Stephen Colbert, Kelly Ripa and Other TV Stars Recall Their Most Memorable Commercials

From Super Bowl spots to local hair salon ads

Headshot of Jason Lynch

Many of fall TV's biggest stars have one thing in common: They appeared in commercials early (and sometimes, not-so-early) in their career as they tried to break into Hollywood. Earlier this year, several television actors shared their wildest commercial stories with Adweek; now with the fall season approaching, a new group of TV personalities looked back on the ads they appeared in that made them laugh, cry—and choke.

Stephen Colbert, Wonderful Pistachios

For his 2014 Super Bowl ad, The Late Show host—who was still on The Colbert Report at the time—pitched Wonderful Pistachios on the concept of cracking his own head open, pistachio-style. "They said, 'It has to be something startling, and we need you to be really enthusiastic about the pistachio.' I said, 'Well, what if I am just a pistachio?' They said, 'We like it. Are you okay with an eagle?' I'm like, 'Sure, that's fine,'" said Colbert.

Between his "normal" face, his face covered in green makeup, a mold of his head, a "puppeted pistachio head" and a digital version, "there were like six different heads, all composited into that one three-second moment," said Colbert. "Star Wars did not have more render time than what happened to my head [in order] to have it be seamless! Everything was extraordinary."

But what Colbert remembers most of all is his souvenir from the shoot, from the puppeteers who had also worked on the Lord of the Rings films. "I got a Lord of the Rings crew t-shirt from one of the guys, [made] before any of the graphics had been settled on," said Colbert, who is famously a huge fan of the J.R.R. Tolkien novels and films. "And so I've got a shirt with pre-approved graphics of what the Eye of Sauron was originally like, and what the original font was like. It's my 'precious'!"

Kelly Ripa, Burger King

The Live with Kelly host was 18 when she landed her first acting job, on a Burger King commercial. "They were testing out a brand new product—this is how long ago this was—called Chicken Tenders. It was their response to the McDonald's Chicken McNugget, and I shot a commercial for them where I had to run down the West Side Highway and break into a dance, because I was eating these Chicken Tenders," said Ripa, laughing. "That was pretty memorable."

Kiefer Sutherland, Jose Cuervo

In 2013, Sutherland learned the hard way that the alcohol used in liquor ads isn't fake, like it is for his other movie and TV projects. "I didn't know this, but if you're doing a liquor commercial, they actually put it in the glass. I think it's about integrity and not lying," he said. "In films, obviously, we never put it in the glass: for a straight shot of white tequila, it's just water. So we're shooting at about 10 in the morning and I wasn't thinking. I was so thirsty, and there was a big shot glass of tequila, and I just drank it like I would drink water, instead of throwing it back.

"I gulped twice and…'Oh!' They started laughing so fucking hard and I felt so stupid. But boy, was I fine until lunch! I was great. So I felt really embarrassed by that," said Sutherland, who returns to TV this fall in the ABC drama Designated Survivor. "Contrary to popular belief, I never had a drink at work a day in my life. And I ruined that on that day."

Martha Plimpton, Calvin Klein

"I only did one commercial in my entire life, and that was the Calvin Klein ad," said Plimpton, who returns to ABC this fall for Season 2 of The Real O'Neals, of the spot she filmed in the early '80s. "Richard Avedon shot it, and that was the reason I did it. My mother said, 'You know what? If you're going to be shot by Richard Avedon, it's perfectly fine with me.'" But her ad career was short-lived: "She never let me do another commercial after that!"

Ted Danson, Pampers

Before he hit it big on Cheers, Danson could be spotted on TV in several commercials, including a '70s spot for Pampers. "Thankfully, I was the smart dad who had put Pampers on his kid. But the other dad, who was my friend and who was not so bright, had put diapers that were a problem on his kid. So there was the smart baby and the baby that had a dumb father," said Danson. "To make the unfortunate baby that wasn't wearing Pampers seem unhappy, they"—he began laughing—"had this almost cartoon-like, villainous baby-wrangler, who was a rather large man who I didn't like standing next to. He had a cigar and he would do a combination of hanging both of the kids toys and then right as they rolled, reach over and yank the toy away from the unfortunate baby, and then blow cigar smoke at him. And the mothers were just sitting there, nodding!"

Cigar-smoking baby wranglers aside, Danson, who stars in the new NBC comedy The Good Place, said he would love to land a new brand campaign. "Get me a commercial! I want to do a commercial! I can't fucking get arrested!" he joked to Adweek.

