Since 1976 Michael Lien has been casting commercials for everything from Coke to Colgate, Sears to Sea World, and Hallmark to Hershey’s. Among the myriad directors he has worked with are Penny Marshall, Rob Pritts, Mark Pellington, and Academy Award-winner Caleb Deschanel. While he’s also done music videos, CD-ROMs, trailers, and industrials . . . commercials are clearly his specialty.
In 1977 we were casting an Illinois Bell Telephone spot. Michael brought in an unknown actor that he had seen at the Improv on Melrose Avenue.
A dorky guy walked into the audition room and he looked like he needed to comb his hair, pressing it back against his head as he made his way past my video equipment. I was wondering what Michael was up to because this guy was not at all polished. This actor was so fresh, he didn’t even have a headsheet. Nevertheless, that day he didn’t need one.
In the middle of the room was a table with nine different styles of telephones. Three clients were sitting on a couch on the far side of the table. One by one the geeky actor picked up the receiver of each phone. And each time he did, he became a completely distinctive and hilarious personality. It was absolutely incredible to watch. None of us had ever seen anything like this before. That crazy geek totally destroyed the room. We were all laughing so hard we had to strain just to catch our breath. And I’m not exaggerating!
Well . . . that was really unfair to the other actors. Michael had brought this comical wonder in first and once he performed, there was really no point in auditioning anybody else.
We all did our best to be polite to the other actors and not betray our disappointment with their auditions. But none of them could even begin to compare to what we had just witnessed. Watch the final product below and see why . . . .
Now you have to know, this commercial pales in comparison to the audition we witnessed that day. Apparently the sponsors were concerned about their product being upstaged and reined in the actors.
I’ll always remember that magical spring afternoon. Once the unknown actor had wowed us with his dazzling performance and left the room, I went over his name in my head . . . “Robin Williams”. By then I was a seasoned casting assistant and it was obvious to me that I had just witnessed something extremely rare . . . the birth of a star.