Who’s Here: Charlie Moss, Ad Legend, Actor

Photo: Patrick McMullen

Charlie Moss is one of the great advertising giants of his generation, working on Madison Avenue and coming up with such slogans as I LOVE NY (for the City of New York), QUALITY IS JOB 1 (for Ford) and many, many more award-winning advertising programs. He retired 10 years ago at the age of 61, and has since continued to live in his apartment on Fifth Avenue and his house near the ocean in Wainscott with his wife Susan of many years, but he has not actually retired.

“My wife suggested it. She reminded me that before I had been an advertising writer, I had been a child movie star. Why not go back to acting? And so I have. I’m now a character actor, and have had numerous roles, both in movies and on TV.”

He certainly looks today like a character actor. He has a wild shock of white hair, a hook nose and an untrustworthy look in his eyes. But he is none of that. He also knows it.

“I followed my acting career through to college,” he told me. “I always played the bad guy. I once noticed that whatever role I had, I always seemed to have a pool cue in my hand.”

One of the films Charlie was in as a child was one that won an Academy Award nomination. He didn’t have the lead. But he had the second lead—the bad kid. He was 11 years old at the time. The film was Little Fugitive and the Academy Award nomination was for screenplay. You could look it up.

Charlie Moss was raised in a suburban home in Union, New Jersey. He came from a lower middle-class family. His father was a salesman. His mother was a homemaker. Here’s how he became a child movie star.

“I liked ventriloquism as a boy,” he said. “In school, we had school plays. I was the emcee, or my dummy was, anyway. And my mother encouraged me. I could act, sing and dance. She drove me to the city to take acting lessons at Marie Moser’s Theater and TV Institute on Broadway. I was 11. I loved it.

“One day, some people came by the Institute saying they needed kids for a movie. They asked me to speak. And they hired me. The movie was about a boy who thinks he’s killed his older brother. He runs away from home and off to Coney Island. But it’s just been a prank played on him by a bully. The movie is shot at Coney Island until the older brother gets out here and tells his younger brother to come home. We did it in a series of weekends. My part was the bully.”

As a result of this success, he continued going to acting school and getting parts at auditions, but when he became 14 and started going to Union High School, he found that the rules were more strict.

“I’d read about something I wanted to audition for,” he said. “But the school wouldn’t let me out to go to it. So my parents put me in a full time acting school.”

This was the Lodge Professional Children’s School on the mezzanine floor of the Empire Hotel in Union Square in Manhattan.

“They had a big hall. One table would be for English, another for Math, another for Spanish. I didn’t get a particularly good education there. But I became friends with Sal Mineo. And I got parts in TV shows, usually playing a juvenile delinquent. This is when TV was entirely made live.”

Charlie told me about an episode of Justice he was in on TV. During a one-minute segment, the lead star had to do a quick change of clothes. The producers had a one-minute monologue that someone could speak to the camera to cover the time. They asked Charlie to do it and he did, pretty well.

“I had a friend at this school named Charlie Brill. In our senior year, he said he was going to go to Ithaca College where they had a good acting program and I should come too, so I decided to apply. When I did, the college asked for my high school transcript. But when I went and asked for it from the principal, he said they didn’t have transcripts, but if I’d like one we could make it up. ‘How did you do in English?’ he asked. ‘I think a B,’ I said. So he gave me a B. ‘How about Science?’ ‘Not so good,’ I said. ‘Give me a C.’”

So he got into Ithaca. But Steve Brill had changed his mind and didn’t go. But Moss enjoyed Ithaca and graduated in 1961.

It was after college that he saw something on TV that changed his life. He realized now he had to get a real job. And acting wasn’t going to do it for him. He got a job selling magazine subscriptions on the telephone. He hated it. But then he saw Mike Wallace on TV interviewing Bill Bernbach, the legendary advertising man at Doyle Dane and Bernbach.

“I thought Wow! That would be great!”

So he made a list of five big ad agencies and went to see them all, and they all rejected him. In doing this, however, he came to the attention of Sue Brock, the assistant to Mary Wells at Doyle Dane. He had created a portfolio of ads to show around. They weren’t real, of course. He hadn’t done any. But they showcased his talent nevertheless. One of these ads was for a full page in a magazine. It consisted entirely of a photograph of an orange, with a single line of copy above it. OUR ORANGE JUICE FACTORY it said.

“Sue Brock said they didn’t have a job opening, but she had something she wanted to offer me. One of their copywriters, Bill Levinson, was teaching a course in advertising at night at NYU. If I wanted to go to that, she could arrange it without fee. I said great. In the first ten minutes of taking this eight-week course, the veil fell from my eyes.”

That course got him his first job in advertising. “I got $85 a week as a Junior Writer at Doyle Dane and Bernbach. I stayed there three years.”

Moss worked on the Rheingold Beer account. He recalled one piece of work he did for them. They were the beer sponsor for the New York Mets, who were a terrible team in those years.

