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December 21, 2014

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Henderson’s Dick Wilson — Mr. Whipple to you — is still squeezably soft after all these years

Henderson resident Dick Wilson spent 25 years squeezing Charmin toilet paper in a long-running ad campaign that made him one of the most recognizable people in America -- but the veteran character actor's main squeeze is Meg, his wife of 40 years.

"She's the most beautiful girl in the world," Wilson, 83, says with adoration that has not been tempered by time. "And she's the greatest tap dancer I've seen in my whole life."

Meg Wilson, 70, takes full credit for one of the entertainment world's more successful marriages, laughing as she does so. "I'm a very understanding person," she says.

One of the things she understands is how important the Charmin commercial has been to the financial security of her family, a security that escapes most people in the entertainment industry.

Television commercials for the toilet paper, with the famous tag line "please don't squeeze the Charmin," made Wilson's face one of the most recognized in America during a 25-year run that began in 1964 and ended when an ad executive decided to try some alternative messengers -- such as a cartoon character and a couple of playful cats.

According to an online nostalgia service, in 1978, Wilson's commercial character -- Mr. Whipple -- was the third best-known American, behind President Richard Nixon and Billy Graham. The same service said the Charmin commercial produced the highest recall score of any commercial ever tested and the product became the No. 1 brand in every market it entered.

Nixon is gone and Graham's crusading is on the decline, but Mr. Whipple is back, once again exhorting folks not to squeeze the Charmin. Since the character was revived, Wilson has made three more "don't squeeze" commercials and recently returned to Los Angeles to film more.

Sherry Nemmers is executive vice president at the D'Arcy, Benton and Bowles ad agency in New York City and worldwide creative director for Charmin.

She said it was important to bring back the familiar character of Mr. Whipple now because "at the turn of the century, we are being hit with so many things that are new and different. It makes us a little uncomfortable. We don't feel comfortable with the new technology and all of the changes."

Wilson, she said, is a very charming person who has created an irresistible character in Mr. Whipple. and consumers didn't forget him in his decade-long hiatus from the Charmin commercials. "People are actually stealing advertising posters that have his image on them," she said.

Nemmers said that Wilson is full of "Whipple-isms."

"He makes these very unique little faces that are totally endearing," Nemmers said.

Meg Wilson, who is almost always at her husband's side, finds him as endearing as his fans.

A love story

Wilson saw his future wife for the first time in a Los Angeles doctor's office in 1959 when they were among a group of performers getting shots in preparation for a Christmas USO tour of Korea. Two weeks after first seeing Meg, whose credits included performances on the Eddy Cantor and Ed Sullivan television shows, Dick told her he was going to marry her.

They were in Korea at the time.

"She told me to back off," Dick recalled.

But he didn't and about a year later they were married.

Meg continued dancing, singing and acting until the sixth month of her first pregnancy and then she all but abandoned her professional career to take care of her family, which eventually included three children, all of whom live in Los Angeles.

Son Stuart, 37, is a physical trainer and a teacher of martial arts and boxing; daughter Melanie, 39, is an actress and daughter Wendy, 32, works for the Screen Actors Guild.

Meg said she took a few acting jobs while raising her family. "I did 'My Fair Lady' at Warner Brothers, 'Wives and Lovers,' 'The Andy Griffith Show' and a few other things, but basically I stayed home," she said.

Up until 11 years ago the Wilsons lived in Los Angeles, but then they decided to move to Henderson. "We used to come up to Las Vegas regularly," Meg said. "Dick enjoyed the weather and it was so good for his breathing."

They prefer Henderson because it lacks the ostentation of Las Vegas and Hollywood. "I like it here. The people are real," Dick said.

In a part of the country where gated communities seem to be the rule rather than the exception, the Wilsons live in an unpretentious home in an unpretentious neighborhood without walls or gates.

These days, the Wilsons spend most of their time doing charitable work. They often appear in the same local shows, although they have never had a couple's act.

Meg sings and dances. Dick, who gets around slowly with the use of a cane, does what he calls a "sit-down" comic act -- taking a chair on stage and recycling some of his vaudeville routines that are new to many of those in today's audiences.

"He gives so much back to the community and doesn't ask for anything in return," Art Lynch, Las Vegas representative to the Screen Actors Guild's national board, said. "He puts out 100 percent of his energy."

Until recently Wilson taught acting in addition to doing his charity work. The husband and wife are accomplished artists, although Dick gave up painting 15 years ago because of failing eyesight.

Ever the comedian, Dick blames his near-blindness on close friend Shirley McClaine, with whom he appeared in two movies, "What a Way to Go" and "John Goldfarb Please Come Home."

"I used to do all of her art work for her," he said. "One time I did 85 ash trays, with her face on each one. I think that's how I lost my eyesight."

