It's a few days before Christmas, and a tired but chipper Dan Cortese – the hyperkinetic host of MTV Sports and the in-your-face star of the omnipresent BK TeeVee ad campaign for Burger King – is sitting fairly still in the dining room of a Santa Monica beach-front hotel, eating breakfast Since his MTV gig involves participating in every sort of novelty sport with famous athletes or other celebrities, one half expects him to bolt toward the sand for some hip-hop backward surfing with Kris Kross; or maybe he'll jump up and announce, "I love this place!" as he does so often on the kamikaze fast-food spots. Instead, this suddenly famous resident of nearby Manhattan Beach, California – who has already been the subject of jokes by David Letterman and Saturday Night Live, as well as the object of uncountable crushes – is spending a rare morning off contemplating his remarkable year of living dangerously.
A year ago, Cortese was still employed as a production assistant for MTV – his low-rung duties included fetching water for former VJ Downtown Julie Brown. Of course, for upward mobility that beat his other job working the door at Mom's Saloon in Brentwood for $4.25 an hour. Cortese, 25, the proudest son of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, started out life as a jock and was the star quarterback at Quaker Valley High School. Later he was a self-confessed mediocre college football player at the University of North Carolina, but Cortese, arguably the only man ever to challenge Marky Mark on camera to a one-on-one game of B-ball – says his goal was not to become a star athlete, just a star.
"My dream was never to be Dan Marino," says Cortese. "It was to be a movie star. But aside from coming out to L.A., I didn't have any idea how I was going to do it." And so when an MTV talent coordinator asked his opinion of some prospective hosts for the new sports show, Cortese volunteered himself.
"She's like 'Okay, Dan. Thanks,' " Cortese says. "But then the day they were shooting the finalists, they had fifteen minutes of downtime, and she said, 'Just go out there, and do whatever you do.' I knew everyone on the set, so I was real comfortable, which I guess worked to my benefit." Fifteen minutes of downtime led quickly to Cortese's proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. Two days later, Cortese – who was then in danger of losing his P.A. job due to budget cutbacks – got a call telling him to get ready to shoot the pilot. The rise and rise of Dan Cortese is less an MTV version of All About Eve than a televised testament to the importance of being cocky.
"When I was home last Christmas, old friends would ask me what I was up to," says Cortese, "and I was like 'Wow, I'm losing my job, but I might have my own TV show on MTV.' Everybody was going, 'Yeah, Dan, have another beer.' Of course, this year I'm going to go back home and say that I've got this new show I'm costarring in on NBC that's coming out. And they'll go, 'Sure, Dan, have another beer.'"
That new show is Route 66, an update of the classic early-Sixties TV series, which will be coproduced by Harley Peyton, a former producer-writer for Twin Peaks. The show started filming in January and will most likely air as a midseason replacement in the spring, with Cortese attempting to fill the shoes of Martin Milner.
"The show's sort of a twisted road comedy," says Peyton, "and we searched far and wide to cast Dan's part. I was very impressed with him. He has the rare combination of being very handsome and very funny, which is perfect for our purposes. Dan totally destroys that Melrose Place boring hunk stereotype."
"It's a buddy thing," says Cortese. "One guy is straitlaced and always has the right answers, and he's played by James Wilder, who's a very good actor. Then you have the other guy who is off the wall and always wants to do the wrong thing, and that's me."
"Right from the audition, it was clear that Dan was charismatic," says Doug Herzog, MTV's senior vice-president of programming. "But who knew? The week after the first MTV Sports show aired, People magazine called to find out who the hell he was. These things gather a momentum all their own. This happened when we did those spots with Denis Leary. It's zero to sixty these days. Both men and women respond to Dan. To women, he's a very self-effacing, hunky guy. And to men, he's a real guy's guy."
And to many, a little annoying, but that may be the secret behind Cortese's success pitching burgers and fries. A hip, fast-talking spokesdude sporting wraparound shades, an earring, backward ball cap and bandanna, he is custom-made to draw the eighteen-to-thirty-four crowd. The BK TeeVee campaign, which got its kickoff during the 1992 World Series, represented something of a desperation move by the advertising agency D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles in order to keep its $150 million portion of the Burger King account. So far, so good; Cortese's self-conscious cool, along with the MTV-influenced jumble-verité look of the ads, seems to be proving a good deal more popular than, say, Burger King's Herb the Nerd campaign of yore.
Patrick Peduto and Paige St. John, the agency's creative directors for the Burger King account, keep an eye on MTV in their offices. They recall that they were instantly struck by Cortese's possibilities. "If you strip away the looks and the technique, Dan's basically Barbara Walters," says Peduto. "He can start a conversation with anyone. No one is threatened by him. And we figured that rather than have him on a bridge talking to bungee jumpers, we'd have him do the same thing in a Burger King talking to regular people." More than fifty spots into the BK TeeVee campaign, Peduto says that all the research shows an upward trend. "It's been one of those rare things in life that helps everyone involved," he says.
Burger King has signed on for another year with Cortese, although it's hard to know how much to credit BK TeeVee with an uptick in sales. According to Business Week, Burger King's total projected 1992 sales were up to $2.47 billion, compared with $2.3 billion in 1991, after sliding in recent years. Success has its price, of course. "The other day we were shooting the MTV New Year's Eve party in New York," says Cortese. "There was a point when they had me walk out on a platform near a crowd of people. And all these drunk kids started chanting: 'Whopper! Whopper! Whopper!' I said, 'Yeah, I've got your Whopper right here!' "
This and other examples of Cortese's apparent spontaneity in front of the camera come from the fact that he works scriptless. "It's the same thing with the Burger King commercials," he says. "Ninety-five percent of that isn't scripted, either. So basically, I'm being myself." One of the reasons Cortese signed on for Route 66 is that Peyton was willing to rework the screen character to more resemble the costar's persona. After all, he's had minimal experience, except for appearing on a cable soap opera in college.
"Actually, I was pretty damn intimidated when we taped the first show [of MTV Sports], and my very first guest was Bo Jackson," Cortese says. "Bo was late, and I was all wired, running around saying, "you bring Bo to me' and 'Bo don't know Dan.' And in the middle of this whole thing, he arrived and just looked at me. Bo didn't know Dan, and it wasn't clear he wanted to." But, hey, what does Bo know?