Volume 18 • Issue 15 | September 01 - 08, 2005

The Dell Dude shines Off-Broadway

Ben Curtis turns to his true passion, theater

By Scott Harrah

“Dude, you’re gettin’ a Dell!”

Ben Curtis, who is currently starring in the hit Off-Broadway romantic comedy “Joy” in the West Village, will probably never live down that immortal catchphrase that made him an international celebrity five years ago. In 2000, the Tennessee native was just a teenager. After a string of TV commercials featuring Curtis as Steven the Dell Dude—a blond surfer type that reminded many of a cross between Sean Penn’s lovable pothead Jeff Spicola in the 1982 cult film Fast Times At Ridgemont High and goofy Eddie Haskell in Leave It to Beaver—he became an instant Madison Avenue pop icon.

The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that Dell Computer’s market share went up 16.5 percent as a result of the ads, and the Dell Dude became so popular that Dell spun off a clothing line of “Dude Gear,” all of which resulted in some big paychecks for Curtis. The Dell Dude mushroomed into an advertising phenomenon as synonymous with Dell Computer as Mr. Whipple was with Charmin. Curtis was parodied on Saturday Night Live and appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He soon moved to New York, put himself through NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and basked in a level of success that most actors his age only dreamed about.

However, Curtis’s fast track to stardom was quickly thwarted on February 9, 2003. He had been invited to a Scottish-themed party and was wearing a kilt and a tuxedo top. While still dressed in costume, he went to a Lower East Side street corner, allegedly purchased a small bag of marijuana—and was arrested. Curtis spent one night in jail and charges were later dropped, but all the negative media attention prompted Dell to fire Curtis as a spokesman shortly afterward.

Sitting in the back row of the Actors’ Playhouse one muggy August night before a preview performance of Joy, the down-to-earth Curtis, now 23, was incredibly articulate and nothing like the simple “dude” from the Dell ads. He had no problem discussing the scandal and admitted that the incident was actually a blessing.

“It was bad timing as far as Dell was concerned, but it was the best thing that happened to me because it was the greatest learning lesson I’ve had in my life,” Curtis said of his arrest. “My life was out of control after living through 9/11, and I really needed to just go take care of myself. No matter how rich or famous you get, you can never really enjoy it unless it’s for the right reasons. It wasn’t for the right reasons at the time.”

The whole Dell Dude experience became overwhelming for Curtis. “It was such a huge thing at the time, and I’ve never been able to grasp exactly how big it was and what it was,” he said, adding that he was recognized everywhere he went, from America to Europe to Japan. “It was almost incomprehensible to become that big out of nowhere.”

After losing the Dell contract, Curtis quickly immersed himself in his true passions, the theater and performing onstage. He did a live comedy show at Irving Plaza with Robert Smigel’s outrageous, potty-mouthed puppet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and comic luminaries Will Farrell, Adam Sandler, and Conan O’Brien. “He [Triumph the Insult Comic Dog] told me that he was going to tear me to pieces, and I decided it would be a great experience,” he said. “That was really amazing and gave me a sense that I could be where all these guys were as far as comedy goes, although most people don’t know that I’m a dramatic actor as well.”

Curtis, who trained at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute and Atlantic Theater Company’s acting conservatory, appeared in numerous dramas and even produced an Equity showcase revival of Israel Horovitz’s dark 1968 play The Indian Wants the Bronx. “I got to play the role originated by Al Pacino and that was one of my dream roles,” he said. “Because of the money I [made] from Dell, I was able to executive produce and act in the role, get the director, cast the cast, and pick a theater. I got to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland and we completely sold out. I did it in response to the [Iraq] war because it’s a play about racial violence—a very evil, homophobic, racist, violent street kid, and that was really a great switch from Dell and helped me show my range.”

When director Ben Rimalower approached Curtis recently with the script for Joy—a 1994 comedy about young gays coming out and falling in love in San Francisco—Curtis jumped at the chance to play the role of Christian, a happy-go-lucky party guy. “We both like to have fun,” Curtis said of the similarities between himself and the character. “[Christian] probably leans more toward the gay side, but we’ve both smoked pot at one point in our life. And we’re both wild and crazy kids that like to have fun and are not afraid to cut up.”

The play was mounted earlier this year in a showcase at the Producers Club and quickly won over critics and audiences alike, so producers decided to bring Joy to the Off-Broadway stage for its current open run.

Curtis, who is straight and has a gay father, said he was intrigued by the play’s themes of freedom, love, and transcending labels. “Theater is really where my heart is at and I want to make a difference in the world, and with an issue that’s split America so much—what greater thing is there than a play about sexuality?” he said. “And it’s a comedy, so getting to make people laugh everyday is a wonderful gift. The character was something I could definitely see possible—it was within my range.”

Did he have any reservations about accepting a gay role? “A little bit, just because I didn’t want to get pegged immediately as a gay actor and I didn’t want people to think I was coming out by doing this,” he said. “I was a little worried that it wouldn’t transfer as well artistically, but I really see it more as a comedy about sexuality. America really does try to peg people as gay, straight or bi now, but all these characters [in Joy] really go past any labels. My father raised me to be open-minded and love people for who they are—and not whom they prefer to have sex with.”

Curtis admits that, in the Producers Club showcase back in February, he did take some ribbing from fellow actors. “I was the only straight man in the last cast, and even other cast members were saying, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re not gay.’ But it was a lot more than just about that for me,” he said.

Curtis definitely has no hang-ups about his own sexuality. In Joy, his character, Christian, canoodles with a male lover and also dresses up in drag three different times, but the concept hardly seemed foreign or strange to Curtis because, he said, he has been friends with gays since his high-school days when his father moved to Atlanta. “I was taken to my first drag show at a place called Blake’s,” he said. “When I went clubbing, the people I had the most fun with were gay men. They were the people that took me on, to the mixed clubs, mixes of gay and straight—those were the most fun in Atlanta. I was the only straight kid back in Tennessee that was really even open to hanging out with gay kids, so that had a lot to do with it.”

Curtis said that he has had some movie roles offered to him recently, but for now he wants to concentrate on the theater and making audiences laugh in Joy. “Mainly my focus is not what’s next but being in the present and doing the best that I can,” he said. “I want to see this show go as far as possible, and I am hoping that people will understand that I can do theater. Theater is wonderful and amazing, if not more so than television can ever be. If there were ever a chance for my fans to take a chance and come see me in anything, Joy would be a great start because the Dell commercials were such a small part of what I’m capable of. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”


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