TV Commercial Star Says ‘Bonjour’ to Fame

If you saw him on the street, you would know him right away. He is painfully familiar — tall and awkward with an unmistakable Lurch-like hunch.  But who is he?

And then it hits you. He is the fake French model in that State Farm commercial — you know the one.  (“They can’t put anything on the Internet that isn’t true.” “Where’d you hear that?” “The Internet.” “Oh look, here comes my date. I met him on the Internet. He’s a French model.”)

At which point the “model” — his face long and scruffy, his belt equipped with the nerd-essential fanny pack — says “uhh … bonjour,” in a distinctly non-French twang before cracking a sly smile, wrapping a gangly arm around his hot blonde date, and walking away.

In doing so, once-anonymous Eric Filipkowski became the latest to join the ranks of commercial celebrities, actors who linger somewhere between fame and anonymity — from  the long-running supermarket manager Mr. Whipple (“Please don’t squeeze the Charmin’”) to Flo, the sales expert in the Progressive Insurance commercials that launched in 2008.

Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said that with Flo, people know her character name, but that, “If you asked the next 100 people on the street,” he said, “they wouldn’t know her name” in real life.

Thompson said that the commercial pseudo-celebrity dates back to the lonely Maytag repairman and Charmin’s Mr. Whipple, characters that “became part of the fabric of American culture,” he said. “Everybody recognized them, but very few people know what their real names are.”

But unlike Mr. Whipple, the Maytag man, Flo and the Verizon guy (“Can you hear me now?” ) — all recurring roles — Filipkowski is a true one-hit-wonder: one commercial, one line and one word. And yet he is suddenly being asked for autographs, stared at in the grocery store, photographed on the street, and whispered about in the movie theater.

“It’s weird for me being a completely anonymous, regular person, to now,” he said in a Skype video chat, “all of a sudden, people stop me.” He added, “I had no idea that this was going to happen.” Longtime girlfriend Lindsay Weiglein, 32, said that the newfound fame is “bizarre” and “never in a million years” would she have expected it of her 6-foot-5 boyfriend. But she keeps him grounded. “We’re not confused,” she said. “I don’t think he’s Brad Pitt.”

Filipkowski, 37, had done several commercials in the past — Burger King, Skittles, Sprint — but “usually, nobody really takes notice,” he said. He was also in the sketch comedy group “Animals of the Future” with Bill Hader of “Saturday Night Live” fame. Filipkowski’s bio on the group’s website reads: “After a successful career as a philosophy/math student at Boston University, Eric moved out west to live in poverty and obscurity.”

Poverty: probably not. Obscurity: definitely not.

Chad Broude, copywriter and associate creative director of DDB Agency in Chicago, wrote the commercial with DDB’s now-former art director Kristin Witt. They auditioned about 50 actors for the role of the French model, but Broude said that when they met Filipkowski (whom he called “a brilliant actor”), they thought, “We gotta use him.”

On the day of the shoot in early summer, Filipkowski had food poisoning. When he wasn’t taking breaks to vomit in a trashcan, director Matt Aselton had him experiment with different lines during various takes — at one point, they tried “buenos dias.” (“Bonjour” was not written into the script, according to Broude.)

They wrapped after about 50 takes. But then, Broude suddenly changed his mind. He needed just one more take. That was when Eric said, “bonjour,” the take that ultimately made the cut.

In August, a few weeks after the commercial first aired, Filipkowski was swarmed at a Rhode Island Newport Creamery by a group of high school kids.  During a Thanksgiving family soccer game in San Diego, fans lined up for autographs. His brother Alex, 34, said in a phone interview, “He probably signed about a dozen autographs on peoples’ hands and on their soccer balls.” He added, “it was pretty entertaining to watch.”

Around the same time, Filipkowski was standing outside of his house when a guy drove by, turned around, blocked traffic, parked, and got out of the car to take a photo of him.

Filipkowski said that the way people approach him is different from how they’d approach a TV or film actor. “I have people come up to me who don’t really know the business” to ask, “How’d you get that job?” He continued, “I think they think I’m just some guy whose dad was a State Farm executive,” or maybe that he was “was walking down the street and they just decided to film me.” People have also said to him, “You must get a great deal on insurance,” and were always surprised when he’d respond, “No, actually, I don’t even have State Farm.”

Syracuse’s Thompson said that it’s smart for actors to start in commercials, but advises them to “get out as soon as they can” because “the gravitational pull of your role can make it hard to escape.” Charmin’s Mr. Whipple, for example, had such a distinct look, that directors did not want to cast him in a movie, “because you’d see him and think about the toilet paper instead of the movie,” Thompson said.

Filipkowski has the same concern. “Flo can’t do anything else” now, he said. “I would just worry about people seeing me as ‘that one guy.’”

All in all, though, Filipkowski said the State Farm commercial was “a great opportunity.” And he finally did call State Farm and say, “This is kinda weird, but I’m in one of your commercials and …”

He bought the insurance, after all. And he got a good deal.