The new DVD of the 1965 Jean-Luc Godard movie Pierrot Le Fou starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina (one of his most entertaining movies) has a documentary on Godard’s marriage to Karina and the movies they made together, and the best part is that it includes something I hadn’t seen anywhere online: the TV commercial where she was discovered. Karina had gotten parts in two commercials, and when Godard saw her in this soap commercial, he immediately got in touch with her and tried to give her a walk-on part in his first movie, Breathless (she refused, she says, because it was a nude scene ) and soon he was casting her in lead roles.
It used to be common enough for movie and TV stars to come to prominence in commercials. A commercial, when you think about it, can be quite a break for an actor, especially ’50s and ’60s commercials that usually featured only one or two people. Suddenly an unknown actor gets a star part in front of a national audience, and they get a chance to prove that they can hold the audience’s interest and that the camera likes them. A commercial could be, under the right circumstances, the chance an actor was waiting for: so Barbara Feldon, a little-known actress and model who’d been working for a number of years without much success, got Get Smart on the basis of this commercial for a hairstyling product.
I get the impression that there aren’t as many opportunities now for an actor to make a big splash in a commercial. Not so much because of celebrity endorsements — there are probably fewer of those than there were a few years ago, and at least actors have a better chance to get a commercial than models have to bump celebrities off magazine covers. (Professional models have it almost as bad these days as professional voice actors; both are being crowded out by famous people who may not necessarily be as good at the job.) But commercials these days tend to have larger casts, which makes it harder for any one person to stand out in those 30 seconds.
Of course, getting a solo role in a commercial doesn’t guarantee you’ll become a star, even if the commercial is huge. Jeff Douglas isn’t exactly a superstar.