Commercial Stars You Might Not Know Died

Television advertisements first began airing in the 1940s with the first ad ever aired on NBC for Bulova watches. The commercial was simple, airing in black and white and for 10 seconds, it showed the outline of the United States, minus Hawaii and Alaska since they were not yet part of the union, and a clock face with the words "Bulova" and "Clock Time," with a voiceover that said, "America runs on Bulova time."

Commercials have come a long way since then with advertisers also including memorable jingles to go along with their products. There's McDonald's famous line, "I'm Lovin' It" with its hook "ba da ba ba ba," that will forever be resonated with the fast-food chain, and then there's the marketing brilliance of the Kit Kat bar with its jingle, "Gimme a break, gimme a break, break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar," which would appeal to anyone looking for a sweet treat. 

While there have been plenty of catchy commercials over the years, viewers have also remembered some of the actors in those ads that are just as memorable. These stars have become synonymous with their television advertisements and have been on air selling their specific products for years. Many of these commercial stars have sadly passed away, but they will forever be remembered for their work and the melodic commercials they were in.  

Wendy's founder Dave Thomas

Who better to advertise major fast-food chain Wendy's than the founder and CEO himself, Dave Thomas? According to The New York Times, Thomas opened his first restaurant in 1969 in Columbus, Ohio, after he had no luck finding a tasty hamburger. Naming the restaurant after his daughter, Thomas had her greet his first customers wearing her famous blue-and-white striped dress with her red hair in pigtails. With just under 6,000 Wendy's across the nation (via Restaurant Business), it has become a fast-food favorite among Americans, with Forbes reporting that it had "dethroned" Burger King to become the second biggest hamburger chain behind McDonald's.

Thomas was widely known as the man behind Wendy's because he starred in more than 800 television commercials for the hamburger restaurant. The New York Times reported that Thomas would often wear a white button-down t-shirt with a red tie and would even include a dog or a celebrity in his commercials. The Guinness Book of World Records even recognized Thomas with "Most TV commercials starring [the] company founder."  

According to a Wendy's news release (per CNN Money), Thomas was 69-years-old when he died in 2002 after a long battle with liver cancer. Jack Schuessler, the retired chairman and, CEO of Wendy's International Inc., shared, "Dave was our patriarch, a great, big lovable man," adding, "Although Dave was widely popular, he was never very comfortable as a celebrity. He kept reminding us he was simply a hamburger cook."

7Up's Geoffrey Holder

Geoffrey Holder was a man of many talents who was most recognized for his work as a dancer, designer, actor, and artist, and whose cosmic personality matched his six-foot-six stature. After leaving his native Trinidad and Tobago behind, he danced on Broadway and worked with New York's Metropolitan Opera Ballet in the '50s and later won two Tony Awards in 1975 for "The Wiz," an all-Black retelling of the Judy Garland classic, "The Wizard of Oz," per CNN. Holder also worked in movies starring in films like 1967's "Doctor Dolittle" and 1973's "Live and Let Die," where he played the villain named Baron Samedi.

However, viewers watching television in the '70s and '80s would likely recognize Holder as the man behind the 7Up ads. Holder, dressed in a white suit with a matching white hat, would entice viewers in his smooth and seductive voice to go out and try the soft drink, also known as "the UnCola," as one ad referred to it. Being part of one of the most memorable commercials ever made, AdAge stated, "The extraordinary performance of the Trinidad-born Mr. Holder made the spot one of the most remembered commercials of all time," adding, "But behind the scenes, the project also represented a dramatic change in the marketing culture of the soft-drink company — the first time it allowed a person of color to be cast in its TV ad."

Holder died at the age of 84 in 2014 after complications due to pneumonia, per The New York Times.

Kodak's Michael Landon

Fans of the classic Western television show "Bonanza" will remember actor Michael Landon starring as the handsome Joseph "Little Joe" Cartwright. Landon played the role for 14 seasons with Biography reporting that it was "the No. 1 show on television from 1964 to 1967." A year after "Bonanza" aired its final episode in 1973, Landon starred as Charles Ingalls in the NBC television show "Little House on the Prairie" and would later go on to star in the television series "Highway to Heaven," which he was also the co-executive producer, and in 1976 wrote, directed, and starred in the made-for-tv film "The Loneliest Runner," per the Los Angeles Times

Landon was a breakout star in Hollywood, and besides his many roles, he became the face of Kodak film and starred in many commercials throughout the late '70s and early '80s. Several of his commercials were Christmas-themed, one which showed the star Christmas shopping with his real son Chris who picks out a Kodak camera to give to his grandmother. Landon famously ends the commercial with the line, "Kodak, America's Storyteller."

