Actors John MacKay and Jimmy Owens Talk About the Talked-About Sprint Spot

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SAN FRANCISCO ( -- Thanks to a brief, magical moment in a recent Sprint spot, “sticking it to The Man” has re-entered the pop-culture lexicon.
Actor John MacKay is 'The Man' and actor Jimmy Owens plays his underling in the Sprint commercial.

In the ad, a big boss-type sits at his desk, with his underling at his side. The young guy asks if that’s a new Sprint phone on his desk. The boss acknowledges that it is, then says: “With Sprint’s fair and flexible plan nobody can tell me what to do.

“It’s my way of sticking it to The Man.”

The underling looks incredulous. “But ... you are The Man.” The boss replies, “Uh-huh.”

His underling says, “So you’re sticking it to yourself.”

The boss looks at his young employee and counters, enigmatically, “Maybe.”

John MacKay plays the Boss and Jimmy Owens is the underling, two actors from quite different backgrounds who never met before the shoot but brought the line -- "sticking it to The Man" -- to life.

The long road to acting
John MacKay took a winding road into the acting business. Born in Plainfield, N.J., Mr. MacKay grew up in Iowa. His father sold insurance and his mother was a housewife. After high school he went into the Navy for four years serving on the USS Kitty Hawk during the Vietnam War, loading bombs onto airplanes. After the war he attended the University of Colorado, where he studied journalism but also “went to Vail and Steam Boat Springs and was a ski bum,” he explained.

When he thought he needed a job, he got one back in Iowa, working as a Teamster truck driver. It was there that he took a gander at acting. His only previous experience was in junior high, where he played Julius Caesar in a school production. “You said everything in Latin, so the audience didn’t know whether you knew your lines or not,” he said.

Mr. MacKay responded to a casting call for a local production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” and landed the role of the heroic rebel McMurphy. Heady with that success, he headed to Los Angeles, where he joined a long-running repertory group, The Company of Angels. “I didn’t stick around,” he said. “A woman was involved, of course. There always is.”

Mr. MacKay hopscotched across the country and wound up in New York in the early 1980s at a time when many independent filmmakers were looking for undiscovered -- and inexpensive -- talent. He was cast as Dr. Gregory Ashton in the horror film “The Rejuvenatrix,” about an actress who tries a drug to retain her youthful beauty but winds up with the unfortunate side effect of turning into a monster. Though not a box-office blockbuster, it caught the attention of art-house darling Hal Hartley, who cast Mr. MacKay in “Simple Men,” his 1992 feature film about two brothers who search for their father, a one-time professional baseball player turned revolutionary who is accused of planting a bomb at the Pentagon. Mr. MacKay played the errant father.

Other parts followed, including a gig in Hungary for a film that played in Europe but was never released in the U.S. “I had a career much like any other,” he said. “Some jobs are good and some pay the rent.”

Typecast for commercials
For the past 10 years, some of those rent-paying gigs involved working in commercials. Mr. MacKay has appeared in ads for General Electric Co., and Discover Card. He has become somewhat typecast, in part by choice. “I go up for [roles as a] lawyer, businessman, cop, father, detective. Sometimes a bad guy. I never get the girl, not on camera anyway," he said.

He was on the train from Manhattan to his home in Rhinebeck, N.Y., after auditioning for the Sprint part when his agent called to tell him to turn around and go back -- he’d made the second call. After the second round, Mr. MacKay was asked if he would be available on Thursday and Friday for the shoot. He said he would only be available on Friday, “normally the kiss of death” for a job. But that night his agent called to congratulate him. It turned out another spot was being shot Thursday and the scheduling worked out just fine.

The shoot was on the 30th floor of an office building and Mr. MacKay felt a good vibe. “I had a sense that it was going to be good -- I don’t know why. I felt it with this.”

Within a couple of weeks the spot was on TV and Mr. MacKay’s mom became a celebrity at the adult home where she resides. He was hearing from friends he hadn’t communicated with for years, and old friends from Los Angeles he hadn’t heard from in 30 years. (But not the girl he left behind. She married someone else, he said.)

