Veteran actor Jonathan Goldsmith, who portrays the Most Interesting Man in the World, has lived a life worthy of his famous alter ego
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Jazzy latin music plays as an orotund narrator recounts the mythic qualities of our hero: the ability to speak French-in Russian; a personality so magnetic he can't carry a credit card; that he once had an awkward moment just to see how it would feel. "He is," the voice says, "the Most Interesting Man in the World." The man, bearded, übercool, the person every man wants to emulate and no woman can resist, is seen in various escapades: leaving a bedroom on a railroad sleeper car, two very happy women blowing him kisses good-bye; freeing a roaring Grizzly bear from a trap (while wearing a hacking jacket, of course); arm wrestling a dictator to submission and dragging a chest brimming with jewels from the depths of the sea. The kicker is the pitch, and its laid-back nature. Cue the Most Interesting Man, speaking for the first time. "I don't always drink beer," Goldsmith says in a gravelly, accented growl, which is not his normal voice, "but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis."
But while this fabricated creature is undeniably interesting, the actor who portrays him, Jonathan Goldsmith, turns out to be quite the fascinating person himself. No, unlike his character, Goldsmith's blood doesn't smell like cologne, his organ donor card doesn't list his beard and he never taught a horse to read his e-mail. "I'm not the Most Interesting Man in the World," he says. He's right-he's more interesting.
Goldsmith has been shot in the head (more than once) by John Wayne. He has feuded with Dustin Hoffman. He has acted with Burt Lancaster. He lives on a boat and drinks from a pewter goblet. And, like his character, he loves his cigars.
Goldsmith takes a seat in the back room at an Irish pub in New York City. His silver beard and intense eyes place his look somewhere between Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro. The beard is far from close-cropped, not unkempt, but just bushy enough to show that it's been around for quite some time. His hair is thick and wavy, better than that of some 40-year-olds, and he's turning 72 soon. His deep, tanned face and creased forehead have the look of a man who has lived a full life.
He is an actor from the old school, and he knows his way around a drink. He calls for a Gordon's Martini, up with a twist and very dry, olives and onions on the side. Gordon's may be a value gin without trendy cache, but Goldsmith couldn't care less. "It's good gin," he says simply.
Goldsmith is in his fourth year playing The Most Interesting Man in the World in television ads for Dos Equis beer, and the campaign is a hit. Despite its decidedly unconventional approach to selling brew (Someone telling the viewer that he doesn't always drink beer? In a beer ad?) sales of Dos Equis Lager were up 15.4 percent in 2009, making it the fastest growing imported beer in America, among the top 25 brands, according to Impact Databank's 2010 beer study (which is published by M. Shanken Communications Inc., the owner of Cigar Aficionado.) Nick Lake, vice president, group client director at The Nielsen Co., Schaumburg, Illinois, has called it "arguably the most recognizable beer advertising in the industry."
Goldsmith takes a sip of his icy martini, pops an olive into his mouth, followed by an onion. Life is good.
"In the twilight of my life, to get this recognition," he says. "I'm having the best time."
It wasn't supposed to work out this way. Goldsmith was born September 26, 1938, in the Bronx, New York. At the age of 17, he left home for college and was soon acting, finding enough success in theater, television and film that he moved to California at the age of 28. "California did not receive me with open arms," he said. He soon found himself in the same spot as many aspiring actors: broke. "I worked anything I could to survive job wise," he says. He took far-from-glamorous construction work and he drove a garbage truck. "Always had my blue suit at the ready as well as disinfectant," he says.
His break came in the form of Westerns-when asked if he could ride a horse, he answered "Yes, like the wind." He did 25 or 30 in the genre without knowing much about horses. "I bled into the saddle trying to learn," he says, until he was nearly killed on horseback. After that he learned to ride properly.
The saddle sores weren't as painful as the shooting by The Duke. In the movie The Shootist, Goldsmith plays a villainous cowboy who gets plugged between the eyes by Wayne. This was 1976 and special effects at the time were far from special. Wayne had a pellet gun outfitted with blood capsules, and would shoot it point blank at Goldsmith. "Each time, it raised a welt," says Goldsmith. It took seven takes. Don Siegel, the director, doubled his $700 salary to put some salve on the wounds.
