R.J. Kelly III ’87 gets paid for taunting children. He also gets laughs. Lots of them.
Kelly, a former SUNY Cortland hockey player, is perhaps best known as the ever-smiling and loveably sleazy corporate guy on the Ally Bank commercials. He offers wide-eyed little kids ponies, toy trucks and other goodies, only to steal them away to make a point about the dangers of fine print.
In his current commercial for AT&T, Kelly plays an adoring dad watching his daughter do ballet on a new HTC One smart phone. The charming, video version of the dancing tot is clearly preferable to the real-life daughter, who viewers learn is in time out.
Nicknamed ‘Hollywood’ as a student, the tirelessly aspiring actor should serve as an inspiration to any SUNY Cortland classmate who was more likely to be spotted roughhousing on the playing fields or wolfing down food in the cafeteria than melting into the furniture of the Memorial Library all-night study room.
“I had the best time here,” Kelly said of the College in a recent telephone interview. He spent two years on the varsity hockey team, played club rugby and invented some sports of his own.
“We used to play full-contact Nerf basketball at my friend’s house,” Kelly said, recalling contests that bordered on brawls at the off-campus apartment of Gary Madura ’88. “Somehow, the thing was seven feet in the air. And I remember going past him and just nailing it, and putting my foot against the wall to jump off against it. And my foot went right through his wall. And I said, ‘Well, see you later dudes.’ That was one you really couldn’t fix with toothpicks.”
Family and professional obligations have kept Kelly, a Darien, Ct., native, bouncing from coast to coast since graduation, and he’s showing no sign of slowing down yet. In addition to being a familiar face in commercials, this summer he had a small, recurring role as a Secret Service agent in the USA Network’s limited-series drama “Political Animals,” starring Sigourney Weaver and Ellen Burstyn.
But if his buddies from the hockey team ever get together on campus, Kelly said he’d find some time for a return trip to Cortland.
“I had a great core group of friends I still keep in touch with and get together with a couple times a year,” Kelly said. “I’ve never been back, but last year I contacted the hockey coach to see if there would be a hockey team reunion at Cortland sometime.”
He recalls times at Cortland when his stomach depended on the kindness of classmates.
“I remember running out of my meal plan points, and running out of them so early. The girls in the dorm would always eat less than the men and would be dieting, and so you would get one of them to run down with you to use some of their meal points on you.”
Kelly can turn most topics into amusing stories. That includes his less-than-stellar academic record.
“After graduation I had dreams, or rather nightmares, for about six years that I didn’t graduate,” Kelly confided. “I’d run in and look at my graduation certificate and breathe a sigh of relief.”
A dutiful son, Kelly had fulfilled his father’s wish that Kelly major in economics, a subject he despised. In return, his parents supported his decision to attend SUNY Cortland, which meant the Connecticut family had to pay a relatively hefty, out-of-state tuition rate.
Kelly is quick to admit he just squeaked through, usually taking only four classes at a time and unable to transfer his French language business credits for one year’s worth of study in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. While abroad, he also played on a business-sponsored, semi-pro hockey team.
“I loved my English classes,” Kelly said. “But I’m awful at numbers, at all math and I just hated economics. My final class was in finance, and I needed it to graduate. I went in and got extra help from my professor, Timothy Phillips, and I took the test. I even wrote on the test ‘I don’t know what I got here, it feels like a B, but I need to get out of here. I cannot stay here any more. I’ve been here almost seven years.’
“I got my B. I graduated.
“It was a great education,” added Kelly, a prep school graduate from Hampton School of New Hampshire. He said he thinks the College stacked up well against any private university he might have attended instead.
Right after graduation, Kelly tried to make a living with his voice and engaging, guy-next-door persona. First he sold telephone yellow page ad space in the Connecticut area.
“I couldn’t stand it,” Kelly said. “You know why? Because I hate selling people (stuff) they don’t want and they don’t need.”
But he made some good friends there.
