performance didn’t necessarily change the industry. It was, in fact, the big number. Not only did other actors hear about Rob’s sweet gig but the agent’s did as well and they slowly began pushing for other celebrity opportunities with similar numbers.

For a year or two, interest in TV actors waned a bit due to the perception they were too expensive but then Frasier hit the airwaves.   Once again, there was a magnetic actor working on the radio and Madison Avenue had the same “ah-hah” moment they enjoyed with John Corbett… Kelsey Grammar has a really interesting voice! Remember Kelsey had already been working in commercials and I’m sure there were some initial low-ball offers trying to get him at former quotes but Kelsey was now a full-blown star not just one of several characters on Cheers.   Plus, Rob Morrow’s “big number” was still the benchmark in the industry.   By the end of the decade, the demand for Kelsey grew so large he could be heard on commercials for MCI, Honey Nut Cheerios, Lexus, General Food International Coffees and even as the original voice of the Geico gecko. Also, in another parallel to Northern Exposure, other cast mates on Frasier would successfully follow Kelsey into voice-overs including David Hyde Pierce, John Mahoney and Peri Gilpin. Couple these TV actors with some great young comedians including the Dennis’ (Leary and Miller) and you had the makings of mini-revolution.

By the turn of the century a clear-cut strata had evolved of mostly younger (20-30’s) scale actors and actresses and over scale TV celebs. The division wouldn’t last long. Waiting in the wings, were a slew of movie stars, who like Rob Morrow, experienced the New York commercial grind of late 80’s and early 90’s, and were going to change the business again.

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