In his early years in film, Goldsmith performed as Jonathan Lippe. His parents divorced when he was six and when his mother remarried, he took the last name of her husband. He was nicknamed "The Lip" by his fellow actors. He regrets the name change. "It always made me feel badly for my father, who never caused me any grief about it. Characteristically of him always thinking of me first," says Goldsmith. "As my career grew and my son was born I changed my name back to my real name, Goldsmith, so my father could enjoy his son's success and have a grandson to carry his name as well."
Goldsmith became known for being the bad guy. "I was usually carried off dead. I got killed all the time. All I ever wanted to do was comedy," he says.
There wasn't much laughing in Goldsmith's roles, and sometimes there was pain to match the Wayne experience. He appeared in many episodes of "Gunsmoke," which cost him six cracked ribs and back pain that he feels to this day. He once worked with Dustin Hoffman.
Goldsmith says, "We didn't get along. I jumped up and said, 'Dustin, the reason you don't like me is I'm going to make it-and you're not!' " Goldsmith smiles at the memory-he was wrong on that one.
Goldsmith had a major role in the 1978 Vietnam War film Go Tell The Spartans. The movie starred Burt Lancaster and reviews were mixed, but Goldsmith won over several critics. At the time one called his work "an affecting performance." More recently, Rob Gonsalves, of efilmcritic.com, wrote "there's a gem of a performance by Jonathan Goldsmith as a burned-out soldier."
As he grew older, the offers started to dry up. His last gig before the Dos Equis campaign was playing an aging innkeeper in a spot for a cancer drug. "I thought it was all over," he says. Then Barbara, his manager and fiancée (now his wife) sent him on a casting call for the Dos Equis ad. They were looking for a Latin guy, and Goldsmith is about as Latin as a watercress sandwich. "I'm a Russian Jew from New York," he says with a chuckle.
He couldn't find a parking spot and nearly went home, thinking the audition a complete waste of time. After a heated call with Barbara, he went inside. Things didn't look any better. "I went on a cattle call, 400 guys, and all of them looked like Juan Valdez," he says. "I thought she had lost her mind."
With the cameras turned on, Goldsmith went to work, speaking in stream of consciousness and channeling his old friend and sailing buddy Fernando Lamas, the Argentinean actor made famous in the United States for his suave work in Latin Lover roles. "He was the greatest swordsman who ever lived. He was an amateur boxing champ and fencing champ, an equestrian, probably the most well-known actor in South America," says Goldsmith of Lamas. "And he bedded probably every woman, and their housekeepers, in Hollywood."
As Goldsmith tells it, Lamas's charm with the ladies caused friction in his friend's marriages (he had four.) Jealous wives got in the habit of hiring detectives to trail him, and the ever-classy Lamas sometimes took pity on the gumshoes who had to spend their nights watching him. "He said to me, 'There was a very stormy night, a tempest, and I knew there was some poor son of a bitch up a tree with binoculars. I'm sitting there in my den, I'm having a fine glass of something or other, smoking a cigar, and this poor bastard is out in the storm. So I, Fernando Lamas, throw open the door and say, 'Whatever tree you're in, come down and have a drink!' " And the poor guy comes down, looking like Colombo, completely drenched, and they sit there and have a drink together. He was absolutely charming."
Despite his considerable talent, Goldsmith felt he hadn't earned the Dos Equis role after the initial casting call. "I said it's not going to be me," he says. Six months later the Dos Equis people called him back. At that point 200 actors were vying for the spot. He read again. One month later, another call, and the screen test, full makeup, only two guys this time. Then he got the part. The commercials have been running since 2006.
He's now recognized when he goes out. "It relates to everyone, from the young to construction guys to elderly guys," he says. "Nothing has given me the notoriety this campaign has."
Goldsmith is comfortable in his own skin, and loves to laugh at himself. When he achieved this level of fame with the ad campaign, his press team set up a photo shoot at Mr. Chow's, a Hollywood hot spot where the famous are showered in flashbulbs as they walk in the door. "We finally got the Dos Equis campaign, second year, and we had this great public relations firm. I said do you think we have a shot at Mr. Chow's?" says Goldsmith. He was told yes, and the preparations were made. He was told to call when he was five minutes away. They were asked to wait some more. "Finally we pull up-no paparazzi. Zero," says Goldsmith. Inside, the table wasn't ready. He ran up a big tab at the bar. "I'm not a rich man, and I'm always a little concerned about a buck," he says.
