The "fruits" have done more to popularize underwear than Madonna, and with a whole lot less to work with.
The fruits, as Grey Advertising affectionately calls its creations, include an apple (Harry Goz), a purple grape (Sam Wright), a green grape (Joey Faye) and a leaf (Ray Xito ). Thanks to them--and their predecessors--the Fruit of the Loom logo has come to life for 12 years and more than 5,000 airings, bringing humor to a colorless subject--white cotton briefs.
A few of the original fruits were--or were to become--name actors: Al Molinaro was the apple between stints on "The Odd Couple" (as Murray the Cop) and "Happy Days" (Al of Al's Diner); a nouvelle green grape, the late Joe E. Ross, had starred in "Car 54, Where Are You?" and F. Murray Abraham was a leaf (replacing Bill Hinnant) before landing the role of Salieri in "Amadeus"--and the Best Actor Oscar.
THE APPLE: HARRY GOZ
Harry Goz, the apple, was sitting in a darkened room at Sardi's, just three buildings down from his office. Dressed nattily, with graying temples on his round face, he looked more like a businessman than an opera singer turned actor.
He's the voice that warns of rings around our collars describes the newest orphans among the Cabbage Patch Kids and tributes Right Guard. The fruit commercials take up a small percentage of his time, but they give him a certain identity--even at home: When his son's teacher asked students what their parents did for a living, the boy said, "My Daddy's a fruit on television."
Goz, 54, claims that a real brotherhood stems from the fruit campaign: "We have a secret rapport. That's no baloney. I've known Joey (the grape) for 30 years. We did 'Oklahoma!' together in my hometown St. Louis and he's a master of comedy. The ad lib is in the attitude of these commercials; we work well off each other."
By his count, Goz does more than a thousand spots yearly (mostly voiceovers): "I make more money on commercials than I did on Broadway," Goz said. "But when an agent offered me my first commercial I said, 'I don't do commercials.' I didn't think there was any money in them. Who knew?"
Goz caught the show business bug after hearing "Carmen" at 15. He began studying voice and after hearing Mario Lanza, and in 1956, moved to New York to study with Lanza's teacher, Enrico Rosatti. He toured in a number of operas, but never got to the Met.
It was while touring with the National Chorus of America that he met his future wife and fellow singer, Margaret: "I was touring in 'Rigaletto' when the baby was born and that was the turning point for me. I didn't want to be away from home; that's my Cancerian nature."
Goz was a driving instructor for a year but his wife urged him to return to performing. He eventually landed a supporting role on Broadway in 1964 in "Bajour," a musical-drama about gypsy factions.
Then in 1965, the break: Tevye in the Broadway production of "Fiddler on the Roof" (he followed the late Herschel Bernardi and preceded Paul Lipson and Jan Peerce). It was during the latter part of his five-year run (he was the longest-running Tevye, 1,004 performances) that he began doing spots--for Roblee shoes.
But Broadway roles have been scarce and Goz has become a full-time pitchman: "I love it because I can afford to be home every night. And I can do off-Broadway showcases which are fun for an actor. Also, I prefer the privacy that commercials give me. I've got my cake and ate it, too."
THE LETTUCE: RAY XITO
For the past seven years, diminutive Ray Xito (pronounced zee-toe) has made a comfortable living as the face among the leaves. Otherwise, finding work has been a tall order.
"I realize my type isn't very marketable," Xito said. "There's never been a great run on 5-foot-tall actors. Fruit of the Loom's the best thing that's financially happened to me. It's allowed me to pursue an acting career."
Xito wears his greenish latex-covered leaves on metal spines with utter aplomb.
"I have a flair for comedy," he said. "I hope the commercials show that. Yet, I like to think I can do sensitive stuff. Because of my height, I don't get the chance. Sometimes I feel like Damocles with Fruit of the Loom hanging over my head. I know some day the commercials have to end."
Now 43, he decided to act at 30, after nearly 10 years studying for the Catholic priesthood, which he left at 27. He returned to his birthplace, Newark, and taught English at East Patterson Memorial High. He lasted six months.
"I was floundering," he said. "I had left the structured order of the church, and for the first time in my life I was making my own decisions. I knew when I left the Order that I didn't want to teach but I didn't know anything else."
