You know that grandfatherly looking bearded man who appears on the Burt’s Bees lip balm tins? Well, that beard belongs to a real, living person. Unlike Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, who died in 1980, Burt Shavitz is alive and well — and the subject of a new documentary: "Burt's Buzz."
The film is not, however, just an infomercial to push a zany product line. Even minus his Forrest Gump-like life story, Shavitz turns out to be a true eccentric, who justifies very close examination.
He holds gobs of bees barehanded; he lives in a converted turkey coop in rural Maine; and fittingly, he's seen in the doc's trailer (above, seen here first on Yahoo Movies) opening a door on the second floor of a building that goes… nowhere. Oh, and Burt not only loves bees — he loves dogs.
Shavitz's life has unfolded much like the story arc of that Tom Hanks character, except that the bee man has better diction. He went to college, and then joined the Army; he became a celebrated news photographer for the likes of Time, Life, and The New York Times with photos of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X in his portfolio; he had a bird's eye view of the march on Washington and attended the first-ever Earth Day celebration, 44 years ago today.
Then, at the height of his career, Shavitz quit his job and got a government grant to conduct an environmental study. It was then when he fell into beekeeping very unintentionally — much like the way he fell into a business that would become a globally recognized brand.
For all the recognition he and his work have received over the years, Shavitz could care less about it. "I had no desire to be a [sic] upward mobile rising yuppie with a trophy wife, a trophy house, a trophy car," Shavitz says in the film. "As a celebrity of sorts I'm contractually obligated not to say 'buzz off,'" he says, suggesting he would like to (while simultaneously making a bee pun).
Burt's Bees came about in the early '80s when Shavitz teamed up with Roxanne Quimby — who helped turn extra beeswax from his hives into candles and other products. Shavitz and Quimby became business partners and lovers. But as their busy little empire grew, both sides of their relationship crumbled and Shavitz was pushed out.
Don't feel too sorry for the guy, though. As the face of the company, he's still on the payroll and can afford much more than the coop he calls home.
"Burt's Buzz," buzzes into the San Francisco International Film Festival on May 3. You can see it on-demand on June 5 and in theaters in limited release starting June 6.