“I goofed around and kept in touch with them enough that they knew I wanted to do acting. So through them is how I got my first job acting. I had started taking classes in improvised acting at Circle Repertory Theatre.”
Before it closed in 1996, this long-lived Manhattan experimental theatre had trained a long list of eventually famous playwrights and actors. The list includes writers David Mamet, Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams and actors Alec Baldwin, Olympia Dukakis, Laurence Fishburne, Ed Harris, Timothy Hutton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christine Lahti, John Malkovich, Demi Moore, Mary-Louise Parker and Gary Sinise.
Kelly’s first job acting in a commercial was considerably less respectable; an advertisement for Oasis, an establishment that he carefully referred to as a “burlesque bar.”
“I told my dad, ‘Hey, I got a job.’ And he said, ‘Don’t do it. It would be a big mistake.’ I thought it was going to be a really tasteful ad, with me strolling along the beach.
“Cut to — a cheesy trailer that said, ‘It’s no oasis!’ — with me at the bar with the girls dancing and me eating. Of course they wanted to make like it’s a great place to eat, so I’m eating a sandwich while girls are dancing onstage.
“So that was my first commercial,” Kelly said. “And it lasted about five minutes, because it aired during the March madness basketball tournament and everyone started calling the station to say, ‘Take this off the air, I’ve got kids watching.’”
Kelly built his early acting credentials with performances in regional television commercials, voice-overs and small roles in soap operas.
He moved to Los Angeles hoping the proximity to Hollywood would pay off. Between endless auditions and the ad assignments he was able to pick up, he worked as a carpenter to support his growing family: his wife, Jackie; a son, Robert Jackson Kelly IV, 10; and a daughter, Erin Patricia, 5.
Kelly got a big break when he met Hank Perlman, director and owner of Hungry Man Productions, when he shot the video for MLB 2006, a video game about Major League Baseball.
“The director, Hank Perlman of Hungry Man Productions, is a great guy, a great director,” Kelly said. “Afterward, Perlman said, ‘You’re funny. I’d love to work with you again. People have said I’m funny and they’ve never called me back. Hank calls me all the time for auditions. I owe a lot to Hank. Then the Ally Bank ad campaign came up with eight national spots and I booked it.” Since then, I have shot 16 nationals with him.”
The advertising industry considers the eight-ad Ally Bank series to be groundbreaking. Analysts have dissected the effectiveness of the ads, which show indignant young children being hoodwinked, one by one, through the fine print and gimmicks foisted on them by Kelly, acting in the role of “The Other Banks.”
In each, an ordinary-looking child is either cheated during a “fun” activity like hide-and-seek or during a giveaway of childhood booty ranging from candy eggs to real-life ponies. The catch is always the “fine print” or hidden fees.
The tots express genuine, remarkably adult outrage in reaction to Kelly’s bait-and-switch behavior. One child is offered a pony and seems satisfied when she is handed a small, plastic replica. Then a second child is delighted when Kelly chirrups and a live pony ambles up to her. “You didn’t say I had to ask for a real pony,” the first girl remarks with a look of sharp disapproval.
“What it was, A, was a genius campaign,” Kelly said. “And B, the way Hank filmed it was great. He put a little ear bud microphone in my ear and there were hidden cameras for a ‘Candid Camera’ style filming. So the kids’ reactions were real and that’s why they were so great. I had a lot of latitude there, too.
“So (Perlman) would just say to me, ‘Walk them down, start whenever you want.’ Then he’d say, ‘OK, reset’ and he’d whisper suggestions into my ear. He has really great ideas to make things funny and funnier. Each time I reset the action, she would think, ‘I’ve got to get the horse this time, he can’t be that big a jerk.’ That’s where you’d get the real reaction.”
In addition to Ally Bank, Kelly has had roles in national ads for Lowe’s, Trident Layers Gum, a Time Warner Cable spot with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmy Johnson for Certain-Dri, Hershey Chocolate, Sony PlayStation and commercials for Sears, Motorola, Dodge Magnum station wagon, Frito-Lay and AT&T. He also performed in commercials for the Maryland Lottery, a Japanese commercial for Nikko Cordial shot with Ichiro Suzuki of the New York Yankees, and a Memphis Cigarettes print ad for the European market.