Sadly, Landon discovered that he had cancer in 1991, which had spread to his liver, and died on July 1st that same year. He was 54-years-old, per People

Lucky Charms' Arthur Anderson

Arthur Anderson was not a big-name Hollywood star, but viewers may have recognized his voice when commercials for Lucky Charms cereal aired. Anderson was the voice behind the cereal's mascot, Lucky the Leprechaun, and would famously recite the lines, "Frosted Lucky Charms – they're magically delicious." Interestingly enough, having voiced the character from 1963 to 1992, Anderson was not Irish at all and was born in Staten Island, New York, to parents from England and Denmark, per The New York Times

Having voiced the popular leprechaun for so many years, Anderson told ABC News in 2005 that he was delighted to sing a few lines for those who asked him too. He shared, "I never got free cereal. But they gave me lots of green money. And it was a fun character to play. Hardly a day goes by when somebody doesn't ask me to sing the Lucky Charms jingle, and I'm proud of that."

Besides his devotion to the frolicsome leprechaun, Anderson worked in radio, on Broadway, and appeared on television shows like "Car 54, Where Are You?" and "Law & Order." Anderson died in 2016 at the age of 93, per The New York Times. 

Pepperidge Farm's Parker Fennelly

When television wasn't an option in the '20s and '30s, families relied heavily on the radio to get their news and spent their nights listening to their favorite radio programs. These radio programs consisted of comedies, soap operas, and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt had his very own radio slot when he delivered his "fireside chats" during the evening hours, giving families comfort during a time of crisis, per PBS

Parker Fennelly (above, far right) was a recognized figure in radio, having spent his time portraying Titus Moody on the radio program "The Fred Allen Show" from the 1940s to the early 1950s, per The New York Times. His character became the spokesperson for everyone's favorite cookies by Pepperidge Farm, which was heard on radio and seen on commercials until he retired from acting in the late 70s, as AP noted. His role as Moody in the commercials was then taken over by Charles C. Welch in 1979, who once shared with Advertising Age in 1988 (via Hartford Courant), "Parker Fennelly was more direct. Pepperidge Farm has allowed me to soften that. I act like I'm letting you in on the secret of a good product."

The New York Times reported that Fennelly was known for playing much older roles, and when he finally reached his 90th birthday, he shared, "I was born old and I played old parts most of my life." He died at the age of 96 in 1988 at his home in Peekskill, New York. 

The Marlboro Man, Robert Norris

Cigarette commercials have been banned from television after President Richard Nixon signed the Consumer Product Safety Act, which took effect in 1972. But, before the ban, companies like Marlboro were heavily marketing their cigarettes, especially to women with ads that perceived smoking as glamorous and women watching Hollywood stars like Bette Davis smoking in movies, per Business Insider.  

As more research in the 1950s was proving that smoking cigarettes was linked to lung cancer, Marlboro did not want to lose what male market they had, creating the "Marlboro Man" – a rugged cowboy riding his horse in the great outdoors who not only smoked cigarettes but smoked a filtered one that was believed to be less cancer-causing, per Business Insider. The Marlboro Man was very appealing, and one of the men who starred in the company's ads and commercials was Robert Norris. 

According to The New York Times, Norris portrayed the Marlboro Man for 14 years and was a real-life cowboy after he began raising horses on a ranch in Colorado way before he was chosen to represent the cigarette company. However, Norris hung up his title of Marlboro Man because he believed smoking set a bad example for young people. He died at the age of 90 in 2019, per Tee Cross Ranches

OxiClean's Billy Mays

Billy Mays was all over television screens in the early 2000s pitching household cleaning products like OxiClean, Orange Glo, and Kaboom. Mays was known for his louder-than-life personality which was showcased through his pitches. According to NPR, Mays started out selling "As Seen on TV" products on the Atlantic City boardwalk in New Jersey and then found work on the Home Shopping Network. Soon enough, millions of viewers would watch him on television selling his infamous cleaning products in commercials.

His ability to sell anything and everything landed him a show on the Discovery Channel called "Pitchmen," which also followed Anthony Sullivan, a memorable pitchman who earned the nickname The OxiClean Man. According to Star Tribune, Billy Mays sadly died in June 2009, shortly after wrapping up filming of the first season. NPR reported that an autopsy showed that Mays died of a heart attack in his sleep which was attributed to the use of cocaine. The show aired a tribute episode to Mays and would go on to produce a second season without him. However, the show's second season would be the last. 