Sela Ward, Ultra Brite

In the early '80s, Ward was cast in a Ultra Brite toothpaste commercial that unexpectedly changed her life, and her career. "I was talking to the camera, and I don't know what the deal was with the sound, but I had to go and loop my lines in the ADR station," said Ward. "And a woman who was the producer of the spot said to me, 'I think you have talent. But you're just not going to go anywhere unless you work on that voice.' And she gave me the biggest gift of my career with her blunt honesty. I then immediately went to a voice coach and I worked on my voice nonstop for years."

What did Ward change? "It was more the quality, the placement of speaking. So like a singer—even though I can't sing a note—it's learning what exercises to do to place your voice in a lower register. As opposed to"—she raised the pitch of her voice—"speaking up her in my nasal cavity." Her new and improved voice ultimately led to shows like Sisters and Once and Again, and now Graves, her upcoming Epix drama.

Ali Larter, Kellogg's Frosted Flakes

Larter, who stars in the Fox drama Pitch, appeared in more than 50 national ads before she was 18. And while her Imposter Body Spray ads—which featured her seemingly nude, covered by black bars, as she gleefully sprayed herself—might be the most notorious of the bunch, Larter said the Frosted Flakes ad she did as a teen stands out to her the most. "I had to run and jump in the air for 8 hours in a row," she recalled. "By the end I was in tears, and my mom was looking at me and I go, 'Why didn't they just hire a dancer?'"

Milo Ventimiglia, Mountain Dew

During the 2000 Super Bowl, one of the most popular ads featured Ventimiglia, then 22, chasing a cheetah on his bicycle, to retrieve his can of Mountain Dew that the animal had ingested. "I got to work with a cheetah, which is a beautiful, remarkable animal," said Ventimiglia, who stars in the NBC drama This Is Us. "It's a wild animal, but I had to spend a day of actually just standing near it. Not petting it, not looking it in the eye, just standing near it, so that the animal could look around and maybe walk up to me and rub against me. It was an amazing experience."

Mandy Moore, Kmart

The actress had the best summer ever when she was cast in her first big national commercial, for Kmart, at the age of 12. "I was so excited, because it was a Christmas commercial, and we got to film it in June, and I just thought I was the coolest person, because I got to experience Christmas in the middle of the summer, when all my friends were off swimming in the pool," said Moore, who stars with Ventimiglia on This Is Us. "And then, obviously, seeing the commercial and being able to point out, 'That's me!', was so gratifying."

Dennis Haysbert, Allstate

Haysbert has appeared in Allstate ads for several years, but the "Back to Basics" spot from 2009 resonates the most with him. "It was the one where we were going through our big recession. And that was the most hopeful commercial I've ever been a part of, and seen. So it was very powerful, and I enjoyed that," said Haysbert, who appears in the new Syfy drama, Incorporated.

Cheryl Hines, local Florida hair salon

The Florida native and Curb Your Enthusiasm actress is still haunted by the print ad for a local hair salon that she shot in the late '80s. "I was feeling really good about myself, because I was booked from my picture, and when I got there, it was an ad for a hair salon that could fix a bad perm!" said Hines, who stars in the Fox comedy Son of Zorn. "And I had to hold up my hair, and it said, 'Bad perm?; But the sad part was, I didn't even have a perm. My hair is a lot frizzier in Florida. So I was the 'before' for these people: If you have bad hair, go see them!"

Max Greenfield, Buick

Most actors fill up their early resume with commercials, but not the New Girl star. "I didn't get cast in any commercials! And I tried and tried, over and over again," said Greenfield, whose luck changed once he was cast in Fox's New Girl. "Now that I've been on a show, they've asked me to do a bunch of commercials and I've been like, 'Yes, please! I'd love to do these." I've a really fun time doing them."

Greenfield is especially fond of his Buick campaign this summer. "I just did a Buick one and that was a lot of fun. There was an internet campaign, and it turned out great," he said. "They were fun to shoot and a fun concept."

Ana Gasteyer, Wienerschnitzel

Long before Saturday Night Live, Gasteyer earned her keep by doing voiceover commercials, starting with the Wienerschnitzel gig she landed in 1992. "I had graduated from Northwestern and came to LA, and a guy that I knew from Northwestern miraculously was a voiceover agent, and he was like, 'You're really funny. You should come in and do voiceovers,'" said Gasteyer. "I was terrified. I was playing an older, Midwestern woman, which would become my go-to the rest of my career."

"But somehow, I inherently knew: 'I'm going to be okay. I think I can do this for a living,'" said Gasteyer, who can next be seen in People of Earth on TBS. "And ever since then, I've done voiceover."

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV/Media Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.
Publish date: September 7, 2016 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT