August 4, 1902|
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||August 11, 1987
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Clara Peller (August 4, 1902 – August 11, 1987), was a manicurist and American character actress who, at the age of 81, starred in the 1984 "Where's the beef?" advertising campaign for the Wendy's fast food restaurant chain, created by the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample advertising agency.
Life and career
Born in Illinois, Clara Peller lived for most of her early life in Chicago, although she later moved to the suburban North Shore area to be near her daughter. Married at age 20 to a local jeweler, she was divorced eight years later, with two children, a boy and a girl. She worked for 35 years as a manicurist at a local Chicago beauty salon.
At age 80, Peller was hired as a temporary manicurist for a television commercial set in a Chicago barbershop. Impressed by her no-nonsense manners and unique voice, the agency later asked her to sign a contract as an actress for the agency. Though hard of hearing and suffering from emphysema, which limited her ability to speak long lines of dialogue, Peller was quickly used in a number of TV spot advertisements, including a new commercial for the Wendy's Restaurant chain.
First airing on January 10, 1984, the Wendy's commercial portrayed a fictional fast-food competitor entitled "Big Bun", where three elderly ladies are served an enormous hamburger bun containing a minuscule hamburger patty. While two of the women are commenting on the size of the bun, they are interrupted by an irascible Peller, who looks around in vain for customer assistance while making the outraged demand: "Where's the beef!" Sequels featured a crotchety Peller yelling her famous line in various scenes, such as storming drive-thru counters, or in telephone calls to a fast-food executive attempting to relax on his yacht, the 'S.S. Big Bun'.
Peller's "Where's the beef" line instantly became a catchphrase across the United States. The diminutive octogenarian actress made the three-word phrase a cultural phenomenon, and herself a cult star. At Wendy's, sales jumped 31% to $945 million in 1985 worldwide. Wendy's senior vice president for communications, Denny Lynch, stated at the time that "with Clara we accomplished as much in five weeks as we did in 14½ years." Former Vice-President Walter Mondale also used the line against rival Senator Gary Hart in his bid for the Democratic nomination in the 1984 presidential campaign.
While hugely popular, the advertising campaign proved to be short-lived, at least for Wendy's. Peller had made actor scale wages - $317.40 per day - for the initial Wendy's TV commercial of the campaign in January 1984. Her fee for subsequent work as a Wendy's spokesperson was not disclosed, though Peller admitted in an interview with People magazine to having earned US$30,000 from the first two commercials and profits from product tie-in sales. Wendy's later alleged that the company had paid Peller a total of $500,000 for her work on the campaign, though Peller denied earning that much.
Per the terms of her Screen Actors Guild union contract, the actress was free to participate in any commercials for products, goods or services, which did not directly compete with Wendy's hamburgers. She subsequently signed a contract with the Campbell Soup Company to appear in an advertisement for Prego Pasta Plus spaghetti sauce. In the Prego commercial, Peller examines the Prego sauce and after wondering "Where's the beef?" declares, "I found it! I really found it". However, after the Prego commercial aired on television in 1985, Wendy's management decided to terminate her contract, contending that the Prego commercial implies "that Clara found the beef at somewhere other than Wendy's restaurants". In announcing the dismissal, Wendy's Denny Lynch stated, "Clara can find the beef only in one place, and that is Wendy's". Peller's response was short and swift: "I've made them millions, and they don't appreciate me."
Following the conclusion of the "Where's the beef" campaign, Wendy's Restaurants entered a two-year sales slump. Vice President Lynch later admitted that consumer awareness of the Wendy's brand did not recover for another five years, with the advent of a new, humorous line of TV commercials featuring the brand's founder, Dave Thomas.
Final appearances and death
Despite the setback with Wendy's, Peller continued to make the most of her new-found fame, granting numerous press interviews and making several guest TV appearances. She regularly amused interviewers and friends by claiming not to know exactly how old she was, once telling a frustrated Social Security clerk (who was given three different ages by Ms. Peller) that she was "whichever one will get me Social Security." On April 14, 1984, Peller made an uncredited cameo appearance on Saturday Night Live which was guest hosted that night by 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. She also made an appearance in the low-budget 1985 Neal Israel comedy, Moving Violations, alongside John Murray, Sally Kellerman, Fred Willard, and Jennifer Tilly, where she played the straight-man friend to Nedra Volz's character who was a haphazard driver needing to renew her license at traffic school. In that film, Peller uttered “Where’s the bags?”—a reference to her Wendy’s commercials fame. In Larry Cohen’s The Stuff, she appeared with Abe Vigoda in a commercial shouting, “Where’s the stuff?” On April 7, 1986, she made an appearance at WrestleMania 2 at Chicago's Rosemont Horizon, where she was the guest time keeper for the 20-man invitational over-the top-rope Battle royal involving both wrestlers and NFL players of the 1970s and ’80s.
Peller died on August 11, 1987, in Chicago, one week after her 85th birthday. She is buried in Waldheim Jewish Cemetery.
- "Advertising Mascots > Clara Peller "Where's the Beef!" (Wendy's Hamburgers)". Tv Acres. Retrieved 2013-04-03.
- Seger, Linda, Creating Unforgettable Characters, New York: Macmillan Press (1990), ISBN 0-8050-1171-4, ISBN 978-0-8050-1171-5, p. 25
- Where's The Beef Commercial, Remembering Matters, 23 February 2008
- Where's The Beef - Drive-Thru Commercial
- Time Magazine, Prime Ribbing, 26 March 1984
- Investments: An Affirmative Action; Advertising: It's Over There, in the Spaghetti Time Magazine, 1 April 1985
- Germond, Jack, Witcover, Jules, Goldman, Peter, Fuller, Tony, and Henry, William A. III, Why Gary Hart Lost, October 1985
- The New York Times, Clara Peller - The Actress In Where's The Beef TV Ads Obituaries, 12 August 1987
- Armstrong, Lois, Here's The Beef, People Magazine, 2 April 1984, Vol. 21 No. 13
- Time Magazine, Investments: An Affirmative Action; Advertising: It's Over There, in the Spaghetti 1 April 1985
- Clara Peller, Advertising Mascots-People, TVacres.com
- Wendy's Shuffles Command; High Level Execs Put In Charge Of Store Groups, Nation's Restaurant News, 18 May 1987
- Foltz, Kim, The Media Business: Advertising; At Wendy's, Folksiness Is Effective, The New York Times, 22 August 1990
- Clara Peller at Find a Grave