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Sprite's Jim Varney

Jim Varney was best known for his iconic character Ernest P. Worrell who was more than just a commercial spokesperson. Always dressed in a t-shirt, blue vest, jeans, and a baseball cap, Ernest was loved by children and adults alike throughout the '80s and '90s. According to Biography, his character first came to life in a commercial in 1972 and would later be featured in hundreds of commercials from auto sales, dairy products, and ads for Sprite, with his famous catchphrase, "KnowhutImean, Vern?" In the late '80s, Varney's character landed a movie with Disney titled "Ernest Goes to Camp," and it was followed by three more films under the Disney label, while five others were independently produced, per The New York Times.

While becoming Ernest was his most notable role, Varney also took part in Disney's "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" where he voiced Slinky Dog, and starred as Jed Clampett in the film version of The Beverly Hillbillies, per Wide Open Country.  

According to The Washington Post, Varney was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1998 and even underwent surgery where he had two-thirds of his right lung removed. He later died in February 2000 at his home in Tennessee at the age of 50. 

Herschel Bernardi, the Jolly Green Giant

Herschel Bernardi was born into a family of entertainers so it only made sense for him to plan a career in acting. Bernardi was best known for his work on Broadway, namely portraying Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," which he performed more than 1,300 times between 1980 and 1983, and Zorba, in the original Broadway show "Zorba the Greek," per The Washington Post

However, before he found work on Broadway, Bernardi was essentially blacklisted from Hollywood in the 1940s for joining the Actors Lab, "a gathering place for Hollywood radicals," but still managed to find work in commercials. The actor is most famous for voicing the Jolly Green Giant of Green Giant vegetables, where he's heard shouting, "Ho Ho Ho," and for two decades, voiced Charlie the Tuna for Starkist, per AP.

AP also noted that Bernardi had found work in a few television shows, portraying Lt. Jacoby in 1958's "Peter Gunn" and the early 1970's sitcom "Arnie," playing the lead character. He later died in 1986 from a heart attack at the age of 62, with his sister-in-law stating, "He never knew what hit him. He went real fast." 

Tootsie Pops's Paul Winchell

Paul Winchell might have been Hollywood's most famous ventriloquist, introducing television viewers to his dummy Jerry Mahoney on "The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show" in the 1950s. Winchell's show was catered to young children and featured sing-a-longs, games, and plenty of antics between real people and Winchell's dummies. 

The actor was able to segue from his work as a ventriloquist to children's animation and worked for Disney, voicing the beloved Tigger in 1968's "Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day" and continuing to lend his voice, always stating the famous line "Ta-ta for now" until 1999, per The New York Times. According to his website, Winchell had other Disney roles too, voicing a Siamese cat in "The Aristocats" and Boomer the woodpecker in "The Fox and the Hound." 

Besides his many voiceovers on television shows and movies, Winchell also found work in commercials. According to All Ears, the actor voiced Mr. Owl for Tootsie Pops, and as Mr. Owl helped answer the iconic question: "How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?" The Tootsie Pop website explains that many have failed to lick their way to the center, but those who have can print their own certificate. The New York Times reported that Winchell died at the age of 82 in 2005. 

Jane Withers was Josephine the Plumber

Jane Withers was much more than a commercial star. The actor famously starred as "Josephine the Plumber" in Comet cleanser commercials in the '60s and '70s, with USA Today reporting that she even took a couple of classes in plumbing to fully understand her role. However, before she appeared on television in her white overalls and asked viewers to choose Comet instead of the competition, she was a famous child star of the 1930s.

According to USA Today, Withers' first starring role was at the age of eight, when she portrayed Shirley Temple's nemesis Joy Smythe in the film "Bright Eyes." Withers shared that she feared audiences would despise her and her character for bullying Hollywood's most beloved child star. "I had to play the meanest, creepiest little girl God ever put on this planet. I ran over Shirley with a tricycle and a baby buggy. And I thought, 'Oh, dear, everybody's going to hate me forever because I was so creepy mean to Shirley Temple!'"

Thankfully, moviegoers accepted the fact that Withers was just playing a role and she would go on to star in several films with the Los Angeles Times reporting that the actor had her own dolls and was becoming more admirable than the "perfect" Temple. The New York Times reported that her daughter, Kendall Errair confirmed that Jane Withers had died at the age of 95 in August 2021. 

'Infomercial King' Ron Popeil

Ron Popeil wasn't a famous Hollywood actor, but he was quite well known on television thanks to his late-night commercials and infomercials selling everything from a bagel cutter, a rotisserie oven, and the Electric Food Dehydrator. According to his website, not only did Popeil invent some of the items he was pitching on television, but he also invented the infomercial when he created the first minute-long commercial for the Ronco Chop-o-Matic in the 1950s. It wasn't long until Popeil was becoming a familiar face in people's homes and by the '80s, CNN reported that Popeil was doing 30-minute long infomercials, selling popular items like the Showtime Rotisserie with the pitchman using the memorable catchphrase, "Set it and forget it!"

