By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 3, 2005
Come back, Trench Coat Guy.
Until last month he was the spokescharacter for Sprint wireless phones, the guy who solved pesky cellular problems wherever and whenever they arose. He was ubiquitous, appearing in 155 commercials over the past six years. More than that, he was an icon of the Internet age -- the Mr. Whipple, the Joe Isuzu, the Madge or Mikey of his time.
Now Trench Coat Guy is gone, dropped like a bad connection. He went away quietly, without making a scene, which is just how you'd expect him to go.
He is, it seems, a victim of corporate politics. Sprint recently bought Nextel for $35 billion, and as a result, things have changed. Trench Coat Guy was great when Sprint was selling its services primarily to household customers. But Nextel is focused on the business market, and so the company now needs a new image.
Trench Coat Guy is therefore "on hiatus" for an indefinite period, explained spokeswoman Mary Nell Westbrook, who said he might reappear in the future.
Might. At some point. Maybe. Of course, that's what Dell Computer said when it put the Dell Dude on hiatus -- permanently, as it turned out -- in 2002.
Trench Coat Guy deserves better.
Trench Coat Guy gave a fresh face to an otherwise faceless, multibillion-dollar telecommunications behemoth (and helped make it successful enough to buy another faceless telecommunications behemoth). He was all about underselling. Trench Coat Guy never pushed, never grated, never tried to get you to take the premium plan. He just laid it all out in that unemotional way, as if it was common sense.
Trench Coat Guy solved cell phone problems in a way that suggested Sprint knew there was more to life than solving cell phone problems. His commercials were offbeat mini-sitcoms that disarmed the viewer with their gentle absurdity and mocking self-awareness.
He came to the rescue, for example, when a talkative preteen girl faced the agony of waiting until her cell plan's cheaper evening rates kicked in. The girl spent the time braiding the hair of everyone in her family, including Dad and the dog. Trench Coat Guy pointed out that Sprint's evening rates start at 7 p.m., instead of the usual 9. Problem solved.
In another ad, Olympic snowboarder Jonny Moseley grew frustrated because his big gloves prevented him from dialing his phone while he was on the slopes. Trench Coat Guy came tromping through the snow, in suit and tie, to introduce Moseley to Sprint's voice-activated calling.
Another series of commercials touted the supposed clarity of Sprint's network. Mom, using the evidently inferior Brand X phone, called the babysitter, but static interfered: "I asked how are the kids . . . and she floured the kids!'' Cut to Trench Coat Guy sitting next to two children with faces full of flour.
A grateful customer in another ad once asked Trench Coat Guy the all-important question: "Who are you"? In typically mysterious fashion, Trench Coat Guy replied: "It's not about me, ma'am."
In real life, Trench Coat Guy is a 38-year-old actor named Brian Baker, who doesn't seem a bit like the deadpan dude he's been playing. Baker laughs often as he tells the story of his character's genesis, and expresses both bewilderment about, and gratitude for, a 30-second performance that turned into the role of a lifetime.
Baker was selected from among 350 actors who auditioned for the part in 1999. Just before shooting began, he worked out the character's fictitious background with the commercial's director, Peter Care. "He said, 'This is a guy who won't get married, won't have children, will live in his car, and will forfeit everything to stop static. It's his mission in life,'" said Baker by phone the other day. "I totally agreed."
The distinctive look was his idea. "We tried on 50 different things -- a black turtleneck, a peacoat, you name it. I felt like the black suit and the black trench coat fit this guy best. It had a kind of iconic feel, this flowing look that you could depict in a silhouette. Not to mention that it's very slimming."
The character is often taken to be a parody of Fox Mulder, the super-serious "X-Files" sleuth. But Baker says he was inspired by another unflappable figure -- the late Jack Webb, who played the just-the-facts-ma'am detective on "Dragnet."
Sprint originally wanted Baker for a series of five commercials, after which it planned to move on to something else. But the early response was so favorable that Trench Coat Guy -- the character never officially had a name, Baker says -- kept coming back. Sprint's ad agency, Publicis & Hal Riney of San Francisco, kept turning out more TV commercials, radio and print ads, and sales-training films, all starring Baker.
With his face constantly before the public, Baker couldn't walk down the street without strangers excitedly approaching him. The attention was "surreal sometimes," he says.
In 2001, People magazine named Baker one of its Sexiest Men Alive, placing him in the company of Pierce Brosnan and Benjamin Bratt.
What's more, the role led to other roles. Baker appeared in an episode of "The West Wing" in 2001, playing a congressman. He also has had bit parts on "The Drew Carey Show," "Early Edition," "Providence" and an ABC series called "Cupid."
But Baker is so closely associated with his signature character that you can't imagine him showing up in another role without people saying, "Hey, isn't that Trench Coat Guy?"
Is he typecast forever? Baker pauses a moment to consider the question. No, he says: "People in the TV and film business like the spots, too. They recognize that it was a great campaign. I don't think it's a hindrance."
In fact, six years after the first ad, Baker sounds like a guy who still hasn't had enough. "Never for one minute was I sick of that character!" he says. "He was always fun to play. There was always so much potential, and it never faltered due to a lack of ideas. I used to look forward to getting each new script when it would come out of the fax machine. It was exciting to be in because it was so good."
He'd gladly play him some more, if Sprint will have him. The Nextel merger needn't be a deal breaker; Baker will happily trade in his black trench coat for a yellow one (Sprint Nextel's new color) if that's what it takes.
Yet while Baker and his agent, Kevin Mobley, are hopeful about a return call, Baker's phone hasn't rung lately. "Anything that does or doesn't happen is up to Sprint at this point," Mobley says.
Until further notice, then, we'll miss you, Trench Coat Guy. We'll miss your calm, can-do attitude, your modesty, your single-minded devotion to improving mobile telecommunications. If we had a problem with our cell phone, you'd be the first guy we'd call.
Alas, without you, we're stuck with your imitative and inferior rival: that horn-rimmed Verizon Geek, who walks around asking "Can you hear me now? Good!"
We know what Trench Coat Guy would say about that: Not good. Not so good at all.
Trench Coat Guy and Verizon Geek were selling the same kind of product, but never emitted the same signal. Verizon Geek is more concerned with his own reception and transmission, and happens to be one of those guys who are never not on their phones. That's the funny thing about Trench Coat Guy: In all those years -- all those living rooms, airports and sidewalks -- he never seemed to use a cell phone, or interrupt somebody so he could take a call. That's the sign of a true gentleman, and they are harder and harder to find.