My Big Break

At the tender age of 15, I got involved in the ad business. My mother, then a student at Queens College, met a lady there who was a casting agent’s secretary. My mum thought her red-haired, freckled son might be the next Opie Taylor, and soon I met with Selma Rubin in her elegant Forest Hills office.

Selma was cool and successful, handling, among others, a regular on Happy Days (Donnie Most by name). She described me as a cross between Ronnie Howard and Jimmy Stewart, and encouraged me to put aside my shyness as much as I could. So this young George Bailey started turning up at New York’s ad agencies and, all in all, put his best face forward.

It was exciting to be on my own in Manhattan. I was sent out 100 times at least, to big agencies (Grey Advertising, Benton & Bowles, D’Arcy, Ted Bates and Young & Rubicam come to mind) and smaller ones whose names I can’t recall. Generally I’d be given a script and asked to say a line or two. Many times, though, they would just want to look at my face. The “calls” lasted no more than 20 minutes, but were filled with familiar faces. It seems silly now to admit that I was in awe of them. Imagine idolizing someone for the way he scratched his head in a dandruff-shampoo ad (I remember him, too: Parker Stevenson, later to star on Baywatch. If only I had known!).

I had but a few successes—and only one clear on-camera role. For this I can thank McDonald’s, which chose me for their “Guarantee” campaign of August 1974 and thereby handed me my college tuition for a year. It was exciting to be chosen, even though all they wanted was the toothy grin. Selma was very pleased.

As I recall, the agency (it could’ve been Burnett) bused about 70 people from Manhattan to Baldwin, Long Island, and closed down a restaurant for the day to shoot. The cameras, the lights—I was so nervous, though there was no need to be. The shoot was all business, and the production crew called all the shots.

I had to wait until the afternoon for my chance. I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t eat lunch (which, I might point out, was not at McDonald’s). Finally I was asked to don my special “guarantee” sign. I gave it everything I had.

A smile is really a personal thing. Mine was for sale. I smiled at people I didn’t know, and they smiled back. I wiped tables, smiling; greeted people, smiling. And then it was over, and by nightfall I was back home in Queens. Finally my cheeks could relax.

Then there was the Volkswagen shoot of 1976 that required a dozen young guys to pack into a Beetle. Not a bad idea, unless you’re at the bottom of the stack, which, of course, I was. I made about 80 bucks, sustained no notable injury and can joke about it 26 years later. But I still vow never to buy a VW or lend my face or any other body part to any organization with DDB in its name.

It’s been 24 years now since I told Selma that I needed a more steady job. As far as I know she now has Yasmine Bleeth as a client, so hopefully that fills the void I created. Ronnie Howard is now Ron Howard, Jimmy Stewart has joined some real angels, and I carry on with my 31st consecutive year (Selma, RTV and Adweek) in the ad business.