A decade ago you couldn't get away from the "Dude, You're Getting a Dell" commercials. Then the pitchman got arrested. Now he's sober. And doing The Fix Q&A.
Ben Curtis is an actor best known for the Dell Computer commercials that dominated network television in the early 2000's. "Dude, you're getting a Dell" was the mantra of college kids all over the world and his character, Steven, was the reason why. Recently, Curtis sat down with The Fix, inviting us to the Washington Heights apartment he shares with three roommates, to talk about his very public arrest, his long, slow journey to recovery, and how he recently taught Richard Chamberlain how to smoke a bong.
How old were you when you booked the Dell ad?
I was 19 or 20. I filmed my first commercial for them when I just turned 20. I was a sophomore in college. They seemed to be looking for someone younger. Like 12 to 15. I was the oldest one by far. So, I was 19 or 20 playing what was supposed to be a young, awkward teenager. I do remember that I was the only one at the audition without his mom.
Yeah. I remember the first note I got was "Less Spicoli, more kid next door." It was the first time, I believe, they used an actor and it was Dell's first national commercial. Before that they had only done graphics and voice overs. They wanted to appeal to their customer base which, apparently, was the kid next door. So I just did my interpretation of the script which was a kid that was totally trying to win over his parents. I was very good at manipulating my parents. It wasn't until the fourth ad that I actually said the "dude" thing.
Once the cops figured out I was the guy in the ad it was "Dude, sucks for you!"
I remember they weren't happy with the script. The tag line was "mission accomplished" and they didn't like it so they all went back to the ad agency. Finally, the director told me to try saying "Dude you're getting a Dell" and I was thinking "Are you kidding me? That's even worse. That is so generic..." So, I said it mockingly and, of course, they were like "We love it!" That became the slogan. Oh, and he was not supposed to be a stoner, he was just supposed to be quirky. I don't know if it's because I was a stoner or what but it became completely associated with stoners. They had no idea how it was going to take off.
Wasn't there a well-known director involved in those ads?
Yes! Bennett Miller directed that fourth ad where I first said "Dude." Bennett of course went on to the direct Capote with the late great Phil Hoffman.
So then you got arrested? While you were doing that campaign?
Yes. I was about to sign a half million dollar contract with them. I was not making nearly as much as I should have been. It was my best friend's birthday. I was dating a girl from England but we met in Scotland where we had all just been for the Edinburgh festival. I borrowed a kilt and my best friend and I decided to wear kilts on his birthday. Proper Scottish style so no underwear. And for my buddy's birthday, I wanted to get him some pot so I called the delivery service, as you do in New York, but the main one couldn't come through so I called another one that uses bicycles and meets you outside. It was on Ludlow and Rivington. Which is now Schiller's but then it was Motor City Bar. I looked around for cops, there were none, only taxis. Lo and behold those taxi drivers were undercover and I was arrested for buying an eighth of weed. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
You lost the Dell campaign because of that arrest?
Was that your bottom?
Well, yes, that was part of it, but I think my bottom was before that. I just lived through 9/11 and I lived two blocks from Ground Zero. I watched the whole thing go down and I was trapped underground for a little while ... I had a near death experience that day. I had severe PTSD which I didn't know for a long time. I was already starting to self-medicate with pot, cocaine, alcohol ... and I was at the height of the Dell fame. I was up for some great movies and I was freaking out. I was afraid of fame. And I was very young. Everywhere I went people were like "Dude, where's your computer!" I didn't handle it well. I wanted to be taken seriously. Now I see that people needed relief and entertainment at that time. I just hid from everyone. Once the cops figured out I was the guy in the ad on the night of my first arrest it was "Dude, sucks for you!"
Honestly, though, getting arrested saved my life. It took me a while to get the help I needed but things started to calm down after that. I was not happy for a long time after I lost that job. I couldn't go anywhere without being recognized. I waited tables and all my customers would say was, "Dude, say the line! Dude, why are you waiting tables?" Because I don't have a fucking acting job right now! Otherwise I wouldn't fucking be here. Do you want salt on your margarita or not, sir? (Laughs) I had to hit a few more bottoms.
How long did it take you to find a way out of your addictions?
About nine years, three more arrests and a DUI. I had many girlfriends (all of whom were daughters of alcoholics) suggest that I get into recovery. My last girlfriend, who was very supportive, suggested MA. I definitely was addicted to pot. Some people say it's not addictive but I have an addictive personality. I can be addicted to anything. I tried to stop and I just couldn't. I had all sorts of signs that I was an addict during those nine years. Arrests, girlfriends ... I even had this old man come up to me at a wedding for the cowboy from the Village People. He told me that he knew who I was and that he had a lot of money and was willing to invest financially in anything I did, but that I wasn't going to go anywhere until I quit doing drugs and alcohol. I wasn't even drunk. I wasn't even stoned. It was a sign, one of many that I needed to clean up.
The future you!
I hope not. He was kind of creepy.
How did you clean up?
Well, meetings help. But I needed a lot more.
Putting down the pot to see that I had an alcohol problem. Putting down the alcohol to see that I have a lot of other problems that were being masked by using. It's been a long road. That was about two years ago. I have a lot of support. There's all kinds of support all over the world.
Are you still acting?
I am, I'm shooting a movie in Atlanta soon. I produce a lot of my own work. I do voice over work. Off Broadway plays. I did a movie recently with Richard Chamberlain and he forgot how to smoke a bong. He was playing this crazy Willie Nelson type guy and he either forgot or didn't know how. So, I filled it with tobacco and he was one of my best students ever. He laughed and did exactly as I told him. Good thing it was tobacco because he took an enormous hit!
Do you find it harder to stay clean on location?
No. Like I said I have a lot of support. My father is a retired Episcopal priest and he has been in recovery for a long time. My mother is also. A lot of people in my life are. I feel really well taken care of and it's just about remembering that and why I'm there. Whenever I catch myself wanting to use I just ask myself what's going on and most of the time it's because I'm feeling something I don't want to feel. Or I'm tired or hungry or lonely so I just take care of those things the way I need to.
So life is good now?
Life is better than ever. I have more energy and more clarity and more peace of mind. It's not easy to abstain but there is a lot of support out there. I'm still acting. I'm writing a play about my experiences in jail. I co-own and operate a wellness company. It's called Soul Fit NYC. We're trying to help other people live their dreams.
Yeah, reach out and don't be afraid to ask for help.
Dillon Murphy is the pseudonym of a regular contributor to The Fix. He typed this up on a Dell. He last wrote about quitting suboxone.