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Another in the Can

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The gentle songs of wild birds drift through an evergreen forest on a cool breeze perfumed with pine. Around a crackling camp fire, 24 prominent athletes, authors and putative thespians are roasting wienies and drinking beer. Suddenly, an inhuman howl interrupts this bucolic revel.

“What was that?” asks Tommy Heinsohn, former coach of the Boston Celtics, in a voice shaking with fear.

Mickey Spillane, the hardest-boiled of America’s hard-guy detective novelists, supplies an unwelcome answer, “Legend has it a horrible thing stalks these woods.”

“Oooh, Mickey,” purrs Lee Meredith, the buxom blond actress draped around Spillane’s shoulder.

“It comes out when the moon is full,” Spillane continues. Already trembling, Billy Martin, Boog Powell and Ray Nitschke raise fearful eyes heavenward.

The moon they gaze upon is a spotlight. The campsite they occupy is a small circle of aging Christmas trees perched amid plastic boulders. And the birds serenade them from a tape recorder. This temporary forest is constructed inside a cold, cavernous soundstage in New York City and the “campers” are surrounded by technicians wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from the smoke emitted by carbon-arc lights. These guys aren’t vacationing; they’re filming a television commercial.

But not just any commercial. This is the eighth annual Miller Lite Beer “alumni”—or group—commercial, a phenomenon in American advertising. After more than 10 years and 88 commercials, these little comic gems form one of the longest running and most successful advertising campaigns in television history. Not only have they won virtually every advertising award for Backer & Spielvogel, the ad agency that dreams them up; not only have they inspired a profitable book, Lite Reading by veteran sportswriter Frank Deford; not only are they consistently rated the most popular ads on TV—but they actually sell beer, enough suds to make Miller the undisputed king of the light beer market.

Of course, it would be highly unethical to reveal the comic climax of this newest Lite commercial—which is scheduled to appear on television in late February—but a few coming attractions are permissible. Erstwhile catcher Bob Uecker, who pretended to be famous pitcher Whitey Ford in a Lite spot last year, will pretend to be Boog Powell in this one. Jim Honochick, the “blind” umpire who previously revealed that he can’t tell a beer bottle from a ketchup bottle, will now reveal that he can’t find the moon in the night sky. Boston Celtics general manager Red Auerbach will spark a heated debate on the classic subject “Miller Lite: Tastes Great or Less Filling?” And Lite’s own Sasquatch creature will make a rare appearance, earning much fear but, alas, still no respect.

In the midst of filming this masterpiece, director Bob Giraldi, a much-decorated auteur of advertising who has done dozens of Lite commercials, expresses dissatisfaction with Spillane’s storytelling. “C’mon Mickey, rub it in,” he yells from the darkness beyond the camp fire. “Embellish that story.”

So they do it again. “Legend has it a horrible thing stalks these woods,” Spillane says, emoting operatically beneath his trademark fedora.

“Oooh, Mickey.”

“It comes out when the moon is full.”

“Cut!” yells Giraldi. “You’re not looking as scared as you could,” he tells his players. “Once he starts telling the story, you drop the wienies. Who wants to cook wienies when the bogeyman is around?”

So they do it again, and again, and again. Still, Giraldi is not satisfied. “C’mon you guys,” he yells from his seat in front of a TV monitor. “The camera sees everybody. Everybody’s gotta have an attitude—or we’ll hold up your checks.” Then, abruptly, Giraldi opts for the carrot over the stick and announces a lunch break.

The cast cheers. They love any kind of break. Filming a commercial is boredom coming right on the heels of tedium, and breaks give the all-stars an opportunity to engage in jock-ular antics. Auerbach plays mumblety-peg with a carving knife on the buffet table. Bob Uecker demonstrates his proficiency at karate by smashing two grapes into submission. Once and future Yankee manager Billy Martin calls a cast meeting to give out demerits for real and imagined offenses. And soaper Lee (As the World Turns) Meredith does a reverse striptease, artfully donning a brassiere made of two surgical masks (over her camping costume, you perverts) as the guys hum The Stripper.

