On a recent chilly afternoon, I met the actor Paul Marcarelli at a wooden bench on University Place in New York City, not far from Washington Square Park. He wore a black down vest, checkered scarf, gray paperboy hat, and wire-rimmed eyeglasses. This last accessory was a concession to reality: Marcarelli had long since realized that, if he hoped to have a relatively normal life, his favorite glasses—Buddy Holly–style plastic frames he’d worn since his mid-20s—would have to be retired from daily use. The frames, like the actor himself, had become synonymous with his most famous role: Test Man—or, more colloquially, “the Verizon Guy”—the iconic pitchman who has uttered his “Can you hear me now?” catchphrase in hundreds of the cell-phone company’s commercials since November 2001.
After nine years in the role, Marcarelli was informed last September, via e-mail, that Verizon was taking its ads in a different direction. He’ll still do some work for the company, but, as Marcarelli puts it, “I’m no longer committed to them like I was.”
That commitment entailed a strange combination of ubiquity and anonymity. Among other things, his initial five-year contract had prohibited him from doing any other commercial work and stipulated that he not discuss any aspect of the Test Man campaign, including the particulars of his contract. (He is still reluctant to go into detail, since he remains under contract with the company.) A 2003 article in Ad Age—titled “Verizon Keeps ‘Test Man’ on Short Leash”—noted that the cellular firm “adamantly maintains … that the actor who plays [Test Man] should certainly not be ‘heard.’” (Indeed, Verizon had declined to verify Marcarelli’s identity even after Ad Age revealed it, in 2002.) The contract was amended in 2006 to include language articulating Marcarelli’s right to promote his own projects, but he still felt hemmed in by the need to protect the character—and with it, his income.
I contacted Marcarelli two and a half years ago, when I first heard the story of his imprisonment behind horn-rims. But he said to try him again in a year. The next time, he said eight months; the time after that, the end of summer 2010. The revision of his Verizon contract has made Marcarelli’s decision to finally talk an easier one, as has his desire to publicize his first big post–Test Man project: The Green, a film he recently wrote and co-produced, starring Jason Butler Harner and Julia Ormond. The movie centers on how a small town slowly turns against a gay couple when one of the men, a schoolteacher, gets ensnared in scandal.
Walking down West Ninth Street near Fifth Avenue, Marcarelli recalls the day in 1994 when he and his high-school friend (and fellow struggling actor) Jen Davis were looking for housing and found a steal on that very block: a one-bedroom in a pre-war townhouse, featuring a stained-glass skylight and the romance of having served as the model for Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in Rear Window. The $835 monthly rent was split among Davis, Marcarelli, and his boyfriend, Rick Gradone.
Marcarelli landed a job doing 30-second commercial spots for Old Navy. “I bought one of those bells that they have at reception desks at hotels,” he said. “Every time one of us saw the commercial, we would hit the bell, because we knew another check was coming”—one worth anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand, depending on circumstances.