Clara Peller, the diminutive and demanding octogenarian who made "Where's the beef?" a national cry for quality that spilled over from the hamburger grill into the political frying pan, died Tuesday at her home in Chicago.
She was believed to be 86. Her daughter, Marlene Necheles, whose family had shared its home with Mrs. Peller for several years, said, "She died in her sleep."
Necheles said she was not sure of the exact cause of her mother's death, but noted that "she was an elderly lady."
The gruff-talking former cosmetologist burst onto the national television scene in 1984 when, with two other elderly women, she was seen in a commercial for Wendy's hamburger chain examining some buns.
"It certainly is a big bun," says one.
"It's a very big bun," agrees the second. "A big fluffy bun," echoes the first. "A very big fluffy bun," replies the second.
Enter Clara with a booming line that struck the national funny bone.
"Where's the beef? Hey! Where's the beef?"
The phrase not only brought Wendy's a marked increase in business but produced Clara T-shirts, Clara look-alike contests and a round of media appearances in which the 4-foot-10 Mrs. Peller (she had to stand on a box to film the commercial) and her sidekicks, actresses Mildred Lane and Elizabeth Shaw, toured the country.
The phrase even made it into the 1984 political scene, when Vice President Walter Mondale used it to suggest a lack of substance in the proposals of Gary Hart, one of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Her success was credited by many with a national resurgence in the appearance of older people: Bette Davis at 77 on the cover of People magazine; Angela Lansbury starring in the TV series "Murder She Wrote;" the film "Cocoon," a science-fiction adventure set in a retirement community.
But the Wendy's affiliation proved short-lived. Mrs. Peller later appeared in a TV commercial for Campbell Soup Co.'s Prego Plus Spaghetti Sauce, which contains beef.
"I found it (the beef). I really found it," she proudly proclaimed for Campbell's.
But "Clara can only find the beef at one place, Wendy's," said a spokesman for the company in March, 1985, when it ended her contract.
Wendy's said she made $500,000 in 1984 for the "Where's the beef?" ads, but she denied making that much.
"I made some money, which is nice for an older person, but Wendy's made millions because of me," she said.
The fast-food chain reported a 31% increase in annual revenue during its "Where's the beef?" campaign.
Until her death, her age had been reported as varying from 75 to 90, a secret she encouraged.
"Why do people have to worry about how old you are?" she asked a Times interviewer in 1984. "It's what you can do that counts."
A family spokesman said Mrs. Peller never obtained a birth certificate from her native Russia.
A divorcee, she had owned and worked in Chicago-area beauty shops for 35 years.
In keeping with the best of Hollywood legends, she was discovered by Joe Sedelmaier, a producer of commercials who was shooting a scene in a barbershop when he found that no one had thought to hire a manicurist.
He sent an assistant to the nearest beauty shop. Clara returned, looked at Sedelmaier and growled: "How ya doin', honey?"
Earlier this year those initial words of greeting that led to the Wendy's job carried her into an advertising hall of fame established by San Francisco's Museum of Modern Mythology.