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WHETTING A THIRST FOR THEATER

It’s been 25 years since Bill Sak studied acting with Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand at the Theatre Studio of New York. He has since watched them win Academy Awards, and admits to envy.

Sak has traveled a less illustrious road: For the last 14 years, he’s slung bottled water over his shoulder as Ray, the Sparkletts delivery man.

In each commercial he drives his truck into a different situation and dispenses water and advice. Typical of the 12 he’s filmed: A family’s roadside cafe is failing until Ray convinces them that bottled water will improve the coffee.

Then there’s the one with the sweet old lady, who offers Ray fresh-baked cookies as he tosses a bone to her bloodhound, Leon--all the while extolling the virtues of his product.

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“Thank God for commercials,” Sak, 46, said smiling. “They give me the latitude to go out and do Equity Waiver theater. I would pay to do it.”

At home, Sak is as friendly and accommodating as his Sparkletts character, pointing out the hot tub he built himself, the swimming pool he’s had redone and stacks of lumber for the redwood deck he plans to construct with his own hands.

“I’m redoing the three upstairs bedrooms,” Sak said of the Hollywood Hills home he bought in 1974. “The house was in such bad shape and so cheap, I put the down payment on my Master Charge card and paid it off with a Cadillac commercial I did that year.”

He hopes to borrow against his home to buy a small theater. “My dream is to have my own theater where I can put on original material,” he said.

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Among the plays he’d like to produce are his own. A writer-turned-actor, unmarried, unattached, Sak pounds the typewriter keys late into the night.

He doesn’t like being noticed when he goes out, but is even more uncomfortable when he sees himself on television. He always leaves the room, he said, when his commercial is aired. That’s why he likes character parts--he says he’s able to lose himself in them--especially the ones he writes.

“My original love is writing. That’s what I studied at the University of North Dakota; then I became a newspaperman. Between writing obits and checking the police blotter I realized I couldn’t take it.”

Sak left North Dakota and his father’s wholesale news distribution business and moved to New York to study acting.

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“I wanted to act, but I thought it was like asking to be King of England. I knew somebody had the job,” he smiles, “but I wasn’t sure how to get hired.”

Sak became the janitor at the Theatre Studio and slept there. He joined a gym so he could shower, persevering for months until he became a member of the Cecilwood Theater in upstate New York.

He joined several more stock companies, and held the usual out-of-work-actor jobs--waiter, construction worker, carpenter. He finally made it to Broadway in “The Great White Hope” with James Earl Jones, in which he played a variety of roles.

Then he worked the sound and lighting at the Village Gate jazz club for six years, until ErrollGarner hired him as his road manager. But Sak missed acting and after two years he decided to give it a try here in 1969.

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“I played a lot of basketball and wrote a lot of screenplays, since I couldn’t find any acting jobs. Fortunately, I also did some carpentry work for (commercial director) Stu Hagmann and he gave me that Cadillac commercial. I did 8 to 10 commercials that year and couldn’t believe my luck.”

By the time he did a Texaco spot with Bob Hope, he was a believer. Then came the audition for the Sparkletts commercial.

“I was so sure I didn’t get the part that I tore up the script as soon as I walked out the door,” Sak said. “They had seen all kinds of guys. They wanted a blonde and later they told me all they were getting was surfers or rednecks. When they saw my video, they said I was their guy.

“I’m glad, because I love what I’m doing.”

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