Mr. MacKay said he was paid standard SAG fees for his performance: $535 plus overtime and residuals depending on the venue and number of times the spot airs. “The money comes in later if, for some reason, the ad is popular,” he said. He said he hasn’t heard from Sprint about a possible sequel, but would be open to it.

Bagpipes, Haggis and single malts
Mr. MacKay, 58, an ardent Scot, plays a bagpipe and annually attends a traditional Robert Burns dinner in his kilt, does traditional Scottish dances, eats haggis (a Scotch meal made of the organs of a sheep or lamb, minced with suet, onions, oatmeal and seasoning, then stuffed and boiled in the stomach of the animal and served with turnips and potatoes) and, of course, drinks a lot of single-malt Scotch.

As for the Sprint ad, Mr. MacKay said, “It was just another employment opportunity I was fortunate enough to get. If it runs the next 10 years, terrific. If it ends tomorrow, that’s the business I’m in. I did not expect to retire on one commercial.” And he doesn't anticipate that this will be the lucky break. “I don’t let myself think like that,” he said. “I’m not holding my breath.”

He’s focused, instead, on the tangibles: If the commercial “makes people laugh and changes someone's life in a positive way, even in a small way, it’s a good feeling.”

He's had that feeling even though he actually saw the spot on TV only once. “I don’t watch TV,” he said. And, by the way, his cellphone isn’t a Sprint phone.

Child actor to 'stage actor'
Unlike Mr. MacKay, Jimmy Owens, 27, who plays the assistant in the spot, started acting as a child in his hometown of Fairport, N.Y., near Rochester. “My parents were supportive but not pushy,” he said, encouraging him to act because he liked it. He played the young Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol," Huck Finn in a traveling junior-high performance and, later, Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady.” “I sing but I do not dance,” he said. “I have pretty girls dance around me -- it usually works out.”

After he graduated from Emerson College, a friend at a casting agency suggested he try for a role in a TV commercial. His response: “I’m a stage actor. I don’t do television.” But Mr. Owens, who once made ends meet by working as a receptionist in a now-defunct Boston advertising agency, Direct Results Group, ended up taking a commercial gig. And a number of others, including one where he got into an exercise machine holding cans of paint. “I can’t even remember the point” of the spot, he said. But he does remember he woke up the next day with huge bruises on both sides of his chest and an ameliorating check for $1,000.

“Back then I thought it was like a trillion dollars,” he said.

Mr. Owens does not consider himself a struggling actor, at least “not every day.” “I make an OK living working in my career -- a fine living doing acting,” he said. Currently, he makes somewhere in the range of $35,000 to $50,000 a year, with recent credits including spots for Comedy Central and the New York Lotto. Those who are more successful in commercials can make up to $100,000 a year, he said.

Getting paid
He said working in commercials is a "total blessing" for an actor. “You can do that and not have to worry about where the rent is coming from.” Like Mr. MacKay, he is not certain exactly how residuals are distributed, relying on the integrity of his agent. Payment is considered in terms of 13-week cycles, during which actors are paid $140 each time the spot airs, times the number of markets, less the agency's 10% commission. Practically, it means getting occasional checks for $3,000 or $4,000 each, interspersed with checks for a couple hundred dollars, Mr. Owens said.

Mr. Owens, who lives with his girlfriend, an aspiring stage director, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, said people don't recognize him when he walks down the street, but when friends introduce him as the guy in the Sprint spot, he gets lots of attention and kudos. He’s got limited interest in fortune, and no real desire for fame. “All I want is to make a fine comfortable living doing what I want to do,” he said.

Incidentally, Sprint Nextel CEO Gary Forsee gets an annual base salary of $1.4 million, a minimum annual target bonus of $2.4 million, a “long-term performance bonus target opportunity” of a minimum $10 million for the first year after the Sprint/Nextel merger and a $10 million “target opportunity guideline” for the second year after the deal. Mr. Forsee’s base salary works out to $673 an hour, assuming a 40-hour work week and no vacation. All the more reason to stick it to The Man.

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