The Wilsons stay busy with a steady stream of visitors -- family, friends, reporters -- and by helping such organizations as the local Screen Actors Guild Conservatory. Meg also does fund-raising for the City of Hope, among others. She has been asked to help with a Special Olympics project.

Lynch, who has known the Wilsons about seven years, describes the couple as down-to-earth and eager to help anyone who asks for it, not at all stereotypical Hollywood people who have over-inflated egos. Although they have numerous friends in the film business, they have many outside the industry as well.

"They are a busy couple, always on the move," Lynch said. "Meg does a lot of charitable things."

Her interest in charity began when she was in high school and worked for the Red Cross, putting on shows at veteran's hospitals. Dick had been retired up until seven months ago, when Procter & Gamble decided to revive the long-dormant Mr. Whipple-Charmin commercial character.

His retirement came after a head injury suffered seven years ago when he was entering a Los Angeles hotel. "A strong wind took the door and me too," Dick said.

After an operation to relieve pressure from bleeding around his brain, he suffered a stroke. Six months ago he suffered a second stroke. "Some of my memory has been taken away," Wilson said.

Lots of credits

Long before he became a pitchman for tissue Wilson was a successful entertainer who had an acrobatic and stand-up comedy routine he performed on stages and in nightclubs around the country, beginning in the waning days of vaudeville.

His act and a budding career in film and on Broadway were interrupted by World War II. Born in England and reared in Canada, Wilson joined the Canadian Air Force and then the Royal Air Force before America entered the war.

Wilson had taught himself to fly when he was 16 years old, working for a time as a bush pilot who flew supplies to mining camps in remote regions of Canada. His earlier experience got him into military flight training and he became a bomber pilot.

After the war Wilson resumed his entertainment career, adding television to his repertoire. His work includes 37 motion pictures, nine Broadway shows and almost every major television series in the 1950s and 1960s.

For about three months he warmed up the audience for "The Red Skelton Show" -- until Skelton asked him how much he was making. "I told him $600 a show. He said he could do that," Wilson said. "So after that he warmed up his own audience."

Wilson played the recurring role of a drunk on "Bewitched," a character he played in other venues despite the fact that he has never taken a drink.

He doesn't like horses either, but many of his film roles were in westerns. "I usually played a guy sitting at a card table," he said.

Whipple now and then

Wilson became Mr. Whipple in the heyday of his acting career after going to an open casting call so common to the profession. "I thought it was going to be a one-night stand," he said. But it became a career in itself.

Ten days after the first spot was shot the agency asked him to sign a contract for a year. Then they asked him to sign a five-year contract and then several more five-year contracts.

He honed the Whipple character, using his flexible face to show exasperation, frustration and embarrassment that ultimately created a likable image. "At first they wanted a gruff Mr. Whipple, but I'm not a gruff guy," Wilson said. "I have this half-smile, and they liked that."

Although memorizing a script now isn't as easy as it once was, Wilson said the makers of the Charmin commercial have gone to great pains to accommodate him, and for that he is grateful.

His contract runs out at the end of December. The ad agency handling the account has an option clause that could keep Mr. Whipple on the commercial airwaves for six months after that, between January and June, but he doesn't believe he is going to continue.

"I'm 83 years old," he said. "I can't keep doing this forever."

Wilson says when his contract ends, he hopes the agency will hire his son, Stuart, to assume the role Wilson made famous. "I've been training him to be Mr. Whipple," Dick said shortly before departing for L.A. "He looks like me if he puts on the glasses."

He said Stuart, who occasionally acts, is interested in the idea and it would give his son the financial security he had for his own family. "He has even appeared as me in a couple of shots," Dick said.

The beloved pitchman, who has no major career plans when his contract ends, has made 504 Charmin commercials since the first one aired, earning him a comfortable living off a role selling a roll of toilet paper.

"It's fitting," quipped the veteran character actor and comedian. "I've played every toilet in America."

Charmin did to Wilson's diverse acting career what World War II couldn't -- the toilet paper all but wiped it out. "When you're doing commercials for somebody, they want you almost exclusively," Wilson said.

Not that he's complaining. Even though Mr. Whipple squeezed the life out of his career as a character actor it allowed him and his wife to raise their family in financial security. And they get a monthly supply of toilet paper for life.

He used to make personal appearances as Mr. Whipple.

"At one appearance a woman asked me what happened to the first Mr. Whipple. I said, 'What do you mean? I am Mr. Whipple.' She said, 'No, that guy died.' She wouldn't believe it was me," he said.

Wilson has no regrets about the direction his professional life took once he donned the Mr. Whipple glasses and grocer's smock.

"I am so lucky," he says.

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