He was finally told why there were no cameras. Michael Jackson had just died. Already a few drinks in and starving, he, Barbara, and their public relations rep sat down to eat, and agreed to a ridiculously pricey, prix fixe menu. The food began coming out, and it was as small as it was overpriced. "Would you like the king's quail eggs, impregnated by sterile nuns?" Goldsmith quips. "The bill was going up and up. I said 'I hope In-N-Out Burger is open.'"
It was looking grim. However, while they were eating, a group of men accidently bumped Barbara's chair, and when Goldsmith asked for the check (at that point, it was about $900) it turned out the group had picked it up as a way to apologize. (And Goldsmith got his full photo opportunity on another visit.)
Goldsmith is a natural around cigars, and cigars have found their way into the ads as well. The Most Interesting Man holds one in many of the spots, quite comfortably, like the smoking veteran that Goldsmith is. It pops up only in certain scenes, like the one where he's piloting a Zodiac at impressive speed through rough waters, a quartet of beauty pageant lovelies (in their evening gowns and tiaras, naturally) smiling and enjoying the ride just as much as he is.
He smoked cigarettes until 1963 when he played a cigarette smoker in the movie Act One. Goldsmith kept inhaling cigarettes down to the required length to make the scene right-it nearly killed him, and he quit. Four years later he took up cigars and never looked back.
Today, he smokes cigars along with his wife, often Dominicans, such as Arturo Fuente Hemingways, Auroras, Romeo y Julietas and a bargain brand called Villa Dominicana. Barbara likes small cigars, and puffs on little Al Capones. "I smoke a cigar every day of my life," he says. "If I have a rich lunch, then I have to have a cigar afterwards." He enjoys a Savinelli pipe as well, sometimes smoking a bowl filled with aromatic Captain Black after breakfast.
Goldsmith lives on a sailboat, docked 20 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, which allows him to smoke in cigar-unfriendly California. "Cocktail time, sunset, we have a cigar. I associate great cigars with the sea, the ocean. I like to sip the local rums and have a good cigar."
The boat is called Siempre, which means "always" in Spanish. "I live in shorts and deck shoes," he says. "I'm basically very simple. I don't need much. There's very little room on the boat for a wardrobe, and our whole room is smaller than most people's walk-in closets. That's the beauty of living on a boat. You prioritize. You practice triage on those things in your life, what is significant, what has emotional attachment." He has a vase from an uncle, silver from his grandmother, a set of four wooden plates from a special trip to the Caribbean.
Goldsmith loves the water. He enjoys fly-fishing, an art form he learned from his father. "I'd rather catch a one-pound rainbow trout on a fly rod than a 20-pound albacore." Fly-fishing reminds him of his father. "If there's someone I could have a drink with, it's my father."
This is perhaps where the character and actor most diverge. While the Most Interesting Man in the World has all the icy coolness of a James Bond, Goldsmith is far more emotional.
"Memories of my father-we would sit streamside just before the hatch. He'd go down to the river and tie a fly to match the hatch of the day." His eyes are red-rimmed and he chews a finger. "He would smoke a cheap cigar, a Phillies. My father was my hero." Goldsmith still has his father's fly rods and still drives his old man's car, a Jeep Cherokee. "I cry too easily," he says. "I think the cheapest cigar I've ever smoked was the best one, a Phillies with my father."
Goldsmith is also involved in charities, including Free Arts for Abused Children, a nonprofit that uses the arts to help abused, homeless or otherwise in peril youngsters, and S.A.B.R.E., an organization aimed at protecting Siberian Tigers.
The boater plans to make a change of scenery soon-he and Barbara have been looking in Vermont for property. A retirement home. "Not to be used yet," he says with a smile. Goldsmith has plans to keep working in his interesting career for quite some time.
"In a way, this is kind of my swan song," he says. "This is my legacy. I want to leave a little something. I think this campaign is brilliant-it's what it's like to be a man. Most people watch life like a parade and live vicariously through the experience. This guy is a participant."
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