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They May Seem Driven, but Pupils of Commercial King Randy Kirby Would Settle for 30 Seconds of Work

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Today’s lesson is on pickle eating, and the 14 students gathered in Randy Kirby’s West Hollywood studio are finding it tougher than it sounds. “That’s the best-tasting pickle I ever had,” recites a perky-looking UCLA coed, grinning through a mouthful of brine. Failure. “Too cute,” declares Kirby, shaking his head. Another pupil takes a chomp, then rolls his eyes in mock rapture. The class giggles appreciatively, but teacher is not pleased. “Your character overshadowed the product,” he says. “That’s death.” The next pupil commits a truly primal sin. “You held the pickle jar off-camera,” scolds Kirby. Finally, a 30ish woman gets it just right—onlookers can almost taste the pickle themselves. “Great!” Kirby exclaims. “You’ve created a perfect housewife type, and you made the pickle look good! I’d hire you today.”

Those are the words Randy Kirby’s students long to hear—and for good reason. Kirby, 44, is an ebullient veteran of some 100 commercials, his income from them has ranged from $60,000 to $150,000 a year, and he is regarded by many as the dean of instructors on how to become a commercial success. A course of eight three-hour Kirby workshops costs $300 and offers tips on every imaginable aspect of the huckster’s art: how to drink from a soft-drink can without covering up the logo; how to grab a bottle of mouthwash while looking the viewer square in the eye; how to work with pets, and how to keep up your enthusiasm while taking your 103rd bite of pizza on take 103. Kirby graduates swear his techniques work and that they do too. “As a direct result of Randy’s class, I got a Coke commercial that went international,” says former hairdresser Dori Howard. “The residuals helped me buy my first house.” Olympic volleyball star Paul Sunderland landed two national commercials within two weeks of graduation, and fellow volleyballer Steve Rottman snagged a Gatorade ad.

Financially, such assignments are not to be scoffed at; a spot that goes national typically pays a performer between $5,000 and $20,000 in residuals a year. But competition is stiff, and Kirby’s aim is to give his students an edge. He starts with personal packaging. “The right look is the most important thing,” he says. He counsels women to avoid flashy jewelry and trendy clothes in favor of “polyester outfits and a plain but pretty blouse. You’re not going to kno4ck ’em dead with cleavage if you’re auditioning for a household product. And no long red nail claws either.” For men he suggests an image much like his own—”the warm Dad, Midwestern moderate Republican kind of guy”—attained by means of trusty sweaters and folksy plaid shirts. “The people you want to reach, for the most part, are not trendy,” he says.

Once inoffensively outfitted, Kirby’s pupils are admonished to ponder “what the product represents emotionally.” Next, the auditioning student must choose an appropriate character to play while pitching it—a housewife, for instance, or a swinging single. For the end of an audition, which may last only seconds, Kirby recommends what he calls “the button—a little flourish that can cinch the job.” Trying out for the role of an Avis salesman some years ago, Kirby unexpectedly mopped the forehead of the bald, sweaty customer he was waiting on, as a gesture of caring. “The ad agency guys said, ‘Oh, this is great!’ ” he recalls. “It got me the job, and it stayed in the commercial.”

After 38 years in the ad game, Kirby has plenty of tales to share with his protégés. Born in Chicago, the son of super-pitchman Durward Kirby (Candid Camera, The Garry Moore Show) and singer Mary Paxton, Randy was all of 6 when he debuted with his dad in a peanut butter commercial. “He ad-libbed the whole thing,” Durward, 75, recalls proudly. “You could see talent written all over him.”

Acting in ads was serious business around the Kirby household. “If you were representing a client you had to believe in the product,” Randy says. “When my father was a spokesman for Hoover vacuum cleaners, we used one. When he spoke for Olds mobiles, we drove one.” His own early dreams were of lengthier roles. After graduating from Bronxville (N.Y.) High School, he studied acting in New York and appeared in a 1965 Broadway play called Me and Thee, again with his father, who is now in semiretirement and living in Connecticut and Florida. The production opened and closed in one night, but Randy won a New York Drama Desk nomination, which led to a role in the original production of Mame and one season in a small part on The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. After 18 months in the Army, Kirby moved to L.A. and tried writing comedy for the ABC series Love, American Style and for comics, including Joan Rivers. His first commercial as a grown-up was for Lipton instant tea in 1964, and Kirby was sold.

“Television, cameras, what fun!” he says. “I was thrilled to death. And I love making commercials today like it was the first day I did one.”

Apparently his love has been reciprocated. Kirby has had at least one major commercial every year since 1971, and this year he can be seen plugging American Express and United Airlines coast to coast. “What I try to do is get on the side of the guy I’m working for and really help him sell,” he says. “I think the attitude is reflected in the character you play.” He started his workshops five years ago, rather shakily: On opening day Kirby went through his entire lecture for a single young man who didn’t enroll. But soon his school was thriving, and word of its value spread rapidly. Today he works with hundreds of students a year, including many nonactors—housewives, lawyers, dentists and athletes. He also gives two-day seminars in such show business outposts as Alaska and Hawaii, and there is even a 90-minute Randy Kirby video course for $79.95 for stay-at-homes.

It cannot be said of Kirby that he’s never met a commercial he didn’t like. He does not recommend ads for dentures and antacid products, and he warns against spots for alcoholism clinics. “If you’re a good actor,” he warns, “someone may think you actually have a drinking problem and that could ruin you in the business.”

Not everyone, Kirby cautions, has the right stuff for commercials. “I tell some people outright it’s not going to work, and I give them their money back,” he says. “But I know that about 90 percent of my students will soon be in serious competition with me.” His own wife, former actress Barbara Cooper, 36, enrolled in his workshop in 1983 and won several radio spots soon afterward. Married since 1984, she and Kirby live in the hills of Studio City, and she often helps out in his classes.

For all of his zest for commercials, Kirby still dreams of meatier stuff—maybe as a regular on some nice little sitcom. He is quick to point out that Diane Keaton, Cybill Shepherd, Dustin Hoffman and Sandy Duncan all started out in commercials, and that F. Murray Abraham gave a memorable performance as a leaf for Fruit of the Loom before earning an Oscar for Amadeus.

Someday, Kirby is sure, his time will come too—as long as he avoids the one great pitfall of commercials: turning into a human logo. “If you’re a Mr. Whipple for 20 years,” he says sadly, “you’re never going to get cast in Fatal Attraction.”