During a day desk job with the phone company, he began studying with Uta Hagen in New York and appearing with off-off-Broadway's Shade Company at night. After three years, he left Ma Bell for what he hoped would be a full-time acting career. There were a few lines in the Lincoln Center production of "Three Penny Opera," which were enough to get him an Equity card--and then Fruit of the Loom.
He also met and married Kay Foster, now a commercial acting teacher. Then, she was Xito's understudy when he played a dog in a children's play.
Xito also performed in regional theater and blossomed into other commercial spots--for Singer Sewing, the New York Telephone, Polaroid and Federal Express.
GREEN GRAPE: JOEY FAYE
Joey Faye, who plays a bunch of green grapes, has spent most of his 75 years playing second banana to such comic greats as Sid Ceasar, Phil Silvers and Jack Albertson.
Today, he has a library of about 18,000 jokes (he figures a third are original), a wife, Judi, a comfortable Staten Island home and, he claims, the most used costume on Halloween.
"I wear green tights and a leotard with spheres of foam rubber sewn all over it," said the short, pear-shaped comedian, of his grape costume. "It's such an easy costume to make with balloons, and it's so cute--even the rats love it. Once it was stored in a warehouse in between commercials and the rats ate the balls off."
Faye is the oldest of the fruits in terms of both age and length of service--nine years since replacing Joe E. Ross.
He grew up wanting to be a comedian. He spent so much time out of school and at the Palace Theater memorizing lines, he claims, that he was expelled from four high schools.
He left his Italian heritage and his name, Joseph Anthony Palladino, on New York's Lower East Side. His career started in the Catskills, where he made 25 cents a night in amateur contests. He went on to about 30 Broadway plays (including "Room Service," "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "Boy Meets Girl" and "Guys and Dolls"). Plus such films as "Top Banana," "The Tender Trap" and "Ten North Frederick."
But commercials pay his bills. He was the cowboy from Marcal paper products (he was "the fastest sneeze in the West")--and turned his plum part as a Hanes grape into that of a Kellogg's breakfast cereal raisin.
PURPLE GRAPE: SAM WRIGHT
"It's the humor that's made these commercials famous," insists Sam Wright, the purple grape for 11 years. "We'll shoot all day long and when the client goes home and we're relaxed, we do our best work."
One such memorable moment--it was taped and aired--was the spot that ended with an unrehearsed conversation between Goz's apple and Wright's purple grape.
Some grapes (foam rubber balls attached to a latex suit) fell off Wright's anatomically correct costume. Wright held them up and asked the apple if he'd like some grapes.
"Can you peel them?" Goz countered.
"You'd make a great apple pie, cutie," warned Wright.
Yet Wright confessed that he wasn't the bubbly grape that you see on TV when he auditioned for the part: "I thought of myself as an actor's actor. I went to the audition thinking, 'I don't do commercials,' and, 'Yeah, I can't wait to be called a fruit.'
"I was so pompous that I read for the part as if I were James Earl Jones. I was totally purple. I think that's why I got it."
Despite his success as a grape, Wright sometimes works out of town to support his wife, Amanda, and three children in a rambling house in countrified Westchester County (an hour bus ride from the city).
"I don't make that much money with fruit of the Loom," he said. "If the landlord is at the door, I'll go to Texas and do regional theater. I won't mess up my bargaining ability at home (by working off-Broadway). I'd rather hustle outside of town."
Wright had a co-starring role on the short-lived 1984 cop series "Enos." He has pitched Brim Coffee, Kodak Disc cameras, Crisco Oil and Scope mouthwash. Recently he's appeared on "Simon & Simon" and "The Bill Cosby Show" (as a doctor whose daughter was addicted to drugs).
A football and track standout at South Carolina State College, he moved from acting class to off-off-Broadway repertory groups. He was Ben Vereen's understudy and a member of the chorus of "Jesus Christ Superstar" on Broadway and worked steadily for a time. (In England with "Two Gentlemen of Verona," he met his wife.)
In 1974, he took his place as Purple One, and his initial pomposity gave way to pride: "When I travel I realize how much people really dig these commercials all over the country. People recognize me and say I look familiar and want to talk. Fruit of the Loom has captured the spirit of America--it's nutty and sincere. It looks like we'll outlive the Philip Morris boy."