On television, he has played the part of Frank Jones on the soap opera “One Life to Live” and was on the cast of the “Pelican Park” children’s TV show.
He took to the New York City stage to portray Devlin in the Crescent Theatre Company production of the edgy Harold Pinter play, “Ashes to Ashes.”
Kelly can imitate the accents and vocal tones of a polished business executive, an American or Australian cowboy, a California “dude,” and a wonder-struck, engaging children’s storyteller. His voiceover credits include advertisements for Best Western, Friendly’s Restaurants, Ski Doo, Bombardier snowmobiles, Toyota, Drive Time, the American Heart Association, Wheel of Fortune, PNC Bank and Delta Dental.
He visits Manhattan for auditions regularly and travels to Los Angeles several times a year to meet with film executives.
“We were in California for five years or so, and then (five years ago) we moved back to Connecticut because my mom was dying,” Kelly said. “Within a week, we put our house on the market and rented an RV.”
Kelly reclaimed his roots nearby his hometown of Darien, in Wilton, Ct.
During an extended acting dry spell, when Jackie, a schoolteacher, was home on maternity leave, Kelly started his own landscaping business serving the Wilton area.
“I called my son when he was about three and told him, I need to start a new company and I need a name,” Kelly said. “And he said, ‘I know, you should call it, “Jackson and Dad’s.”’ He even drew the card. It’s funny, it’s great. So we still have the company going.”
Today the company has 30 steady clients and three employees.
“I’m still going to keep that because it’s good money and I can keep the guys working,” Kelly said. “I’ve got a guy to run out and take a picture of the site and I do estimates and get to go out and shake hands sometimes. It runs. I want a job where I can go to the city anytime. And cutting grass is not rocket science.”
Not long ago, while emceeing a local charity event, something Kelly is sometimes asked to do, he met Dina Berlanti, the event co-producer. Dina is the sister of television writer, producer and director Greg Berlanti, whose credits include executive producer of “Dawson’s Creek,” “Brothers & Sisters,” “Eli Stone,” “No Ordinary Family” and one of Kelly’s new favorite shows “Arrow.” Kelly contacted Berlanti to express admiration for his work, and was invited to Los Angeles for introductions and auditions in several upcoming television dramas.
“Greg took the time out of his busy schedule to meet with me. He is an incredible person.”
Kelly, who was keenly interested in increasing his television drama role credits, tried out for two of Berlanti’s productions before he got the call from Warner Brothers for a part in “Political Animals.”
“I had a recurring role as the personal bodyguard of the ex president, played by Ciaran Hinds,” he said.
The first televised segment aired on July 15 and the series ran through Aug. 19 with Kelly appearing in four episodes.
Kelly still plays hockey. In recent winters, he’s played it on a backyard ice rink with mostly middleclass companions like those he grew up with, firefighters, police officers and other working people. The backyard, however, is owned by someone who’s not so ordinary: actor and comedian Denis Leary.
“Great guy, obviously funny. Loves hockey!” Kelly said.
“He was not a SUNY Cortland grad, but you know who worked with him all the time was (the late actor, director and producer) Ted Demme (’85),” Kelly said. “I never had the pleasure of meeting Ted, but he directed Denis in ‘The Ref’ and ‘No Cure for Cancer.’”
Six degrees of Cortland.
Kelly emceed a charity event in July to raise money for a local teen center and was one of many area celebrities to show up and help out with National Hockey League player Ryan Shannon’s “Big Assist,” which helps support people with spinal cord injuries.
“When someone asks, I find it very hard to say no to any charity,” Kelly said. “I wrote a few jokes to announce the starting line up NHL players. I brought my son, Jackson, to the ‘Big Assist’ and he was in heaven getting autographs from the hockey players. It feels good to help as little as I did for that event; walking in and making a few jokes. If I can help keep things funny, that’s great.”