Popeil's website notes that his products "grossed in the billions" and the famous line "As Seen on TV" which can be seen on several household products to this day was created because of Popeil's products. While Popeil had his fair share of nicknames, he became a huge success and shared in 1995 (via The New York Times), "I've gone by many titles: King of Hair, King of Pasta, King of Dehydration, or to use a more colloquial phrase, a pitchman or a hawker. I don't like those phrases, but I am what I am." 

Popeil's sister, Lisa Popeil told The New York Times that the inventor died at the age of 86 from a brain hemorrhage in July 2021. 

Dena Dietrich played Mother Nature

Dena Dietrich appeared in numerous television shows, was on Broadway, and had a few movie roles, with her most notable roles including the 1971 Broadway production "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" and films like 1974's "The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder" and 1979's "History of the World: Part I," per The Hollywood Reporter.

Dietrich had several acting credits, but her most memorable character is portraying Mother Nature in commercials for Chiffon margarine. According to The New York Times, the actor, wearing a long and flowy white dress with daisies strolls through a forest dipping her pinky finger in a bowl of what she believes to be her butter, when in fact, a voice tells her she's tasting Chiffon margarine. Sternly, Mother Nature famously states, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature" before opening her arms wide and unleashing thunder. 

The commercials for Chiffon margarine appeared on television screens for nearly a decade. During an interview in 2005 with Skip E. Lowe, Dietrich shared that being Mother Nature opened more doors for her in Hollywood. "The minute the Mother Nature commercial came out, all the phone calls started to come in from Hollywood, 'cause they were very curious to see what that broad looked like, or was like, or what was the story behind her." The actor's union, SAG-AFTRA announced on Twitter that Dietrich had died in 2020 at the age of 91. 

Levi's-wearing Nick Kamen

Nick Kamen found instant fame when he landed the starring role in a Levi's commercial in 1985. In the commercial, Kamen is seen walking into a laundromat and stripping down to his boxers, while women glare at him. According to the Huffington Post, the commercial "is regarded as one of the most influential of all time" and helped to increase sales for Levi's. Ever since then, Kamen has been branded a sex symbol with Yahoo! Entertainment reporting that Madonna quickly took him under her wing as he had inspirations to become a singer. 

Kamen did find success in the music industry in the U.K. when he released the song "Each Time You Break My Heart" which was co-written by Madonna. BBC reported that Kamen released four albums from 1987 to 1992, with his song "I Promised Myself" off of his third album becoming one of his top hits in Europe where it landed on the No.1 spot in Austria and Sweden. 

A family friend told the BBC that Kamen died in May 2021 at the age of 59, with the Huffington Post reporting that he had died from a "long illness." Singer Boy George paid tribute to Kamen in an Instagram post where he shared, "R.I.P to the most beautiful and sweetest man Nick Kamen!" 

Windell Middlebrooks was the Miller High Life deliveryman

Actor Windell Middlebrooks was best known for starring as the deliveryman for several Miller High Life beer commercials. In his ads, Middlebrooks is usually seen taking beer out of the hands of the wealthy because the "high life" can be enjoyed by everyone. 

In one ad, Middlebrooks snags all the Miller High Life beer from the skybox of a baseball stadium and gives them to devoted fans in the stands because it's way better to enjoy a cool and refreshing beverage in the sun. In another commercial, Middlebrooks and his Miller High Life crew remove all the beer from an overpriced restaurant so that others can enjoy it somewhere else and don't cough up $11.50 for a burger.

Besides his commercial work, Middlebrooks has acted in several television shows. He's starred in episodes of "The Bernie Mac Show," "My Name is Earl," "Hannah Montana," and "Parks and Recreation." He played Kirby Morris in "The Suite Life on Deck" and Curtis Brumfield in "Body of Proof." Middlebrooks was only 36 when he died from a pulmonary embolism in 2015.

Wilford Brimley educated us about diabetes

In the late '80s and '90s, actor Wilford Brimley became a familiar face on television. He would regularly appear in commercials for Quaker Oats, in which he would become known for the line "It's the right thing to do." He was also the face of Liberty Medical, a home delivery service of diabetes medical supplies. Brimley had had diabetes since 1979 and would tell people at home to "Call Liberty, they can help you live a better life." 

