Omaha native Jim Connor is no rock star, but he’s treated like one when he appears in costume at college football games as the quirky Dr Pepper vendor, Larry Culpepper.
People shout, “Larry! Larry!” They want selfies with him. They grab at him. It’s gotten so hairy for Larry — or sometimes so grim for Jim — that he now is accompanied by security guards.
At the Southeastern Conference championship game last month, he said, “I thought I was going to get trampled by a bunch of 15-year-olds who saw me from far away and came running.”
It’s apparently the price of fame as the TV-commercial spokesman for Dr Pepper, a corporate sponsor of the College Football Playoff series. He will be at the championship game Monday night in Tampa, Florida, pitting Alabama and Clemson.
The successful commercials, created by the Deutsch agency of Los Angeles, draw the admiration of Carter Weitz, chairman and chief creative officer of the Omaha-based Bailey Lauerman agency.
“I absolutely love them,” Weitz said. “It’s refreshing that a brand like Dr Pepper would use a character like Larry Culpepper. He’s not hip, not cool — and a little bit dorky.”
Weitz said Connor brings a lot to the role: “He’s fantastic. It doesn’t hurt that the spots are funny, and he’s funny as well. We all love people who make us laugh.”
Before the season, Connor appeared in costume and in character as Larry on ESPN and was asked to predict the final four teams in the playoff. He picked Alabama, Clemson, LSU and Nebraska.
“Nebraska?” a surprised ESPN panelist exclaimed to colleagues. “Is he from Nebraska?”
Larry didn’t reply — but Jim certainly is. James Michael Connor, as he is listed in the Screen Actors Guild, is a 1978 graduate of Creighton Prep, where he took part in pep-rally skits with ’79 grad Alexander Payne, now an Oscar-winning filmmaker.
Jim appeared in Payne’s “About Schmidt,” giving a drunken toast at a wedding reception, and has acted on TV shows and in other movies.
But his main profession is TV commercials, and Larry Culpepper is the role of a lifetime. Advertising Age said Dr Pepper screened 575 audition tapes “before it decided that Mr. Connor was the very embodiment of the Larry it had in mind.”
Wearing a Dr Pepper shirt and visor as well as shorts, high socks and a black knee brace, Larry carries a tray of soft drinks in the commercials and shouts: “Ice-cold Dr Pepper heah! Ice COLLLLD!”
He wears flip-up sunglasses and carries an old flip phone, and can be a little flippant. He’s a serial exaggerator, claiming variously that he invented the college football playoff, the Hail Mary pass and high-fives.
Jim Connor hasn’t met another famous Larry from Nebraska, comedian Larry the Cable Guy, Dan Whitney. But when Larry Culpepper slams into a stuck turnstile, slapstick-style, his antics remind you of another Larry, the stooge of old who hung out with fellow numbskulls Curly and Moe.
A couple of new Larry Culpepper commercials will premiere during Monday night’s national title game. But what makes his role different from most, Connor said, are the public appearances.
“That’s one of the most exciting things about this job,” he said last week from the Los Angeles area, where he now lives. “An actor might do a TV show, but with Larry you get to actually be a part of the whole reality, to be a part of the game. It’s an amazing thing.”
Jim typically gets into his costume at his hotel room. From the moment he closes the door behind him, he said, “I’m Larry.”
This is his third year as Larry, and the first with a souped-up RV called the “Tailgate 2000.” On Oct. 29, he was in Madison, Wisconsin, for the game between Nebraska and Wisconsin that the Huskers lost in overtime.
He appeared on the Dr Pepper float in the Holiday Bowl parade in San Diego and afterward had dinner with a Creighton Prep classmate, real estate investor Steve Reeder.
When he watches Jim act in the Larry Culpepper commercials, Steve said last week, he can still see the kid who loved to make people laugh back at Prep.
“Jim was the class clown,” Reeder said. “He was always joking around and having fun. He has taken this Larry role and really made it unique. I’ve seen all his commercials, and they are absolutely hilarious.”
Connor, 56, grew up in Omaha, the youngest of seven children of Edmond and Mary Ann Connor. Jim’s late father was president of Mainelli Mechanical Contracting Co., and his mother taught at St. Bernard Elementary School.
In the Los Angeles area, Jim sees other Prep grads in the entertainment industry who call their group “Hollywood Prep.” They watch Husker football and perform community-service projects.
Larry has been very good to Jim, providing his best paydays in a career that already was going just fine. He hopes to continue with the role for at least another couple of years.
The job is seasonal, though, and he says he’s not in the pay stratosphere of some year-round actors who have become iconic on TV commercials. Among them are “Flo” (Stephanie Courtney) for Progressive Insurance; “Lily” (Milana Vayntrub) for AT&T; and the “Mayhem” guy (Dean Winters) for Allstate Insurance.
But just about everyone now has seen Larry Culpepper. And even if Jim Connor is not a household name, he surely has appeared in lots of households — last year’s national championship college football game was watched by more than 33 million people.
Even when he’s not in his Larry get-up, Jim says, people are starting to recognize him. It may occasionally get scary if people are grabbing at him, but Jim is enjoying what he calls the “Larry phenomenon.”
Hundreds of actors, including some who are widely known, tried out for the role. But the guy from Omaha got it and has run with it.
“The whole thing has just taken off, which is amazing,” he said. “I respect it, and I know it won’t last forever, so I’m trying to have a great time with it.”