Our Residents Are Stars – Tech Whiz, Bill on National TV!

The Merrill Gardens Tech Whiz has a new gig as an actor in a national commercial!

Merrill Gardens at Mill Creek (WA) resident Bill Sleeper has been teaching all of us about technology for the past year and that earned him a starring role in this smartphone spot by national retailer, Best Buy. This 97 year old continues to inspire us!

We had the opportunity to chat with Bill about his experiences.

How did this opportunity happen?

Bill : “My daughter got a phone call out of the blue asking if I would be interested in doing a Skype interview with my grandson. A casting agency in LA had found me by conducting an Internet search for “tech-savvy senior.” My name came up a few times as the “Merrill Gardens Tech Whiz” and “96-year-old Geek of the Week.”

What was your reaction when you learned you might be starring in a commercial?

Bill : “Disbelief. The whole thing happened so fast, it seemed unreal. My grandson was totally skeptical, so at first, he reluctantly agreed to the Skype interview. But it quickly became apparent that the folks in LA who contacted us were not only serious, but under a fierce deadline. They seemed to like the idea of a ‘talking fossil’ with a smartphone.”

What did you have to do?

Bill:  “First my Grandson and I had to sign confidentiality forms before being interviewed. Next we had to coordinate schedules to be together for the Skype interview. The interview was great fun and went very well. My grandson is a natural. Then we had to wait a few days while the client and ad agency reviewed all possible candidates for their ad campaign. While waiting, Dave and I had to sign more release and consent forms so they could run background checks on both of us to make sure we didn’t have criminal records. Because they couldn’t book our LA flights or hotel rooms until our background checks cleared, we were told we had to be in LA on a certain date without any arrangements being made until the last possible moment. This turned out to be a bit stressful for my daughter who was coordinating all arrangements between the different agencies. But it eventually worked out. My daughter, grandson and I were flown First Class to LA, all expenses paid. We were met by three people at the airport and driven straight to the shooting location in a black stretch limousine so that the makeup and wardrobe teams could begin working with me. Having never acted before, or participated in anything resembling big-time Hollywood, this was all quite new to me.”

What was it like filming in LA?

Bill:  “It was a completely new experience, quite a surprise. I guess I expected a small studio set-up, but the limo pulled up to a massive filming operation with an entire church parking lot full of staff cars, transport vehicles to the shooting locations, security staff everywhere, and an entire neighborhood taken over by production crew vehicles, portable dressing rooms, restrooms, wardrobe trucks full of clothing, a snack table for everyone that included vitamins and medical supplies, and a mobile catering van that served gourmet meals. It was inconceivable that the client and production company rented out huge private homes at multiple locations and took over entire neighborhoods, magically transforming each location into holiday settings for the filming. Hollywood “magic” is all I could think of when I saw all that was involved.”

What happened next?

Bill:  “The first day was devoted to makeup and wardrobe fittings. I was referred to as ‘The Talent’ not by name. I tried on at least 10 different outfit combinations. Each one was photographed and then the client (Best Buy) and the ad agency had to decide which outfit I would be filmed in. This decision process took a very long time and involved at least 15 or more people. Because other two-person “talent teams” were also being prepped for filming, we had to wait until staff was available to work with us. We waited hours. Because we got up at 4:00 am to make a 7:00 am flight to LA, we were exhausted by the time we were finally driven to the Sheraton Hotel at Universal Studios. Even though we were close to some of LA’s best tourist attractions, we were too tired to go see them. We made the wise decision to eat and go to bed early instead.”

What was it like to be filmed?

Bill:  “I expected to be filmed first thing the next morning, but it turned out we had to wait until mid-afternoon before our shooting location was ready. We did not know what to expect as we were not told anything about the actual plan. We joined the production crew for lunch under blue tents in another private neighborhood. A tremendous thunder and lightening storm hit while we were outside eating, with torrential rain and loud claps of thunder directly overhead. It was a wild experience. We watched as the streets flooded, and the tent awnings above us bulged with accumulated rain water. And still we waited outside under the tents.

We were finally invited into the Moose Lodge, a famous old bar in Burbank. The bar was full of seniors all sitting and waiting. What I didn’t know at the time was that they were all extras hired to play senior students for my tech-teaching scene. What a surprise it was when we all moved into the adjoining banquet room. The entire room was decorated for the holidays, including the mounted moose heads.The extras all took seats around tables, each senior holding a smartphone. There were cameras, cables and more than 40 people on hand to film the scene. My grandson and I stood up in front of everyone to recite our lines. We got “repowdered” in between takes by the makeup staff, and the director and assistant director coached us with every line. The filming lasted for several hours. We didn’t get back to the hotel until nearly 8:00 PM leaving us time to eat dinner and then collapse exhausted once again into bed.”

What else did you have to do to complete the job?

Bill:  “A few days after returning to Seattle, my daughter got another call. This time the production company wanted to know if I was available to do voice-over recordings at a professional sound studio in Seattle. The ad agency said they only needed to record one or two more lines. I ended up recording more than 50 additional lines in a sound-proof studio, again directed by the producer and ad agency staff sitting in a studio in CA where they could hear and record every line I said. The technology was amazing!!”

What was the best part of the whole experience?

Bill:  “Flying First Class was a thrill with a window seat that gave me a great view of the volcanoes. The limo ride was also great fun, including a small fender-bender that occurred just as we arrived on location. I enjoyed talking to all the production crew and the “senior extras.” Everyone was so nice and the stories they had to tell about famous celebrities were very entertaining. It did feel like we were part of a carnival that could set up magic, film, instantly return everything back to normal — then disappear. I will never be able to watch a movie or TV commercial again without knowing all of the hard work that goes into filming every single scene. I still can’t believe that this happened. It feels like a dream.”

What kind of a response have you gotten?

Bill:  “We did not know when the commercial was going to air, or what it would contain. It was released on November 4th and our first clue was from all the texts and phone calls we received from friends and relatives who had unexpectedly seen it play on TV. The Best Buy commercial is being shown all across the United States and Canada. I have had several complete strangers come up to me and say they saw me on TV. I gave one person a bag of popcorn. Now I’ve been asked to do another radio interview with GeekWire on November 9th. Who knows what will happen next?”

Here are some other observations Bill shared with us:

“I’m surprised that if you keep breathing and talking long enough, some people find this interesting. I guess I really am old. I was born in 1915 when light bulbs were a miracle.”

“The young woman who met us at the LA airport couldn’t believe I was born in 1915. She said I was the oldest person she had ever met!”

“My generation of seniors somehow got left in the dust when it comes to the new touch screen devices. I’m having fun trying to convince them to pick up a smart device, tap it with their finger, and join in all the fun.”

“It’s a blast going around from one Merrill Gardens to another giving tech talks to fellow seniors. All they have to do is just say “yes” and they can hold the whole world in their hand.”

– Bill Sleeper

Do you use a smartphone? View the full commercial here. 

Way to go Bill! You will be seeing Bill air nationwide this holiday season.

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  1. Pingback: 2012 – A Year of Great Memories | Merrill Gardens Retirement Community Blog

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