"Saturday Night Live" poked fun at Brimley's Liberty Medical commercials with actor John Goodman portraying the actor. The way Brimley would pronounce diabetes as "diabeetus" would even become a running meme. Besides his commercial work, Brimley has had a long career in Hollywood. He had his first uncredited film role in 1969's "True Grit." His first major role was as Horace Brimley in the '70s TV series "The Waltons." He found the most success in Ron Howard's 1985 film "Cocoon." 

Brimley's last role was in the 2017 film "I Believe." Even with his vast array of acting roles, Brimley never considered himself an exceptional actor. "I can't talk about acting. I don't know anything about it. I was just lucky enough to get hired," he told The Powell Tribune. He died from a long illness in 2020. Brimley was 85.

Nancy Walker told us to get the quicker picker upper

Nancy Walker began her career in Broadway musicals with her first role in 1941's "Best Foot Forward" when she was 19. Walker's performance was successful, and she reprised her role in the 1943 film version of the musical. That same year, she worked alongside Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the film "Girl Crazy." Walker would star in numerous Broadway shows and was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in "Phoenix '55." 

Walker would later find herself working in television. She nabbed the role as Rock Hudson's housekeeper in the 1971 TV series "McMillan and Wife." However, Walker got the part thanks to her work in Bounty commercials. She starred as Rosie the Waitress, a diner waitress who picks up messes by patrons with Bounty paper towels. In the ads, she showed diner-goers how effective the paper towels were compared to its competitors and delightfully shared, "It's the quicker picker-upper." The commercials began airing in 1970, and Walker would continue to portray the role until the '90s.

Walker continued to find parts on television and starred in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda." Her final role was as Sara Bower in the 1990 show "True Colors." Walker died of lung cancer in 1992. She was 69.

Anthony Martignetti was the famous pasta kid

At 12, Anthony Martignetti's life was forever changed when he starred in a commercial for Prince Spaghetti, an Italian pasta brand. First airing in 1969, the commercial begins with Martignetti's mother yelling his name out a second-story window of an apartment building that could be heard just far enough that the young boy runs through the streets of the Italian neighborhood of Boston's North End to make it in time for his family's Wednesday night pasta dinner.

The commercial aired for 13 years, and Martignetti became a familiar face on television. He would even make $20,000 thanks to the ad's long run. For the commercial's 50th anniversary in 2019, Martignetti shared with the Boston Globe that he continued to be recognized for his small role. "I always understood that it was larger than me, that I had a responsibility to preserve what that commercial meant to people. I knew that if I got in trouble, little Anthony from the spaghetti commercial would be all over the paper," he shared.

In August 2020, Martignetti's brother announced on Facebook that he had died. The famed pasta-loving kid was 63.

Who could forget the Taco Bell dog?

In the late '90s, Taco Bell incorporated a bug-eyed and large-eared Chihuahua into their commercials. That Chihuahua was named Gidget, who was supposed to only star in one ad. However, Gidget would become Taco Bell's mascot and starred in the fast food chain's advertisements from 1997 to 2000.

In the commercials, Gidget — a female dog — would play a male dog scouring the streets for a bite of one of Taco Bell's food items. Of course, he's most recognized for the line in his accented voice, "Yo quiero Taco Bell."

Besides Taco Bell ads, Gidget would find herself working on other major projects, including an ad for Geico insurance and starring as the mother to Reese Witherspoon's Chihuahua named Bruiser in the 2003 movie "Legally Blonde: Red, White & Blonde."

Gidget was voiced by Argentine-American actor Carlos Alazraqui, who jokingly shared that the Chihuahua ended up getting a lot more press than he did. "The dog got to go to all the red carpets; the dog got all the attention," he told The A.V. Club in 2017. Sadly, Gidget died of a stroke at 15 in 2009. 

Elmer Lynn Hauldren was everyone's favorite carpet man

Some might remember watching their televisions and hearing the jingle "800-588-2300 Empire Today!" It was for an Empire Today carpet installation commercial and featured an animated Empire Carpet Man, based on real-life Empire worker Elmer Lynn Hauldren.

Hauldren worked as an advertising copywriter for the company and was asked to star in their commercials. His first commercial was in the 1970s, with one ad featuring a live-action version of Hauldren asking if $6.95 a yard was the cheapest you could get on a carpet. Hauldren would work as the Empire Carpet Man for four decades, but he was replaced by an animated version shown throughout the '90s and 2000s, though he provided the voiceover work.

Hauldren voiced the Empire mascot in commercials until he died in 2011. He was 89. According to NBC Chicago, Steve Silvers, the chief executive officer for Empire, shared after his passing that "Lynn was truly passionate about the Empire brand. He has made an indelible mark on advertising history with his creativity and warmth. Lynn will always have a special place in the hearts of many."