“Aren’t you, um, that … guy?”
Mark Robbins is used to not being just another face in the crowd.
Since 2011, the Spokane actor has played his quirky husband role in over two dozen TV commercials for Northern Quest Resort & Casino.
But Robbins was stunned last month while vacationing in Mexico. He said he was “stopped three times” by tourists who knew him from those Quest ads back home in the Inland Empire.
The celebrity is well deserved.
The Northern Quest spots featuring Robbins and Brooke Stocker (as Mark’s make-believe wife) are more like a long-running sitcom than a string of TV commercials.
This is arguably some of the best local television ad work I’ve ever seen. Because of that, I’ve been wanting to give a thumbs-up to Robbins and Stocker as well as the Airway Heights-based casino.
So one day last week, I arranged to meet the actors in the posh lobby of Spokane’s Davenport Hotel. Joining them was John Baechler of Coeur d’Alene’s Hanna and Associates, the brain behind the Quest couple campaign.
Robbins, I learned, is a librarian and an English teacher at Lewis and Clark High School. He acts, performs improvisational comedy and once logged time as frontman for his former punk band.
Robbins and his wife, Kristin, have two children.
Stocker is a nurse in a rehab facility. She’s done some previous advertising work and is married to Kevin Stocker, a retired major league baseball shortstop who played with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.
The Stockers have three children.
I’m a Spokane lifer, as many of you know.
And as such, part my childhood was warped from exposure to some of the most gawd-awful local TV advertising the world has ever known.
Pitches for the Peerless Dentists from Dr. David Cowen, say.
I may be hallucinating. But I seem to recall a 1960s Pratt Furniture spot that featured an aging store employee in a Beatles wig.
And I shudder to even mention that infernal Boyle Fuel ditty for fear I’ll be humming it all day.
“When you need coal or oiiillll …”
(That’s all I dare manage. You old-timers can sing the rest at your peril.)
Compared to that dreck the Northern Quest spots are “The Godfather,” parts one and two.
Deft storylines put Robbins and Stocker in an array of endearing and hilarious situations. They play cards. They dine out. Robbins gives a snowman a piece of his mind …
Baechler dreams up the scenarios and writes the scripts.
“The idea,” he said, “was to find a couple not so young that older people couldn’t relate to them. Or too old so that millennials couldn’t relate to them.”
In essence, “we wanted people you’d want to have over for dinner.”
The magic happened when Robbins met Stocker. Although according to Baechler, the introduction was not without drama.
Robbins was actually the second choice for the male lead. He was called in because of a lack of chemistry between Stocker and another actor who shall remain nameless.
With his impish grin and “just the right amount of goofiness,” Robbins was perfect from the get-go.
The first commercial, which coincided with the 10th anniversary of Northern Quest, showed Robbins coming home to find lit candles and his wife waiting for him in lingerie.
“Are your folks coming over?” asks Robbins in deadpan cluelessness.
“It was perfect. It just clicked,” added Baechler. “The sense of relief was intense.”
Well, for almost everyone.
Stocker remembers being scared to death. She couldn’t stop thinking: “You can get fired on the set?”
Slowly, the commercials became a part of the Spokane area’s pop culture.
“He’s a little funnier than most husbands,” said Baechler. “She’s a little prettier than most wives.”
Another part of the success is due to what Baechler has dubbed “The Stare.”
This is a subtle gaze that Stocker gives Robbins whenever he’s up to his antics.
There’s just enough exasperation in the look to let viewers know that she’s seen all of his jokes a thousand times yet she loves him still.
“One of the biggest tools in the box,” Baechler said of The Stare. “And you can tell that Mark feels it, even when he’s not looking at her.”
Some public reactions to the commercials have been priceless.
Robbins said he was once followed by a couple of teens who kept muttering “medium fluffy.” Robbins used the term once to describe his pillow.
Then there’s the woman who was convinced that Robbins was a near-perfect clone for the Northern Quest character.
“You look just like him,” she told him, adding, “I’ll bet you get that all the time.”
Robbins’ attempt to set the woman straight impressed her even more. “You’ve got the voice down and everything,” she told him.
Stocker said strangers often ask her how she got the job. “Well, I have an agent,” she tries to explain. “And I’m an actor, and …”
Stocker and Robbins are so natural together that some think they’re a real couple.
When he’s out with Kristin, Robbins said he’s seen people staring as if “they’ve caught me cheating on Brooke.”
The humorous little twists that Baechler puts at the end of his commercials are a riot.
A current ad, for example, shows Robbins seeking medical help for his cabin fever. The cure, as you might guess, is a visit to Northern Quest.
The camera finally opens up to show the white-jacketed doctor explaining his treatment while in bed with Stocker and Robbins.
Asked to name his favorite commercial, Robbins described an early spot where he’s roasting marshmallows over a campfire.
Stocker suggestively asks her husband if he’d like to “break in” the new camper they won at you-know-where.
To which the marshmallow roaster replies with perfect cluelessness: “I think that just happens naturally when you go camping and stuff.”
No doubt about it. Northern Quest has hit the jackpot with this bunch.
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