Michael Vale, the durable character actor who starred in more than 100 Dunkin’ Donuts commercials as the early-rising Fred the Baker and joked that he got paid in doughnuts, has died. He was 83.
Vale died Saturday at New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City of complications from diabetes, said his son, Tracy Vale of Los Angeles.
The Brooklyn-born character actor was a veteran of a dozen Broadway shows, a handful of movies and about 1,000 commercials when he joined some 300 other actors for a Dunkin’ Donuts casting call in 1982.
About 40 of the contenders, including the short, folksy Vale, were called back to try their lines as the self-sacrificing Fred, who would rise each morning at 4 to help boost Dunkin’ Donuts into the world’s largest coffee and doughnut chain.
“The first time he said ‘Time to make the doughnuts,’ we were hysterical,” Ron Berger, partner and creative director of the company’s advertising agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer Euro RSCG, told the Boston Herald in 1997. “We knew the importance of the role. It was such that you want someone that people are going to like and definitely relate to. Michael was it.”
Vale became the personification of the burgeoning doughnut chain.
The phrase “time to make doughnuts,” which he uttered so memorably and so often for 15 years, was used as the title for a 2001 autobiography by Dunkin’ Donuts founder William Rosenberg.
Police officers, known for a love of doughnuts and coffee, were special fans -- even pulling Vale over as he drove down the highway, just to get an autograph.
Vale’s long run as doughnut spokesman put him into advertising annals along with other durable fictional pitchmen such as Madge the manicurist for Palmolive dish detergent and the Maytag repair man.
He became such a marketing icon that when the company wanted a new advertising campaign, it first surveyed customers to determine the reaction to Fred’s possible departure. Customers said Fred could leave -- if he were treated like an honored friend and employee.
So Dunkin’ Donuts devised an official “retirement” celebration for him, including a Boston parade and free doughnuts for an estimated 6 million customers on Sept. 22, 1997.
To condition his fans for his impending departure, Vale made a special series of commercials in which “Fred” discussed retirement with politician Bob Dole and athletes Mary Lou Retton, Sugar Ray Leonard and Larry Bird.
Like the celebrity he was, Vale made the rounds of morning talk shows and other news media, reflecting on his life as the early-rising baker.
Asked by Entertainment Weekly if he had ever actually made doughnuts, Vale quipped: “I’m on record as having made one. I didn’t add the sprinkles or frosting -- I was too exhausted.”
He didn’t get up at 4 a.m. either, he confessed. It was more like 8 or 9.
Vale was given a retirement job as ambassador for the company’s charitable programs, billed as a “Dunkin’ Diplomat.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, Vale was dubbed “the actor” by his childhood friends because of his ability to imitate various ballplayers or other celebrities. After serving in the Army Signal Corps in Europe during World War II, he studied at the Dramatic Workshop at New York City’s New School.
One of his earliest appearances was in a summer stock production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Androcles and the Lion.” Vale later described his modest role: “I was thrown to the lions.”
He made his Broadway debut in a show called “The Egg,” which ran less than a month.
His most successful Broadway role was as Harold the hypochondriac doctor in “The Impossible Years,” which opened in 1965 and ran for two years.
Vale appeared in several television series, including “Car 54, Where Are You?” in the early 1960s and “The Cosby Show” in 1987.
On the big screen, he was a cabdriver in “A Hatful of Rain” in 1957 and a jewelry salesman in “Marathon Man” in 1976.
The actor described working with British leading man Laurence Olivier in “Marathon Man” as “the most wonderful experience of my life.”
In addition to his son, Vale is survived by his wife, Nancy; daughter, Ivy Vale Reil of New York City, and a granddaughter.
A memorial service in New York will be planned at a later date.