You can imagine that, while filming a TV commercial for a soda company, you would imbibe a refreshing sugary beverage or two, right? But TV commercial work is thirstier work for some people than it is for others. And for Pittsburgh Steelers legend “Mean Joe” Greene, who starred in Coke’s iconic 1980 Super Bowl ad, it was really, really thirsty work.
The clip, in which an injured Mean Joe is so touched by a young fan offering up his own soda to the tired, limping player that Mean Joe tosses the kid (billed officially as “The Kid” and played by 12-year-old actor Tommy Okun) his Steelers jersey.
“Hey kid, catch!” says the Hall of Famer.
“Wow, thanks, Mean Joe!” says Okun, after the NFL-er chugged the soda and gifted him with the shirt.
But that was far (far, far) from the only Coca-Cola Joe drank in the making of the commercial. Filmed in upstate New York at a small stadium (to make Mean Joe look even bigger), the commercial took three days to complete, partly, Greene would later say, because Oken was really such a fan of the superstar that he flubbed his lines a time or two.
And on day three, the duo did so many takes that Greene ended up chugging 18 bottles of Coke. Eighteen 16 oz. bottles of Coke, or the equivalent of 24 cans — two refrigerator 12-packs — of canned Coke. Accidental burps, he said in a documentary about the making of the ad, ensued.
The commercial, which premiered late in 1979, but made its biggest impression during the 1980 Super Bowl, was an instant classic, with NBC even stretching the ad’s story into a 1981 made-for-TV movie called The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid. Mean Joe played himself (as did Steeler Franco Harris), but the role of The Kid went to Henry Thomas, who, less than a year later, would play Elliott in E.T.
And the ad, which Greene spoofed in a commercial for Downy Unstoppables in 2012, was remade for Coke Zero in 2009, with Steeler Troy Polamalu and a cheeky twist.
One more bit of Mean Joe commercial trivia: Greene says Cowboys superstars Roger Staubach, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, and Tony Dorsett, as well as his Steelers teammate Jack Lambert (he of the missing front teeth) were among the competition he beat out to star in the Coke ad.
“It came down to Lambert and myself, but Lambert… Lambert didn’t have any teeth. He wouldn’t have looked good on TV,” Greene joked in the making-of documentary.
Super Bowl LI airs Sunday, Feb. 5 at 6:30 p.m. ET on Fox.