Of Mr. Whipple and Vaudeville

All roads lead to vaudeville, including Charmin’s Mr. Whipple. Only folks of a certain age will understand the reference, for the character was a ubiquitous TV commercial staple from 1965 through 1989, with a brief revival in 1999. In each ad, supermarket manager Whipple would scold customers for squeezing packages of Charmin toilet paper (an outcome of how soft it was), and then, when the people were gone, he would yield to the temptation to do so himself. It was a surreal conception: no matter how soft toilet paper (or anything, really) is, no one has an urge to “squeeze” it. But the ritual of the commercial was much relished, as was the performance of the actor playing Whipple, Italian-British-Canadian-American bit player Dick Wilson (Riccardo Di Guglielmo, 1916-2007).

Wilson was second generation show-biz. His parents had appeared in British music hall and American vaudeville. Wilson was born in Lancashire, England but moved with his family to Hamilton, Ontario as an infant. As a teenager, he became a performer himself on local radio and in vaudeville and night clubs, as a comic acrobatic dancer. You can hear the vaudevillian’s practical philosophy in his quote about working in commercials: “[It’s] the hardest thing to do in the acting realm. You’ve got 24 seconds to introduce yourself, introduce the product, say something about it, and get off gracefully.” It’s the bit about introducing yourself and getting off gracefully that reminds me of vaudeville, though in that medium you would have the comparatively luxurious time-frame of 10-15 minutes to make your impression.

Commercials brought in tons of income for Wilson but he also had well over 100 screen credits in supporting parts in film and television starting in 1956. He was well prized especially for his drunk turns, which you could see him do on such shows as Bewitched and Adam-12. (It was a beloved schtick on magical sitcoms like Bewitched, where a drunk would see the main characters engaged in something supernatural, rub his eyes, and throw away his pint bottle in consternation). Other shows he appeared on included My Favorite Martian, The Munsters, My Mother the Car, The Flying Nun, That Girl, Get Smart, Alice and dozens of others. He’s also in movies like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973), and The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981). He retired from the biz around 1990.

For more on vaudeville, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,