“I got this idea. ‘If the Mets Win Six Straight, We’ll Give Everyone a Beer.’ Rheingold loved it. They’d give a free beer to everyone in the stadium. But the Mets turned it down. They seemed to see it as an insult, which, I guess, it was.”

After the third year, Mary Wells left DDB to go to Tinker. She asked Moss to come along, and he did.

He wrote ads for Branff, the airline, which was at that time featuring stewardesses in high-fashion clothes. THE END OF THE PLAIN PLANE, Moss wrote. WE WON’T GET YOU THERE FASTER, BUT IT WILL SEEM THAT WAY.

He became head writer on the Branff account, and three years later, at Mary’s request, became Creative Director of the agency. And at that position he won every major award offered by the advertising industry.

For the Javelin, a new American car, he did a TV commercial showing a driving instructor being driven crazy by students backing up into things, going right when they signal left, making sudden stops and starts. THE TEACHERS AREN’T GOING TO HOLD UP LIKE THE CAR HELD UP he wrote.

For TWA Airlines, he put together an employee morale campaign on TV. OUR PEOPLE MAKE YOU HAPPY, WE MAKE THEM HAPPY was the theme. Viewers could vote for their favorite employee and the company would choose one and pay him a $1 million bonus.

“At the end of one commercial, for example, a skycap, carrying the passenger and all his luggage at the same time turns to the passenger and says ‘it’s Jones, J-O-N-E-S.’ These were very cinematic commercials. We were for the first time doing little films on television, with a beginning, middle and end.”

The people who award Cleos thought that too.

Moss told me a wonderful anecdote about Mary Wells.

“I was Creative Director for 15 years and she was very tough to work for and very funny. She treated me as the house slave. I couldn’t go on vacation. She’d get upset if I left even for a day. If I was out a day she’d call me wherever I was. Get back here. And she wrote me letters a lot. Once I got a 12-page letter she wrote to me longhand, filled with complaints. This was on scented stationery.”

He did famous work for BIC pens. He did famous work for Alka-Seltzer. I CAN’T BELIEVE I ATE THE WHOLE THING.

He moved to Gracie Square. Then he moved to Fifth Avenue around 75th Street. He had two children, Sam and Mary. He and Susan were a huge success.

At a certain point, about ten years ago, Mary wanted to promote him to President of her company, Wells, Rich and Green. He told her he didn’t want to wear a suit every day and sit in a corner office. No thanks. And so, he retired.

And so, Charlie Moss returned to another career that he loved. Acting.

He played the part of Carl Sagan in the film Constellations. He appeared as a judge in Person of Interest. On TV, he had a role in a segment of Law and Order. And he had another in the TV series Smash, about the making of a Marilyn Monroe Broadway show.

He joined the Amateur Comedy Club, an all-male club that’s been around forever in its own theatre on 36th Street between Lexington and Third.

“We do three performances a year. Our latest is a production of Ben Hecht’s Moonlight Magnolia.”

And he auditions, during the week when he is in the city. For example, he just auditioned for the part of Mr. Androbus in an upcoming performance of Skin of Our Teeth.

And then he is out here in Wainscott at his property near the ocean and he just wants to do nothing. He reads, he cooks, he entertains friends, goes to friends houses. It’s a lazy life. He is also an avid golfer, two years ago starting the Poxabogue Invitational, a shotgun golf match which includes dinner and drinks. He’s a member of the East Hampton Golf Club but enjoys Poxabogue, which is a public 9-hole course of modest proportions on the Montauk Highway in Sagaponack.

“I fulfilled a lifelong dream last Thanksgiving Day,” he told me. “I parred Poxabogue. Yes I did. Hit every green. I was out there all by myself. The course wasn’t even open. It’s my greatest accomplishment of golf.”

And then, finally, Charlie Moss told me this story. He was out for the weekend in Wainscott at the house when his agent called him to tell him there was a great part that was just right for him, but he had to come into the city to audition.

“I told him I do not shlep all the way back to the city for an audition. And he told me it was for The Sopranos. And I told him well that’s different, I can’t pass up The Sopranos. ‘It’s a very small part,’ my agent told me. ‘It’s just one line.’ Well I’ll go I told

So Charlie took the Jitney back to New York City, took a cab downtown to do the audition, went to the address and up the stairs and he sees 15 guys who look just like him, sitting in a big room. He signs in on the sign-up sheet at the counter. There are 80 people signed up to audition for this

“So here’s the audition. I’m one of four bad guys sitting around a table, playing cards. I’m dealt a hand. Someone says ‘look at your hand,’ so I set down my cards and look at my hand. And this someone says ‘no, not your hand, the cards.’ And so I say my one line. ‘Oh.’ And
that’s it.

“I go back to Wainscott and the next day I get a call back. I’ve been picked for a second look. They’ve whittled it down to five. So I go back in and audition again, but they choose somebody else. Not even a line. Just one word in The Sopranos.”

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