Sean Whalen had auditioned for a lot of commercials, but this one was different. In October 1993, the actor — a skinny, flexible-faced performer who usually answered calls for a “Steve Buscemi type” —walked into a room set with tables of bread and peanut butter. Whalen and the other contenders were instructed to stuff their faces with the food, then without swallowing, act out the beats of a highly unusual scenario. As anyone who had a TV set in the ’90s will recall, it went a little something like this:
A man is alone in his cavernous loft apartment, which is decorated top to bottom with ephemera related to the 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. He is listening to classical radio and making an enormous peanut butter sandwich. Just as the man shoves half the sandwich into his mouth, the radio DJ announces that he’s about to “make that random call with today’s $10,000 question — it’s a tough one — who shot Alexander Hamilton in that famous duel?” The phone rings, the man picks up, and he quickly gives the right answer, except through his peanut-butter clogged mouth, it’s unintelligible. As the radio announcer counts down the seconds he has left to answer, the man reaches desperately for a carton of milk, only to discover that it’s empty. He stares at the phone despondently as the now-familiar slogan appears onscreen for the first time: “Got milk?”
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of that first “Got Milk?” commercial, which kicked off one of the most memorable ad campaigns of the ’90s. Commissioned by the California Milk Processor Board, the commercial ultimately increased milk sales in California by 15 million gallons within a year. When the spot aired nationally in 1995, it boosted the career of its director, aspiring filmmaker Michael Bay — and made Whalen, for a time, one of the most recognizable faces in the United States. Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Whalen (still a busy performer and host of the podcast How To Be an Actor) about filming that now-classic ad, and how it changed his life, for better or worse.
When Whalen attended that messy audition, the commercial was actually missing one thing: an ending. After the radio DJ hung up, letting that 10 grand slip away, the actors were told to improvise a reaction. Whalen tells Yahoo that when he got the job, “They told me that the reason I booked the part was because everyone else was getting mad, screaming, pounding the desk, throwing bread on the floor.” He, on the other hand, says he played it “kind of like that famous line from The Simpsons, when an atomic bomb is coming at Comic Book Guy’s head and he goes, ‘Oh, I’ve wasted my life.’ If my whole life has been leading up to this and I couldn’t achieve this very basic goal, what’s left for me?” Whalen’s despondent reaction so won over Michael Bay that his only direction on shooting day was, “Do what you did in the audition.”
Of course, in the audition, Whalen only had to do it once. While filming his role, the actor shoveled countless gobs of peanut butter and bread into his mouth before saying his one unintelligible line. Every time Bay called “cut,” a group of four handlers rushed to Whalen’s side: “One person ran up and had a bucket that I spit the bread into, the second person would give me water and I would rinse my mouth, the third person had a wet Q-tip to get all the peanut butter off my teeth and a paper towel to dry off my teeth, and then the last person would hand me another piece of bread and peanut butter,” he remembers. “The worst part was at the end of it, I had canker sores and painfully dry lips from all the salt and oil.” It would be four years before Whalen could stomach peanut butter again.
After shooting wrapped, Whalen says the commercial was on the air within a week, “running day and night in California.” Suddenly he was recognized everywhere. “I couldn’t walk down the street,” he says. “I had people yelling ‘Got milk! Aaron Burr!’ over and over again.”
The effect only increased when the spot went national. Waiters brought Whalen unsolicited glasses of milk. People everywhere approached him for autographs, including a teenage Fred Savage, who asked Whalen to sign a milk carton for his Stanford dorm.
Then one day, a woman from Amblin Entertainment showed up to Whalen’s acting class and said the words every hustling actor longs to hear: “Steven Spielberg loves your commercial.” Thanks to Spielberg’s interest, Whalen was cast in Amblin’s big-budget disaster film Twister, which led to parts in other high-profile ’90s films like That Thing You Do!, Never Been Kissed, and Men in Black. The actor worked nonstop to establish himself as something other than “the milk guy,” an effort that has paid off in a decadeslong career. However, one small part of Whalen’s career has never recovered.
“I never did another commercial,” says Whalen. “For a time, commercials would have a ‘Sean Whalen type’ breakdown. But my agent would call and say, ‘Let’s just have Sean in’ and they’d say, ‘Nah, he’s too overexposed.’”
As for the “Aaron Burr” ad, it has become the stuff of advertising legend. The spot is a regular on “Best Commercials of All-Time” lists, is used as a case study in marketing courses, and was parodied by Hamilton’s own Aaron Burr, Leslie Odom Jr., in a viral promotion for the Broadway musical.
The original commercial (in both 30-second and extended 60-second versions) has been uploaded to YouTube by dozens of users and received millions of views. Though Bay has since dismissed his breakout ad as “pretty stupid,” it’s still respected in the industry for its weird, high-concept script, and the novel idea of selling a beverage not by hyping its deliciousness, but by pointing out its absence.
Today, Whalen gets recognized more often for his film and TV roles than for mumbling “Aaron Burr.” Some of his younger acting students have never even heard of the commercial. But when he appears at horror conventions as the guy from People Under the Stairs, Twister, and Death House, he always brings photos from the “Got Milk?” ad — and more often than not, someone asks him to sign one.
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