The Pain Train

Two years later, a digital-video short film became an overnight ad sensation

In the meantime, Thurber thought, what the hell, he'd enter the Sundance Film Festival--for the second time. In 1999, when he was still studying film production at the University of Southern California, he entered a short called The Band, which garnered him only a letter of rejection from organizer Geoffrey Gilmore. Thurber framed the letter and put it in his bathroom, and figured maybe he'd enter every year and wallpaper the john with film-fest no-thank-you notes. But this time, Terry Tate, Office Linebacker was accepted to the 2002 Sundance fest--only he had to pull it four days before it was scheduled to screen. "Reebok," explains Thurber, "didn't want to let the cat out of the bag" just yet.

Last summer, Thurber and Speight were reunited for seven days of shooting, during which they filmed 109 scenes for the four shorts that will make up Reebok's initial run of Internet spots. The first one wound up costing some $4 million--though the amount of press Reebok's gotten from it has to be priceless. After all, dozens of papers and TV shows and radio stations across the country have written stories about an ad, which draws people back to the Web site, which gets people to thinking, "Damn, maybe I gotta get me some Reebok Vector shit." Or, at the very least, a Terry Tate jersey, which will be available soon enough.

Reebok and Arnell Group execs were so taken aback by journalists' rush to write about the film they even rushed Thurber and Speight into production on another ad, which was scheduled to air last weekend--two days after it was shot, and a mere four days after it was conceived.

A Terry Tate that Larry Tate would be proud of: Lester Speight, left, and Rawson Thurber tackle the ad world.
A Terry Tate that Larry Tate would be proud of: Lester Speight, left, and Rawson Thurber tackle the ad world.

For now, Speight is handling his newfound fame well--as long as he doesn't have to give too many interviews as Terry Tate. He's an actor, serious about his comedy; he will be seen in a few weeks on Malcolm in the Middle, then The Jamie Kennedy Experiment and Alexandre Rockwell's indie film 13 Moons alongside Steve Buscemi and Sam Rockwell. Thurber is not quite sure how far Terry Tate will carry him on those broad shoulders; he's also not sure how far he should go. After all, he will soon direct Underdogs, with producer Ben Stiller as one of his stars. And it appears, sooner than later, the creator will lose control over his creation, and Terry Tate will no longer belong to Rawson Thurber.

"I'm coming to terms with that every hour at this point," he says, with a slight laugh. "And here's the thing for me: I'm thrilled with the reception Terry Tate has gotten. I love it. I love Terry Tate, I can't wait to do more Terry Tate, I'm glad America gets it. You never know when you do these things if what you think is funny is what millions of people will think is funny. For me, though, there are other things I wanna do. Other stories I want to tell. This is a great experience for me, and I hope to do more of it, but my love and focus and passion is feature films and writing and directing those. I mean, there's been talk of Terry Tate feature films and television." He sounds like even he can't believe what he is saying. "We'll see. I am open to it all."

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