Fourteen years after actor Paul Marcarelli first began appearing in commercials for Verizon, the pitchman who got famous for asking “Can you hear me now?” is being redeployed in the wireless wars, but this time he’s switched sides. Marcarelli’s Sprint commercial debuted Sunday night, and it’s hard to not think of the shift as his ultimate revenge play against Verizon. The carrier had, it was reported, locked Marcarelli into a notoriously restrictive contract that prohibited him from doing any other commercial work and forced him to stay silent about his famous character for years.
When Verizon set out to cast an actor as its “Test Man” character, a technician who traveled the globe trying out its network in all sorts of bizarre places, it wanted an “everyman with something quirky or memorable about them,” an executive told USA Today in 2004. Basically, they wanted a nerd. Someone who could convincingly play the role of a wireless technician and also get pushed around by the bullies at Verizon.
Marcarelli was so afraid of the carrier that he hid his sexuality, fearful it wouldn’t play in the boardroom. Some shitty teenagers who lived near him in Connecticut knew he was gay, however, and regularly harassed him in his home. Marcarelli refused to report the bullying to police lest it “affect my income stream,” he told The Atlantic in a 2011 profile that marked his first public comments on his relationship with the carrier.
Marcarelli comes across as fearful and cowed in the Atlantic article. He admits that his silence was, at least in part, self-imposed, but it’s clear that he had reason to believe he should keep his mouth shut.
All of this makes Marcarelli’s very public middle finger to Verizon a satisfying bit of revenge. The nerdy “Test Man,” freed from the shackles of his Verizon contract, has returned to torment his bully (who, it should be noted, did make him a very rich man).
Marcarelli’s betrayal must sting, but Verizon shouldn’t be angry at the actor. If the carrier didn’t want its frightened little pitchman to sign on with a competitor, it should have forced him to sign a lifetime deal. Turns out Verizon’s evil lawyers weren’t quite evil enough.