When Stars Sell Themselves Silly

This year's Super Bowl won't feature Mickey Rooney's end zone, but we will get to see a new side of Brad Pitt.

Pitt is appearing in a Heineken beer commercial. Many of us imagine him drinking himself silly to get over his split with Jennifer Aniston -- or even his lousy reviews in "Troy" -- but that's not likely to happen.

Instead, the 41-year-old actor is teaming with "Fight Club" director David Fincher for a 30-second spot in which he dodges paparazzi on his way to pick up a six-pack of beer.

Whatever merits Pitt's Super Bowl ad may have, it's got to be more appealing than Rooney's derriere, which was supposed to appear for a few seconds in another game-time commercial.

Fox TV, which is broadcasting the game, nixed the spot featuring Rooney in a plug for Airborne natural cold remedy. In it, the 83-year-old actor runs out of a sauna when he hears someone cough, exposing his bare bottom.

Fox says the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at last year's halftime show had nothing to do with its decision. But now, isn't it time for Rooney to explain himself? While he's never taken himself too seriously, when did he start dropping his pants?

Did he think it would reinvigorate his career, as it seemed to do for Jack Nicholson in "Something's Gotta Give?"

It's strange how image-conscious stars use the long arm of celebrity when they become pitchmen. Sometimes, it's clearly a case of chasing a fast buck. Sometimes, it's for the greater good. Other times, it defies explanation.

Just last week, Willie Nelson announced he was joining three investors in marketing a biodiesel fuel made from soybeans that will be promoted in truck stops across the south as "BioWillie."

"There is really no need going around starting wars over oil," says Nelson, 71. "We have it here at home."

But can you imagine the shaggy country star as an energy company executive? Can you even think of "BioWillie" without humming "On the Road Again"?

Indeed, many celebrities have been redefined by their TV commercials. In fact, some become TV shills only to find that their commercial work eclipses whatever else they've achieved.

Think of the humiliating experiences, like Muhammad Ali plugging D-Con ant and roach killer or Brooke Shields proclaiming that "nothing" comes between her and her Calvin Klein jeans. Can anyone mention Bill Cosby with the words "Jell-O pudding" not far behind? What about Bob Dole and Viagra?

Let's look at some celebrities who have had their images forever altered by their work as spokesmen.

1. Orson Welles: Shill No Wine Before It's Time
Orson Welles is widely hailed as Hollywood's most influential director. The American Film Institute ranks his masterpiece, "Citizen Kane," as this country's greatest big screen achievement. Nevertheless, Welles' most widely recognizable quote may have come in the mid-1970s, while hawking low-budget wine for Paul Masson.

"We will sell no wine before it's time," the great filmmaker promised. People who've tried Paul Masson's California Champagne, however, say it recalls another Welles' classic, "A Touch of Evil," but not in a good way.

2. Bob Dylan: Hey Mr. Lingerie Man, Sell a Thong for Me
In his new autobiography, Bob Dylan says he hates to be called the spokesman for his generation. Apparently, he prefers being a spokesman for Victoria's Secret. He began appearing in commercials several months ago, making goo-goo eyes at a half-dressed model who moves suggestively to his music.

But for those who doubt Dylan's genius, consider this: In a 1965 interview, he was asked if he'd ever endorse a product, and, of course, he said, "ladies' undergarments." Little did he know … or did he?

Now, the songwriter, poet, political troubadour and Nobel Prize nominee can finally add "Underwear Salesman" to his résumé.

3. Joe Namath: The Pantywaist Quarterback
At least when Dylan sells women's underwear, he doesn't take the same approach as former Jets quarterback Joe Namath, who shocked TV audiences shortly after winning the 1969 Super Bowl by wearing ladies' pantyhose in a Hane's commercial.

"Now I don't wear pantyhose," Namath assured TV viewers. "But if Beauty Mist can make my legs look good, imagine what they'll do for yours."

The sore knees that plagued the later part of Namath's career were not said to be a hosiery-related injury.

4. Jane Russell's Breast Assets
In "The Aviator," we learn that business mogul Howard Hughes became so obsessed with launching Jane Russell's career in the 1943 film "The Outlaw" that he even designed a brassiere to accentuate her already ample bosom.

Russell, now 83, claims the Howard Hughes bra was too uncomfortable, and she never wore it. But ironically, in 1970, as her film career began to wind down, she became the most famous bra spokeswoman in modern history, expounding on the virtues of the Playtex Cross Your Heart Bra.

"It's for us full-figured girls," Russell told TV audiences, pointing to a mannequin or draping the bra over her arms, to show how it lifts and separates. Perhaps if Hughes had let Russell design the bras and stuck to airplanes, he'd still be making movies.

5. Eleanor Roosevelt: Buttering Up Voters
Trailblazer Eleanor Roosevelt became the first first lady with a TV deal. She accepted $35,000 in 1959 to extol the virtues of Good Luck Margarine.

"Years ago, people didn't eat margarine, but things have changed and now I really enjoy Good Luck," said Roosevelt, who thought the ad would be a great way to raise money for U.N. children's charities.

The TV spot really didn't change Roosevelt's legacy. But in taking the gig, the former first lady unwittingly paved the way for today's generation of politicians-turned-pitchmen. In recent Super Bowls, we've seen former Vice President Dan Quayle munching Lay's Potato Chips, while former governors Ann Richards and Mario Cuomo snack on Doritos.

Former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro has done her bit for Pepsi, while former New York Mayor Ed Koch has hawked Ultra Slim-Fast. And then, of course, there's Bob Dole, who taught a generation of men the meaning of ED.

6. George Kennedy: The Bad Breath Club for Men
In show business, the worst thing you can do is embarrass yourself on stage. But if you can talk about something embarrassing on TV, a lucrative future in advertising may be headed your way.

In 1990, when George Kennedy signed on to be the spokesman for BreathAsure, he quickly embraced the title as poster boy for halitosis. The Oscar-winning actor even came up with the commercial tag line, "On my honor, folks, this product works," claiming that he used the product before he started shilling for it.

Bad breath seems like the certain end of an acting career. Perhaps Kennedy's malodorous mouth inspired some of Leslie Neilson's hilarious antics when they teamed up in the late 1980s in those "Naked Gun" movies.

Nevertheless, by 1997, BreathAsure became a sensation, racking up $30 million in annual sales. For Kennedy, it might rank up there with his performance in "Cool Hand Luke" as a career-defining move.

7. June Allyson: The Wholesome Diaper Dealer
June Allyson struck a gold mine when she parlayed her 1940s perennial girl-next-door image into becoming a national spokeswoman for Depend adult diapers.

In the early 1990s, Kimberly-Clark had been having trouble getting TV networks to play adult diaper ads until they found the wholesome "Little Women" star, who was then in her early 70s.

By the middle of the decade, adult diapers had grown into a $400 million market, climbing by 15 percent a year, and Allyson, now 87 and retired, enjoyed years of steady work.

If a famous actress becomes better known for the commercial work she did in her later years, that's no reason to despair. Martha Raye, who died in 1994, had no regrets about her work with Polident denture products.

Raye, who died in 1994, was a Broadway star, a singer with a comic flair who worked in Hollywood with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Milton Berle and Charlie Chaplin, to name a few.

In 1985, while appearing in a cabaret show, she was asked if it bothered her that a whole generation remembers her mostly for Polident commercials. "Not when they pay me what they pay me," she told New York Newsday. "I would pull my own teeth out."

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays.