Wednesday, 23 February 2022

Meatball Man

He was a star on the stage, he was an award-winner, he was all over television 50 years ago. But anyone who saw him back then likely doesn’t know his name.

For the record, it’s Jack Somack.

He’s immortalised in minds of those watching TV in the early ‘70s for the words “Mamma Mia, thatsa spicy meatball.” Yes, Somack is the guy who starred in the commercial-within-a-commercial for Alka Seltzer. It was a monster hit with viewers. People could identify with the plight of the man in the phoney commercial.

At least three syndicated columnists out of New York sought out Somack. Here’s one report, published January 9, 1971.

Jack Somack Has Discovered It’s Never Too Late For Acting

TV Key
NEW YORK — Thirty-five years ago when Jack Somack went out into the Depression-ridden streets of Chicago to find a career for himself, he was aware of one thing: He did not look like an actor. Given his choice, he would have chosen a life in the theatre because he had always liked acting and felt quite at home on the stage in amateur productions. But he also enjoyed eating, and he entered the world of commerce where he spent a good part of his life as a traveling representative for a chemical company, raising a family and taking care of his theatrical ambitions by joining little theatre groups wherever his work relocated him.
Today, at 52, Jack Somack is a successful actor who built a career on one basic fact: He does not look like an actor.
His meteoric rise to fame began four years ago when he was appearing gratis in a workshop production of “The Seagull.” The theatre being used also housed an off-Broadway revival of “A View from the Bridge” and author Arthur Miller and director Ulo Grosbard caught amateur Somack’s performance and he was asked to take over the lead in “A View from the Bridge.”
"I didn’t even have an Equity card,” he recalls. “But I played it straight, went to the Union and undoubtedly became the oldest man ever to receive a junior membership. Then I talked it over with my wife. We had put the kids through college and I thought now I’d like to take that chance I couldn’t take in the ’30s. She went along and I became the star of an off Broadway play at seventy-five a week.”
Within a year, he was earning more in a good month than he might have expected in his best year in business. The non-actor face and physique turned out to be readily merchandiseable in the lucrative field of commercials. If your set is on at this moment, you can probably catch Jack as the man eating “thatsa spicy meatball” in the amusing Alka-Seltzer commercial. For delivering that frustrating line so well, the scale pay—according to Jack—is $8,000 for the amount of times that particular spot has been seen and, he adds proudly, he now receives well over scale wages.
And ‘‘Thatsa spicy meatball” is just one of many commercials in which Somack appears. “Now the nondescript face is a tremendous advantage,” he points out. I somehow look different in every situation and I am able to appear in as many as six commercials which are being telecast in the same 13-week cycle without any of the sponsors complaining. Naturally, I don’t do competitive products.”
But Somack is doing a lot more than getting rich in commercials. He is soon to open off-Broadway in a play “The Shrinking Bride” which he can afford to do because of the income he receives from the sales pitches. He recently completed his first important role in a feature film with Shirley MacLaine, and he played in “The Price” on tour. He even made it on Broadway last year in a short-lived little farce called “Paris Is Out” with Molly Picon.
He’s been a professional actor for four years but he still hasn’t recovered from the thrill of finally finding himself after so many years in the world of commerce. "I honestly expect to hear the phone ring some morning and when I pick it up I'll find out that this has all been a dream, I’ve overslept, and it’s the factory calling to tell me I’m fired.”

This is from the Newspaper Enterprise Association, October 13, 1971

Road to Success Is Paved with Spicy Meatballs

HOLLYWOOD – (NEA) – If you follow Jack Somack's advice, you'll take spicy meatballs for your headache.
Somack's story is one of those lovely, incredible tales that make Horatio Alger's heroes look like the Born Loser. Until five years ago, he was in the chemical business, selling his wares like Willy Loman for a quarter of a century.
He had always wanted to act. And over those 25 years he participated in little theater activities wherever he was based —Memphis, Tenn., Lexington, Ky., Jacksonville, Fla., Pittsburgh. He estimates he had the leading role in some 50 plays during that span.
"But I always had headaches, he says. "Constant headaches."
• • •
HE SAYS he dreamed constantly of turning professional, giving up chemicals for greasepaint.
It was only that — a dream. He couldn't give up a steady income for the wispiness of an acting career, certainly not with a wife and two kids to support.
But by 1966 things had changed with the Somack family. His son was in the Peace Corps and his daughter was a senior in college. He suddenly realized the days of financial drain were over.
"So I said to my wife, 'if I can make $200 a week, we can get by and I'd like to try,'" he says. "And she said, 'Go ahead.'"
WITHIN A few months he had replaced Richard Castellano in "A View From the Bridge" on Broadway. And he also began a career in commercials that was to lead him, ultimately, to Hollywood.
He did dozens of them, notably the man with the cymbals for TWA, the harried driving instructor for Americana Motors, and his masterpiece, the spicy meatballs commercial for Alka-Seltzer.
He says 80 per cent of that most famous of commercials was improvised. They just kept shooting and he kept improvising and they wound up with enough for 10 commercials.
"I made more money on that," he says, "than I'm making in my first movie — but that's not true of my next movie. I made more in one day on that than I'll make in 10 weeks on this."
• • •
HE SAYS few people recognized him in the spicy meatballs spot. He called his mother in Chicago and told her to watch it. She said she already had. and had remarked to his father, "Jack could have done that commercial."
His agent put together a 7 1/2-minute film, consisting of those three commercials and a bit he had done on N.Y.P.D. and submitted it to Warner Bros., then casting "Portnoy's Complaint."
Now Jack Somack is co-starring with Richard Benjamin and Lee Grant in the film, playing Portnoy’s constipated father. He's loved every minute of every day since he turned pro in ’66.
"I haven't had a headache in five years," he says.
• • •
THE PART in "Portnoy’s Complaint" is, of course, the current culmination of the dream. He read the book when it was first published but the idea of playing a part in it was then beyond his wildest reveries.
“This is like a dream world,” he says. "I love Hollywood. I was here" three years ago for four days, making a commercial, but I saw nothing. Now I'm like a kid on a holiday. We love it here and we hope to stay. Warner Bros, has an option for three more films, so I think I’ve found a new home."
He says that everything has broken well for him since he made his big decision five years ago. What ever he touches turns out well — he sold most of his stock before the market took its big drop and if he loses an acting job a better one comes along the next day.
So if you've always wanted to act, don't let age stop you — do as Jack Somack did and become an actor. Only be sure you also have 25 years of experience before you do it.

The commercial won the grand sweepstakes award at the 11th Annual International Broadcasting Awards in Hollywood, with laughter and applause ringing out throughout its showing over a Century Plaza Hotel stage.

While no one gets a screen credit on a commercial, Somack got an unusual one in 1983 on an episode of Benson: “In Memory of Jack Somack.” He was supposed to play a plumber but died during rehearsal of a massive heart attack. He was 64.


  1. I remember that he was in a late 1970s animated special based on the Little Rascals, as a hilariously deadpan sidewalk Santa who kept droning "ho ho ho merry christmas ho ho ho" with absolutely no emotion.

  2. The irony in Jack Somack's passing is that the plumber in which he was to play on the episode of BENSON entitled "Down the Drain" was also to die while fixing Benson's kitchen sink.

  3. I enjoyed his returning Mr. Cotterman character in " Barney Miller ". It would be interesting seeing the entire reel of the famous " Alka-Seltzer " spot. I'm sure there are some side splitting adlibs.

  4. the woman who played his wife in the Alka Seltzer commercial was the mother of former WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate. Lopate was unceremoniously dumped early on in the political correctness movement for supposedly harassing female co workers, but many thought it was a salary dump or an excuse to get rid of an old timer. He had a great interview show at noon every day with interesting guests and intelligent questions, perhaps too intelligent for people nowadays

    1. Hopefully you're aware that Lopate now hosts a one-hour program weekdays at 1pm on WBAI.