The Duke still reigns.
Though the Bush’s Beans family recently mourned the loss of a dog named Sam who’d played the unofficial company mascot Duke, as it turns out, Sam hadn’t been working as Duke for quite some time.
“When Sam died it was obviously sad,” Jay Bush, who stars alongside Duke in the Bush’s commercials, tells PEOPLE. “When word got out I had close, personal friends calling me to say they were sorry, asking how the brand would move forward, thinking the one and only Duke had died. We’ve lost other Dukes but I suppose not in this world of social media. It was one of those things that makes you think, ‘Wow, people really do love the idea of this dog.’ “
In reality, Sam was dog number five of seven who’ve starred as Duke, the talking pup who is trying desperately to share the Bush family secret recipe. “We really don’t work these dogs very long,” Jay, 55, says. “We work with them for a couple of years then we just let them be dogs — that’s one of the things that’s important to me.”
It’s important because it’s personal: the real Duke was Jay’s former family dog, a “great” reddish-hued golden retriever who passed away in the early 2000s. “He was a little camera shy,” Jay says, “so using him was not an option. But the premise is genuine.”
It all started when the Bush family linked up with an advertising agency in the late 1990s; agency staffers wanted to use someone from the extensive Bush family in the ads, specifically someone who didn’t have a thick Southern accent, as many of the Knoxville-rooted family members did.
“It came down to four: my cousin Jim and his two bright, beautiful daughters, who are Northwestern drama grads and killed their auditions,” he shares. Jay showed up after working 12 hours at the plant, forgot his lines and had “the worst audition ever.”
But for some reason, “the agency guy asked to talk to me for a minute, so we sat down and talked about what I find funny. He made a move to make it look like he turned off the camera, but he hadn’t.”
Agency staffers chose Jay on the promise that he loosen up a bit for the cameras; he somewhat jokingly suggested that adding a dog to the mix would help him, and suddenly, the Jay and Duke bit was born.
“This was before people were really using animals in commercials, before CGI,” Jay explains. “So we had to start with dogs who could actually ‘speak’ on command.”
The first Duke was named Miss Mambo; she was a dog who could ‘say’ “I love you.” “If you look at the early spots, you can kind of tell we’ve cut the pieces together so the voice works,” Jay says. “It’s amazing how technology has advanced so rapidly — nowadays we don’t even have to have the dog move its mouth.”
Duke version seven is a pooched named Luke, and the company plans to continue including a Duke in its ads for as long as they keep working.
“We have no plans to change anything we’re doing,” Jay says. “What this experience with Sam’s passing showed us is how much people care about this relationship and how much they love the dogs in the ads. We’ve never thought about shifting away from this current advertising — if anything it’s going to be Jay fading off into the sunset and Duke living forever.”
“We’re really just humbled by the outpouring of support,” he continues, “and touched by the impact Duke has had on people.”