Those all-stars who aren’t actively engaged in such high-spirited high jinks pass the time telling tales of Lite commercials of yore—passing on the Lite legacy. “We filmed the Softball commercial last year in L.A.,” says Spillane, “and they let us keep our team warm-up jackets. Well, one day, Lee asks me if I wear my jacket out in public. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ And she says, ‘Well, I wore mine walking down Sunset Boulevard and I got all kinds of remarks.’ I had to laugh. Here’s this blonde walking down Sunset Boulevard wearing a bright red jacket that says ‘Tastes Great.’ What do you expect?”

Spillane is Lite’s unofficial laureate (writer Deford is the official one). Mickey holds that position not only on his obvious strengths as a storyteller—he has sold some 70 million Mike Hammer novels—but on simple seniority. Spillane, 65, was there at the beginning. Well, almost the beginning; he and Meredith appeared in the second ad (former New York Jets running back Matt Snell was in the first), which was shot in July 1973. After 11 more ads, Spillane is a famous face even to people who’ve never heard of Mike Hammer. “One old lady came up to Bubba Smith and me in Kennedy Airport one day. She says to Bubba, ‘I know you, you’re the famous basketball player.’ Then she turns to me and says, ‘And you, you’re the famous coach.’ ”

Other all-stars report similarly absurd encounters with fans of the commercials. Meredith finds that people think she’s Mickey’s wife (she’s really married to producer Bert Stratford). Uecker is greeted with cries of “Hi, Whitey Ford!” And former first baseman Boog Powell, a man who hit 339 major league home runs, finds that he is much more famous now than he was during his 17 years in baseball. Ever since umpire Honochick offered Boog a bottle of ketchup instead of a beer in one memorable ad, Powell has been inundated with ketchup. “I must have autographed hundreds of bottles,” he says. “Occasionally, somebody’ll say, ‘Oh, by the way, you were a pretty good ballplayer, too.’ ”

Don’t get him wrong. Boog isn’t complaining. Shooting Lite commercials is easier than working, and the pay is pretty good, too. Under orders from the people at Miller, Powell and the other all-stars refuse to divulge their salaries, but Deford, himself an all-star, puts the fee for an alumni spot at $12,500. Says Powell, who operates a marina in Key West: “Jim Honochick and I are both doing better now than we did in our real occupations.”

Doing better still are ex-footballers Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus. The two former NFL stars have parlayed their popular Lite duets into roles on Blue Thunder, ABC’s new airborne shoot-’em-up. In fact, one recent episode of the series played shamelessly off the duo’s Lite fame: Bubba appears in a hick town bar in shorts and a sports shirt and orders a Lite beer. Butkus, playing a redneck, promptly throws the “sissy drink” in Bubba’s face, causing a full-blown barroom brawl.

Real Lite commercials don’t have to stoop to such crude melodrama. The most violent moment in a Miller Lite ad comes when John Madden, the football coach turned football broadcaster, crashes through a Lite poster. Madden had performed this trademark trick in four previous ads, and he did it again in the camp-fire commercial. It turned out to be the last scene filmed, which gave Madden plenty of time to pretend that he was suffering artistic angst over how to perform it. “I don’t know how I should do it,” he announced theatrically. “Should I go through headfirst or sideways? Or should I do it backwards? I need direction.”

As it turned out, he blasted through the poster hands first, followed closely by Spillane, Meredith, Bubba and hockey immortal Boom-Boom Geoffrion—all of them fleeing that thing that stalks the woods.

“Come on!” Madden urges. “It’s after us!”

“Man, did you see that thing?” yells Bubba.

“Sacré bleu!” cries Boom-Boom.

After a half-dozen takes and a half-dozen demolished posters, Bubba and Boom-Boom are watching their handiwork on a monitor. But Bubba looks puzzled. “What’s this sack-rah blah?” he asks. “What’s that mean?”

“Sacré bleu. It means holy blue,” Boom-Boom explains. He looks toward the heavens but finds no blue, holy or otherwise. He points to his shirt, which is, unfortunately, green. “You know, blue. Like this is green. Holy blue.”

Bubba tries it. “Sach-rah blue,” he says. Then, as if in character, he asks, “Is that Spanish?”