John Gilchrist, who played "Mikey" in TV ad, still likes it after all these years
To answer some of your most predictable questions right off:
Yes, John Gilchrist enjoys Life cereal and keeps it in his home. No, he does not get a free lifetime supply. No, he was not a particularly picky eater as a child. Yes, he really is the guy who played one on TV.
Oh, and one more thing: He is most certainly not dead.
"The folklore is that I ate Pop Rocks, the exploding candies, and I drank a soda and my stomach blew up," he said, recalling a long-ago urban legend.
One day in the late 1970s, his mother summoned him from a playground baseball game to tell him she had received a call from a concerned friend who said, through tears, "I'm so sorry to hear about your son."
Replied Mrs. Gilchrist: "He just came home from school!"
So it goes at the center of a pop culture artifact -- a Life cereal spot that lived for more than a decade and starred Gilchrist, known in the ad as "Mikey," and his two real-life brothers, Tommy and Mike.
You surely remember it if you are over 40, and you surely know of it if you grew up in a family with a fussy eater, meaning a grown-up at some point said, "Mikey likes it!"
That line never actually is uttered in the ad. When little Mikey, who usually "hates everything," starts to eat the cereal, his older brother says, "He likes it! Hey Mikey!"
No matter. "Mikey" had no lines at all, and yet 41 years after shooting the commercial in October 1971 -- his third in a career that eventually would include about 250 -- he found himself still talking about it over lunch Tuesday. (He ordered a healthy salad and iced tea.)
"It's who I am, but it's only a part of who I am; I have a lot of great things in my life," he said of his willingness to discuss something he did when he was 3 1/2 and doesn't clearly remember doing.
Since shifting away from acting while at Iona College, Gilchrist, 44, has been in ad sales, first in radio, including a stint at ESPN, and now for MSG Networks, where he is director of media sales, primarily negotiating with advertisers on TV ads.
"It's been great," he said, especially given that he is a self-described lifelong "Knicks junkie.'' (Karma: He was born nine days before the current Garden opened in February 1968.)
"I always thought the Garden was a special place. So without sounding too sappy, I jumped at the opportunity to come over here."
This all started in the Bronx, where Gilchrist's father, Tom, a New York City cop, and mother, Pat, were raising a family that eventually would grow to seven children. (John is smack in the middle.)
His parents owned a small bungalow in Long Beach, where one day the Gilchrists ran into children on the beach who had done modeling and thought their "freckly, All-American look" might be marketable. It was.
Soon the oldest brother, Tommy, was working regularly, making "more money in the fee for a day than my father probably made in a week," and Pat was learning to get work for the others.
All seven acted at some point. It eventually helped the family move to Yonkers, buy real estate in East Hampton and pay for college educations. "But money was never the driving force," Gilchrist said. "I honestly don't know the finances, and quite honestly, I don't care.''
Five of the siblings still live in Yonkers. John, his wife, Jennifer, and their three children, ages 7 to 14, live nearby in Pelham.
Unlike many child actors, Gilchrist has mostly positive memories of working the circuit with an eclectic group of contemporaries that included Rodney Allen Rippy, Mason Reese and Haywood Nelson ("Dwayne" from "What's Happening!!''). He also knew Ricky Schroder, who edged him out for a plum role in the 1979 movie "The Champ."
At home, though, life was "very normal."
"We would be watching a show in prime time and it was never a big thing," he said. "Our spot would come on and someone would yell, 'Hey, Mom, spot's on!' " Gilchrist said it is an "ongoing joke" among the three brothers in the Life ad that John is best remembered for it even though he said nothing.
He believes the key to his comfort level was having his real family there. "Those are my brothers, so I probably thought as a 3 1/2-year-old kid, I'm just sitting at the family kitchen table," he said.
Gilchrist has appeared in a revival of the old campaign, and he regularly receives requests to sign memorabilia, which he happily does.
Mostly, the iconic commercial has faded into the background of his life. But he appreciates the ongoing fascination with it.
"It doesn't bother me -- to the contrary," he said. "I just never looked at it like some huge, big deal. Maybe that comes off to some people like I don't want to talk about it. Totally not the case. I love talking about it. It's a part of me."
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