They may not know his name, but people around the world recognize UC Irvine alumnus Windell D. Middlebrooks. He’s the Miller High Life delivery guy in television commercials, famous for dispensing wisecracks and “a big ol’ platter of common sense” along with truckloads of beer.
In fact, it’s his delivery – that folksy Texas drawl, those expressive eyes – that has endeared Middlebrooks to millions. Just check out the classic spot in which he rants about Super Bowl ads, pointing out the absurdity of everything from lizards that hawk insurance to talking detergent stains (www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEtBKJ6J1Kc).
“Two very expensive ads for water,” the deliveryman tells his co-workers. “Water don’t need to be fancy. When I want flavored water, I’ll suck a lollipop.”
“I got a question for you boys,” he continues. “Unibrow aside, would you want to date a woman who smells like nuts? Cashews in particular. I didn’t think so.”
Middlebrooks has become a cult hero to many, thanks to antics such as revoking beer-selling privileges at a snooty French restaurant (www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VGs_rERsQ4: “Eleven-fifty for a hamburger – y’all must be crazy!”). He can get a laugh simply uttering “bean dip” (view his one-second commercials on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfTLqzG0svs).
The hit ad campaign led to more audition opportunities and guest-starring roles, helping him land the role of Dr. Curtis Brumfield on the television drama “Body of Proof,” which lasted three seasons. As he did with the delivery guy, Middlebrooks infused his blustery character with humor and homespun wisdom. He also had a recurring role as security guard Kirby Morris on the Disney Channel series “The Suite Life on Deck.”
He got his charming Southern accent growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, and his everyman persona from his hardworking grandfather and uncles.
Since earning a master’s degree in drama at UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts in 2005, Middlebrooks has worked steadily. His many TV credits include appearances on “Scrubs,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Entourage” and “Parks and Recreation.”
Now living in Los Angeles, he still visits Orange County to support his fellow artists (and occasionally visit Disneyland). He saw Dana Delany’s recent performance in “The Parisian Woman” at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory and attended UC Irvine’s Donald McKayle tribute in March 2012. Interviewed by phone, Middlebrooks says he’ll probably be back on campus someday soon but, until then, “Tell everybody I said, ‘Hey.’”
Why did you decide to go to graduate school at UC Irvine?
After being an undergraduate [at Sterling College] in the middle of Kansas, I came to L.A. and did an internship at a casting office through the Los Angeles Film Studies Center. I got to be on the other side of the table, sitting in on auditions and learning about the casting process. I decided I couldn’t compete with what I saw.
I knew I had the timing, I had the humor, but I wanted to learn how to make it happen when I needed it to happen – over and over. I just didn’t feel ready. I felt I needed to go to grad school.
I chose UC Irvine because I wanted a program on the West Coast that was close to the industry but far enough away for me to focus on acting, where I could take the time to learn what I bring to the table.
After I met [drama professor] Eli Simon and [associate professor of drama] Philip Thompson and got a tour of the campus, I knew that this was the place. I called my mom and said, “I think I found it.”
How did the master’s program here affect your career?
At the end of the three-year program, [graduating actors] do a family showcase, where people [agents, casting directors] come to see the new talent. Because of that show, I came out of school with a commercial agent, a talent agent and a manager. I was represented across the board. I had meetings with CBS, Paramount and other studios. That just jumped my career up seven years. A few months after I moved to Los Angeles, I landed a role in a pilot for a new series on Fox and realized that I needed a manager who better understood my skills and talents, so I signed with a new manager whom, coincidentally, I had gone to school with [Steve Ivey, M.F.A. ’04].
I also benefited from being trained on stage, which we do at UCI. There’s something about it that gives you the ability to do take after take, and do something different and fresh every time. You can be on take 22, and it still has to be honest, real or funny. I learned that at UCI. Because of that training, I could go into auditions with confidence.
People love the Miller High Life delivery guy. How did you land that part?
I graduated from UCI in 2005 and did my first Miller High Life commercial in November 2006.
At the first audition, they didn’t even have me speak – they just wanted to see if I could move beer on a hand truck. Then they asked me to come back for another audition. They kept throwing lines at me – like “Step aside, mon amie!” I did it with an attitude.
So they booked me for three commercials, and at first I thought I’d have lines in one of them and just be moving beer in the other two. And they’re like, “No, you are the guy” [for all the spots]. I called up Steve [Ivey] and said, “I’m the dude!”
We shot the commercials, and everyone was nervous. Here they were showing a guy taking their product back [from the French restaurant]. After they started to run, the ads put Miller back on the map. And they were like, “We need more.”
You’ve done a lot of appearances at sporting events. How did those come about?
We started getting requests from people who wanted to meet the delivery guy. Miller wanted me to do some appearances, but they didn’t know what I was like in person – whether I was some kind of Hollywood type in sunglasses. Instead, they get this country bumpkin bouncing down the escalator saying, “Hey, let’s go!”
The Miller High Life deliveryman doesn’t have a name, so I do him as Windell because he’s so much of who I am. I just put on my shirt and go. I’m still traveling around the country for veterans. [His appearances support the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America and Operation Homefront.]
How did the delivery guy change your life?
I became so recognized. A lot of my other auditions came from those ads. All Steve had to say was, “You know that black guy in the Miller High Life commercials?” And they’d be like, “Oh, yeah, we want to see him.” That’s how I got the role of Kirby on “Suite Life” and the audition for Curtis.
Your character, Dr. Curtis Brumfield, provided a lot of the comic relief on “Body of Proof.” What was it like to play him?
When you’re dealing with something so heavy, like death, you need a place to breathe. It’s been fun to bring that to the show.
I was at the grocery store, and a woman came up to me. She’d seen the exorcism episode we did, and she was so thankful about how we dealt with that, about me being afraid.
It’s just me being who I am. I bring a real honest quality that people can connect with.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to try everything. I love each genre – film, stage, television. I’m reading film scripts, but I want to choose the right projects. I love the stage and want to perform on Broadway someday. I also eventually want to do a multicamera sitcom, because I love comedy. I’m that eclectic. If you’re riding with me in my car, you might hear Rascal Flatts, Jay-Z or Whitney [Houston]. I love different things.
Do you stay in touch with your fellow UC Irvine alumni?
No way can you be in this business and make it on your own. [My career] has been working because I have my friends who came out of the master’s program with me.
[Actress/singer/dancer] Angel Moore-Tanksley graduated the year after me. We are each other’s acting coach. I go to her when I want to prepare for auditions.
Steve Ivey graduated in 2004, so we were already friends. He decided to go into management. He’s been instrumental in developing my career. He believed in me when others didn’t. He was pushing me into rooms, telling casting directors, “He’s what you want.” And here we are.