Once actors dreamed of great rules on the stage. Then they yearned for breakthrough parts in movies. For a while, a continuing role in a TV show was the object all sublime, but that fell into disfavor. The new stardom is the TV commercial - better still, a series of TV commericals.
This can make you famous in 30 seconds. This can make you a household body. This can make you RICH.
"People say to me, 'Bet you never thought you'd be signing autographs in years to come'," says Ted Pugh, "and I tell them, 'Yes I did, but I thought I'd be signing my own name'." Instead, Pugh signs "Price" and his partner, Ralph Straight, signs "Pride."
It hasn't been all that painful, however. Pugh, 39, and Straight 41, have just entered their third year as Price and Pride for A&-P at over $100,000 each per year. They say, though, that it's not the money that gives them a kick. It's the flash fame. It's the new stardom, a mixture of universal recognizability and the fact that hardly anybody knows who they really are.
"It took me a while to realize the power of the medium," says Straight, who, like the character he plays, is jolly and plump to the point that his vest may be saying a little silent prayer with each big haw-haw. "I'd spent most of my career on the legitimate stage, like Ted. When it comes to awareness figures, by the way, we're kind of record breakers. After three weeks of this campaign, the total awareness measured in nationwide polls they took was over 80 per cent; now it's about 85. That's highest than any President of the United States. JFK got up to about 78 per cent, I think."
Fame through television is three decades old, but it still seems new to the people experiencing it for the first time. Price and Pride have become folklore icons, like Humpty-dumpty or Santa Claus or R2-D2, but they may be even more recognizable because television regularly reinforces the image.There they are again.
"There's no way you can embrace that audience mentally, that many millions of people," says Pugh, who is decidedly not the pill he plays on the little screen and whose unfinished sentences are sometimes completed by Strait. "The first time it really hit me was during a parade in Albany, after a year on the air. We were on a float, there were 300,000 people there, we came around a corner and . . ."
"Cheers," says Strait. "Triumphant cheers." They were yelling copy lines at us - 'Hey, you really trimmed that one, Price." It was incredible."
"My heart went up in my throat," says Pugh.
Sometimes Pugh and Strait shoot commercials in actual supermarkets. From this they have learned how closely people identify them with the company.
"We made a personal apperance at a store once," Pugh recalls, "and I was standing behind the meat counter in my white apron with 'Price' on it in big letters, and a woman comes up and ask me, 'Where's the round roast?' I said, 'I don't know.' She said, 'You're a butcher and you don't know where the round roast is???'"
"That's when I came running up," says Strait. "Ted was just nonplussed! Another time we were at a shooting in one of the stores, and here we are with a crew of 50, cameras, cables and lights, all surrounding us, we're standing there and a woman climbs over the cables and the lights and everything and says to us, 'Excuse me, can you tell me where the cranberry sauce is?'"
"Strangley enough, we've never been attacked," says Pugh.
"Ocassionally we get complaints as if they're going right to the top, about a cut of meat or something," says Strait.
"We don't get touched much, do we?"
"Well the characters are a little large-than-life," says Strait, larget by far. "In fact the first time they did touch us was when somebody handed you that baby. Often they take pictures of us, stand between us, that sort of thing, but out of nowhere, somebody handed Ted a baby."
"Yeah, suddenly I had this, this baby in my hands. And not having had little brothers or sisters and being a bachelor I really didn't know what to do with it. I felt like I was running for mayor. Actually it was two babies remember?"
"Oh yeah, they gave me one, too," says Strait. "I had a stockholder once, too. And I'm a stockholder myself, and it was just after A&P cleared the 5-cent dividend in the first quarter last year, and here's this woman calling after me in the store, 'A 5-cent dividend! You call that a dividend." And I said, 'Ma-am, I'm an A&P stockholder too and it sure beats almost bankruptcy a couple of years ago.'"
When the McCann-Erickson ad agency devised the Price and Pride campaign two years ago, A&-P was a floundering empire of outdated markets. Exactly how much the company's fortunes have improved since is a matter of some debate. Time magazine recently claimed, in an article ominously titled "Price and Pride on the Skids," that the company was still beset with headaches of migraine magnitude. "I've never read such a totally one-sided article," huffs Strait, who takes a more aggressive interest in the grocery biz than Pugh.
"Actually there was just a little dip in earnings, not very big dollars, and sales have continued to increases. It was just increased expenses that caused the dip."
Obviously the Price and Pride campaign is producing some sort of measurable desirable effect or the team's option would have been dropped after the first year, or after the second. But it wasn't. And the renewed lease on life for Price and Pride means extended renown for Pugh and Strait.
"Oh tell that story, that marvelous thing that happened to you in a restaurant," says Strait.
"I was eating at a little restaurant in New York with a girl I know," Pugh recites obligingly, "and suddenly I started to overhear this conversation at the next table, and this guy is saying to a girl, 'Oh for God's sake, you've got to know who they are! One is this little skinny guy who's got his hair parted in the middle and glasses on and a white apron - He's Price - and the other guy is a little bigger, he's Pride,' and there was no reaction from this girl at all.
"So he said, 'Oh for God's sake, everybody knows who they are, you've got to know who they are,' and I thought, 'Twilight Zone' - woooooo - I told the girl I was with, 'I think they''re talking abouut me.'"
Yet Pugh thanks his lucky little stars that without his makeup and glasses, he looks very little like Price of the screen.Stait is not so fortunate. "I got recognized at Maxim's in Paris once," he says. "Some girl from Cleveland, she couldn't place me, so she went rattling on and on and suddenly she goes, 'PRICE AND PRIDE! Oh my God!' I admired her enthusiasm.
"I do get recognized, but people usually say something like, 'Did you go to the University of Syracuse?" They know they know me, but they can't place me. If someone recognizes me in a place where Ted is, I make him share it. Sometimes they won't believe it's him - I say, 'No, it's really Ted, I mean, really Price."
"So then you're actually put in the position of trying to prove it," groans Pugh.
"I make him part his hair in the middle and put on his glasses," laughs Strait.
"This whole thing of being recognized in world history, it's really not that old," sayd Pugh, looking frightened at the thought. "Silent moves were the first to bring that kind of recognition, world recognition. Of course, we're not world, but -"
"It took me a year to really grasp it," says Strait. "When I worked here at the Washington Theater Club, people would recognized me in a restaurant, and come up and say so and so, and it was all very dignified. But with television, people not only recognize me, they have all this enthusiasm to talk to me, and I though, 'I do my job, I'm a profession actor, commercials are my job, why do they want to talk to me?'"
'They say we're among the five most recognizable faces on television," says Pugh with a worried smile. "It really has no reality to me. I don't believe it."