Hear Me Now?

The Verizon Guy gets his life back.

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.

In 1998, Marcarelli, Davis, and a few other actors formed Mobius Group, a theater company in the Village, to put on lesser-known works donated by playwrights such as Eric Bogosian and Warren Leight.

Then came the Verizon gig. “When he called to tell us he got the Verizon job, I was driving and I had to pull over,” says Cynthia Silver, a member of Mobius Group. She remembers him exclaiming, “Think of all the plays we can put on!”

At first, Marcarelli was embarrassed about his role as Test Man, but over time he made his peace with it. “The reality was, it was a job,” he says. His contract obligated him to work a couple hundred days a year, which amounted to between 20 and 40 commercials and a steady flow of live events. He offered his catchphrase in front of 85,000 football fans during the halftime show of the Buffalo Bills’ 2002 season opener. “Up to that point,” Marcarelli says, “I hadn’t played to a house larger than 99 seats.”

This peculiar brand of fame was frequently awkward, however. At a cousin’s wedding, he wore “the grayest of gray suits,” but still wound up feeling “like a cafone—Italian for “oaf”—when more people lined up to take pictures with him than with the bride. A few months ago, he attended his grandmother’s funeral. As her body was being lowered into the ground, he heard the hushed voice of a family friend: “Can you hear me now?”

Then there were the drive-bys. Marcarelli has a home in Guilford, Connecticut, and five summers ago, kids in an SUV began driving past at night, yelling, “Can you hear me now?” Later, says Marcarelli, “they started screaming ‘faggot’ up at my house. It got progressively more profane as the years went by.” One night, it happened while some friends were over, and he decided to call the police. “As soon as I hung up the phone,” he says, “I realized that in order for them to do anything about it, it would have to become a report that would go into a police log.” Worried about the publicity—and the questions that might ensue if it came out that the actor playing Test Man was gay—he declined to file a report.

In retrospect, Marcarelli thinks his silence during the Test Man years was largely self-imposed. “I definitely think that my reticence to have any kind of persona outside of this job was that I didn’t want to be put in a position to have to answer any uncomfortable question that would affect my income stream. And I never tested it, so I don’t know.”

Now Marcarelli is focused on his movie, The Green, which is under consideration by film festivals worldwide. (An earlier screenplay of his, Sweet Flame, was optioned in 2005, but the financing was pulled halfway through filming.) “There’s a price to pay,” Marcarelli says of his Verizon years. “Don’t feel bad for me, but I’m definitely glad that chapter is over. Most people my age are now trying to trade in their street cred for money, and I kind of made my money. I still want to make something of value.” He hopes people will be listening.