LL Cool J, Matt LeBlanc and Other TV Stars Discuss the Most Memorable Ads They Appeared In

Gap, Heinz and Ameritrade spots helped put them on the map

LL Cool J slyly gave Fubu a huge spotlight in his 1997 ad for the Gap.
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Several of TV’s biggest stars might not be where they are today had they not landed commercials that either made a splash, introduced them to showbiz or, most importantly, helped keep them afloat financially until their big break arrived. Last summer, Adweek asked TV actors to reflect on their most memorable ads, and then another group shared their thoughts last fall. Now, a new collection of stars—including LL Cool J, Katharine McPhee and Matt LeBlanc—looked back on the commercials that helped get them on their way.

Matt LeBlanc, Heinz Ketchup

Even prior to Friends, the Man With a Plan star was a television mainstay thanks to his Heinz Ketchup spot, where he played a smooth guy who has positions an open bottle of Heinz Ketchup on top of a city building, timing his hot dog purchase from a street vendor just as the ketchup begins to pour from the bottle. “That ran for four years, and it won a Clio Award,” said LeBlanc, who was far from sure that the 1987 ad would be so enduring. “Financially, it was great. That was a time where the check would roll in every month or so, right when I needed it. Steve Horn directed it, and he was the guy to work for back then. So I knew it was probably going to be a good commercial, but you don’t really know. It’s like doing a [television] pilot—you don’t know!”

LL Cool J, The Gap

In 1997, the actor-rapper appeared in an energetic Gap ad and made a splash by wearing a Fubu hat in the spot—giving Fubu millions in free marketing on another clothing company’s dime— and rapping while working that company’s name, “For Us By Us,” into the lyrics. “That was a lot of fun, because The Gap was able to achieve their goals, and Fubu at that time was able to achieve their goals. It was an amazing win-win,” said the NCIS: Los Angeles actor. “And Gap was big about it, because they didn’t have to be. They didn’t go crazy about it; they let it happen. So it all worked out.”

Katharine McPhee, AT&T

When she was 14, eight years before she was a runner-up on American Idol, McPhee landed her first national commercial, appearing in one of the AT&T ads alongside then-spokespman Paul Reiser, who would talk to passersby about the phone company. “I realized that the shooting process was so much easier than getting the job. They have you talk in the audition and do all these conversations. And then you get there, and literally all they want you to do is smile and type on a computer. I was like, ‘What? This is so easy!’” said the Scorpion actress, who made the paycheck from that commercial go a long way. “It bought me my first year of college, basically.”

Aaron Paul, Juicy Fruit

In his lean, pre-Breaking Bad years, a 19-year-old Paul lucked out by landing an ad for Juicy Fruit. “It was the longest-running commercial I had done. It’s because there was no dialogue in it, and so it played in a bunch of different countries,” said Paul of the ad, which featured him trying to move an object with his mind before noticing that the man who’s observing him has a pack of gum. The spot ends with both men having their clothing partially removed. “I don’t know what kind of message they were trying to teach!” said Paul, who now stars in Hulu’s The Path. “It was at a time in my career where I didn’t know when the next check was coming in, and it paid my bills for almost two years.”

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.