By Monika Guttman
November 12, 1984 12:00 PM

Twenty years ago last month ex-vaudevillian Dick Wilson got a phone call from his agent. “He said, ‘What do you think of toilet paper?’ ” recalls Wilson. “And I answered, ‘I think everyone should use it.’ ” A week later Wilson found himself on a set in—appropriately—Flushing, N.Y., whining, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” in a commercial for Procter & Gamble. It then proved to be the whine heard ’round the world. Two decades later Charmin is the best-selling bathroom tissue in America, and Wilson’s character, the finicky grocer Mr. Whipple, has secured a place in the pantheon of Irritating TV Pitchmen alongside Mrs. Olson and the Ty-D-Bol Man. “People have said, ‘I love you, but I can’t stand the commercials,’ ” reports Wilson, 68. “I tell them I am the commercial.”

Wilson clearly delights in his odd calling, which he pursues with professionalism and disarming zeal. “People ask if I mind being called Mr. Whipple all the time, and I respond, ‘No, because they call me Mr. Wilson at the bank’ “—understandably, since he earns a six-figure income for some 16 days of taping per year.

“I’ve guarded Whipple,” adds Wilson. “I never go into blue movies or into sex shops. That wouldn’t look nice, would it?” And although he has had to give up shopping in supermarkets (“When I go through the toilet-paper section I get some very strange looks”) and most opportunities for acting jobs (“The face is so identifiable, I can’t really do other work”), he finds compensation in serving as a corporate spokesman at company picnics and store openings. “I’m an asset to Procter & Gamble because I’m never stuck for words,” says Wilson. “One time I was asked if Charmin was coming out with any new products. I said, ‘Sure, they’ve come up with a new toilet paper for the Navy. It’s four inches wider to allow for the sway of the ship.’ And during the early ’70s, when ecology was a big deal, I was asked if Charmin was biodegradable. I said, ‘You bet. Procter & Gamble believes in keeping America clean, and they’re starting at the bottom.’ ”

Bottoms have always been tops for Wilson, who got his start, and his love for live performance, as an acrobat in the early ’30s. “I spent half my life upside down, and that’s why I’m the way I am,” he jokes. “There was an immediate payoff in vaudeville: If the crowd liked you, they showed it. In TV when a director says ‘Cut,’ you don’t know if it’s any good. When vaudeville died, I think some of me died too.”

Over the years he made a living playing character parts in movies and on TV, but true success eluded him until he landed his current role. The job has allowed Wilson and his wife, Meg (“That’s ‘gem’ backwards,” he notes), to raise three children in comfort and more than meet the payments on a comfy North Hollywood home. Charmin, to say the least, has been nothing to sneeze at. “I want to keep doing the role forever,” says Wilson, “or at least till I can no longer hold up the product.”