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‘Charlie the Tuna’ creator drowns

Copywriter also worked on Keebler Elves, Morris the Cat
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Tom Rogers, 87, a retired advertising copywriter whose beret- and sunglasses-wearing hipster tuna became an icon of pop culture, died June 24 in Charlottesville, where he lived with his son's family. He drowned while swimming alone in the family's backyard pool.

Charlie the Tuna was the likably obtuse deep-sea striver who never lived up to the taste standards of Starkist Tuna. ("Sorry, Charlie. Starkist wants tuna that tastes good, not tuna with good taste.") The character was based on an acquaintance of Mr. Rogers's who was an habitue of the beat scene in 1950s New York City, said his son, Lance Rogers. A beat musician and part-time actor who called himself Henry Nemo, the man personified one of Mr. Rogers's favorite aphorisms: "The straightest distance between two points is an angle."

"Everybody knows somebody like that, an appealing character who's totally confident but totally wrong," Lance Rogers said.

Mr. Rogers had a hand in creating other memorable ad mascots of the 1960s and '70s, the cookie-baking Keebler elves and the finicky feline in the 9 Lives cat food ads, Morris the Cat. He didn't originate the characters, his son said, but he infused them with distinctive personalities based on a lifetime of observing human nature as a screenwriter, aspiring novelist and copywriter.

Thomas Russell Rogers was born in Minneapolis and grew up during the Depression in a household run by his single mother. At times, he stayed with his grandparents in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Building the ‘Black Widow’
During Prohibition, he occasionally hung out at speakeasies, where he earned a little spending money cleaning floors and scurrying around town making deliveries for bootleggers, who presumed the police wouldn't suspect a kid. Although he was never a good student, he knew that he wanted to be a writer. When he wasn't observing speakeasy hustlers and small-time hoodlums, he was spending time at the public library. He was still a teenager when he sold his first story to a pulp detective magazine; his mother had to help him cash the twenty-dollar check.

In the early 1930s, he dropped out of high school and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, cutting trails and manning fire towers in the forests of northern Minnesota. Mr. Rogers made his way to Hollywood in the late 1930s. He considered himself a writer, although he landed a day job during World War II as a welder in a Northrop aircraft factory in Hawthorne, south of Los Angeles. He was always proud of having helped build the P-61, a double-tailed fighter-bomber known as "the Black Widow." It was the nation's first aircraft designed specifically as a night-fighter.

He also found work as a screenwriter and, increasingly, as a script doctor. He had a keen ear for dialogue, and studios began seeking him out to punch up their scripts.

In the late 1940s, he moved to New York City, where he lingered on the fringes of the beat scene, did some writing for the stage and radio and developed comedy sketches for nightclub comedians. He moved back to Minneapolis in 1951, married in 1953 and wangled a job with a local advertising agency. One of his gigs with the agency was to write and produce a weekly radio show with George Mikan, the star center for the Minneapolis Lakers of the National Basketball Association.

Colorful Charlie the Tuna is born
In 1960, he moved to Chicago to take a job as a copywriter with the Leo Burnett Co., which was just beginning its run as one of the hot agencies in the business. Leo Burnett was the agency that propelled Tony the Tiger, the Marlboro Man and the Jolly Green Giant into the pop-culture zeitgeist.

Charlie the Tuna sprang to life in 1961. Mr. Rogers, unlike most copywriters today, had total control over his creation -- how Charlie looked, the sound of his voice (supplied by veteran character actor Herschel Bernardi) and what he said about the product. Mr. Rogers stayed at Leo Burnett until 1980, when he retired and moved to Balsam Lake, Wis. There he took up cross-country skiing and worked on novels and a memoir of his childhood. He moved to Charlottesville in 1997.

Charlie appeared in 86 commercials and guest spots throughout the 1960s and '70s before he was retired as the Starkist spokesfish. He made a brief reappearance in the 1990s, when Starkist introduced its vacuum-packed "tuna pouches." Although Mr. Rogers was not part of the campaign, it was the same old Charlie, although slightly slimmer to suggest the health benefits of eating tuna.

Mr. Rogers's marriage to Ardyce Lind ended in 1992.

In addition to his son, survivors include two daughters, Valerie Rogers Ewing of Viroqua, Wis., and Sara Rogers DeVito of Salem, Wis.; and seven grandchildren.