Know-it-all no more
After nine years, Canadian Tire has retired its relentlessly handy pitchman
What now for an actor many saw as a tool of oppression, asks Richard Ouzounian
Mar. 18, 2006. 07:59 AM
"Aren't you the Canadian Tire Guy?" asked the waitress as she came over to the table.
"Yes I am," said Ted Simonett. "I mean, yes I was."
For the 52-year-old actor, those last two words will come to mean a world of difference. It was just over a week ago that he was officially told his role as the handy husband on a series of 125 Canadian Tire commercials for the past nine years would cease to be.
"In truth," he confesses, "I expected this to have happened a long time ago. After all, I was the unwanted guest in people's homes for nearly a decade."
During that time, he saw himself morph from a virtually unknown stage actor to one of the most visible faces on this nation's media landscape.
That's all well and good. In fact, it's what every performer dreams of. But what they don't expect to happen is that the recognition will start out as acclaim and wind up as derision.
Simonett saw things change from where people used to happily wave at him on the street to the point where he won one newspaper's poll as "The Most Annoying Canadian," beating out Ben Mulroney.
"It's like being lowered into a wonderful warm pool," is how Simonett describes it, "full of very happy, well-fed barracudas. But suddenly the barracudas start to get a little hungry and you're dead meat."
Even that sensation, Simonett insists, "has been largely restricted to the media and a certain amount of 416 cynicism. To be totally honest, in all the years I've been doing this, only three people have ever come up and insulted me to my face. Hundreds and hundreds of others have had nothing but nice things to say."
None of this is what the Kingston-born performer could have envisioned at 16, when he decided to put down the saxophone in his high school band and play the leading role of Harold Hill in The Music Man instead.
He was instantly hooked on acting, studied at York and Queen's universities and then went off to England. To get into the union, he worked as a stage manager with the English National Opera, moving on to make his professional debut in The Rocky Horror Show.
After three years, he came back to Canada and started a period of nearly non-stop stage work.
"I characterize myself as a light comic actor," he suggests modestly, "and that fit perfectly with all the cabarets and dinner theatres that flourished in Toronto during the 1980s." In 1983, while starring in a production of Cabaret at the St. Lawrence Centre, he met dancer/choreographer Madeline Paul, to whom he has been married since 1991.
Simonett did his fair share of TV and film work and was even flown to Los Angeles to audition for the role in Moonlighting that later made Bruce Willis a star.
But in the 1990s, the kind of theatre Simonett excelled at started drying up.
When work grew scarce, he exploited his penchant for photography and set up a kind of cottage industry providing headshots for fellow actors' resumés.
Then, in 1997, he was asked to audition for a single commercial for Canadian Tire.
"I remember it well," he chuckles. "I was selling Robo-Grip Pliers. I remember thinking at the time how funny that was, because I am at best a reluctant handyman."
To this day, Simonett has no idea why he was picked other than the possible reason that "I had a beard then and so did Bob Villa, who was very popular."
That one commercial led to three the following year, then more and more, until finally "they officially put me under contract." Simonett noticed a slight shift in tone at that point.
"I stopped talking directly to the camera and started interacting more with my neighbours, which is one of the things that some people later said seemed to bother them."
But at first, all was bliss.
Simonett began to be recognized everywhere he went "with the amazing exception of Canadian Tire stores. I'd go shopping there and my picture would be everywhere, but no one would say anything. I guess it's like they expected to find me there."
If there was any backlash, it kept fairly under the radar until last fall.
Then, in its Oct. 31 issue, Maclean's magazine devoted its cover to "The Age of the Wuss," with a grinning picture of Simonett.
"We had no idea it was coming. My wife was at the dentist's that morning when their copy of Maclean's was delivered. That's how we found out ..."
It seemed to release the floodgates and suddenly the media were full of people ranting about how much they hated "the Canadian Tire Guy."
"I knew they didn't really mean me personally," he reasons, "just the character I was playing. You try to take it all with a grain of salt. But it still hurts."
Despite rumours to the contrary, it wasn't that magazine cover, nor the subsequent venom it unleashed, that led to the commercials being cancelled.
"That was in the works for a long time," he insists. "We knew the spring before that we probably would be bringing it all to an end soon. We were on the air for nine years. Good God, I completely understand that."
Financial worries aren't a big part of Simonett's picture because "I was more than fairly compensated for the work I did. However, if this was America, I'd be set for life, which I'm not."
In the future, he'd like to get back on the stage again.
"I recently emceed a friend's CD launch and it was the first live performing I'd done in five years. I was petrified, but it was so much fun."
He laughs. "Don't you think a lot of theatres would do well if they cast me as the villain in one of their productions?"
Looking back at it all, Simonett calmly declares that "if I were asked to do it all again, knowing everything I know now, I'd still sign on for it.
"I had a whole career before and I hope I'll have a whole career after, but I think I will probably be the Canadian Tire Guy for the rest of my life."