As the Pied Piper of Dr Pepper’s ubiquitous commercials, David Naughton, 30, became one of the best-known actors on TV. Something happened to that familiar face this summer. It went from bland to berserk in An American Werewolf in London, the slick giggle-and-gore movie in which Naughton stars as a nice Jewish college boy turned ravening beast. Box office receipts have grown like David’s bicuspids. In four weeks, Werewolf has grossed $19 million. “I used to have people dance up to me in airports singing, ‘I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper,’ ” Naughton sighs. “Now they look at me and start baying at the moon.”
He is not complaining about any of his career choices. “I don’t understand actors who would rather work as bill collectors than try for a commercial,” David says. “If I had been a purist, I’d still be waiting on tables. Dr Pepper opened Hollywood for me.” In fact, writer-director John (Animal House) Landis auditioned Naughton for his $5.5 million Werewolf largely because his wife loved David’s commercials. Landis warned Naughton about the five-hour makeup sessions with special effects master Rick (King Kong) Baker that would turn his body into a shaggy monster and his face into a wolf’s snout. David wasn’t discouraged. “You know how actors are,” he grins. “If John had asked me if I could fly, I would have demonstrated.”
On location, his enthusiasm dimmed a bit when he had to play a scene naked in a cage with real wolves. “The female was very enamored of David,” Landis says. “We tried to feed the wolves a lot before each take so they wouldn’t look upon me as lunch,” adds Naughton. “The male wolf liked to run his paws through my hair.”
Naughton is nothing if not game. Born in West Hartford, Conn, to Irish-Catholic parents, both teachers, he channeled his boyish “excess energy” into soccer and school talent shows. He won a soccer scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania but found himself drawn more to dramatics. After his 1973 graduation, David enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts and later moved in with Denise Stephens, “a rather proper English girl who shared the stage with me at school.”
After two years Naughton came to New York to find work while Denise remained to complete her third year. “I became acquainted with lonesome,” David recalls. “We were too poor to phone, so I lurked around the post office a lot.” He also won a small role in Joseph Papp’s 1976 Hamlet and worked as a waiter until landing the Dr Pepper spot. “It was generous, but it didn’t make me rich,” says David of his four-year Pepper contract.
The money did enable him and Denise to marry in 1977 at a friend’s East Hampton home. “It was a great party,” David recalls. “Instead of driving away, we invited everyone else to drive off. We stayed and had our honeymoon.” Two years later David won the lead in the short-lived TV sitcom Makin’ It, and his title song single went gold. He followed that with three forgettable films, including Disney’s Midnight Madness, then bit on Werewolf.
Today, David and Denise divide their time between a rented New York apartment and a modest Hollywood Hills home with no pool or other trimmings. They drive a Volkswagen. Denise, now 27, prefers the East for work, but David doesn’t mind L.A. “People are charming here but very serious about business,” he observes. So is he. With his Pepper days behind him and mostly horror scripts coming in, Naughton is struggling to escape the werewolf of typecasting. “In the meantime,” he says, “I’m trying hard to keep laughing at all the full moon jokes.”