He has made hundreds of TV appearances on programs like The Tonight Show and ESPN's Sportscenter. He's walked the red carpet at movie premieres, beautiful models on each arm. When he enters a crowded room, the paparazzi shout and cameras flash.
But you've probably never heard of Todd Wilkerson.
"It's all very silly," Wilkerson says. "Being a celebrity would be silly anyway, even if everyone could see my face, but it would be harder for me to see it so clearly."
Wilkerson is the silent man behind fast food's creepiest mascot: the Burger King "King."
You know the commercials. A man wakes up to find a robed, giant-headed monarch sitting in his bed. The King stares for a moment, then offers him a breakfast sandwich.
Yes, an actor really did get paid-and paid quite well-to wear that costume and hold that sandwich. Incredibly, that same actor has appeared in every King advertisement since.
At a lunch with His Highness in midtown Manhattan (no, he didn't eat at BK, but he did order a bacon-and-cheddar turkey burger), he spoke about the nature of anonymous fame.
Wilkerson finds his faceless obscurity ideal for advertising work, since he will never get overexposed or typecast (as would, for instance, the Verizon guy). "On the other hand," he says, "it does feel strange that my commercial career is as good as it gets, when I still have so far to climb with other types of acting. I'm happy when I get a bit part on Law and Order."
So what does the King really look like, behind that plastic grin? WORLD has honored Burger King's request not to print Wilkerson's photo, but he bears a family resemblance to his uncle, David Wilkerson, the wiry preacher who founded Teen Challenge and wrote the best-selling book The Cross and the Switchblade. Todd Wilkerson grew up on a campground where his father Don ran a Teen Challenge addiction recovery program for men: "It felt like a big group of older brothers, which was great, since I had two sisters."
Wilkerson considered becoming a youth pastor but decided against it after attending a Bible college. Remaining a faithful Christian among actors in New York City has sometimes been a struggle. In one of his first classes, he performed opposite a cross-dressing man. The role made him uncomfortable, but it clarified his vision. "I thought, if I can look at this overweight middle-aged man who's supposed to be my wife and go through the scene and still be excited about acting, then this must be something I'm meant to do."
For his King audition, Wilkerson wore an oversized "Lucy" head from Peanuts. "After the first couple takes," he recalls, "I took off the head and asked, 'Do you need to see my face?' They said no, it's just going to be the head. I didn't really get it."
Even now, Wilkerson isn't sure what the ad agency saw in him. "They just really liked my improv, and what I did with my hands." He shrugs. "I wish I had a better story."
The first commercial was a surprise hit, so more followed-the King peeping into windows, drilling bolts on a skyscraper, playing pro football. Then he started popping up in gossip magazines, video games, and The Simpsons. Rumors of a feature-length film now float through the blogosphere.
Wilkerson sees the steady work as a blessing but doesn't think he would want this much fame without the mask. So what is the King's ultimate dream as an actor? "I'd like to do a sitcom," he says. "I'd love to perform on TV or film in funny stories-stories that have some funny truth to them."
For now, he's content to laugh at his own story. "Be careful what you pray for," he advises show-business hopefuls. "Many years ago, I prayed that I wanted to be a 'working actor.' Maybe I should have been more specific . . ."
-Ethan Campbell teaches writing at The King's College, New York City