Brian Jacobs is the man behind the many faces of Senor Bueno

Thursday, May 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Brian Jacobs, the Man with the Famous Hand, says he doesn't take any special care or precautions with his hand. "Having a hand in show business just means that if Señor Bueno is in a tank of water, I'm in a tank of water. And if he's sitting on a couch, then you can be sure I'm stuffed under it." Photo credit: Jan Sonnenmeir / Special to The Dallas Morning News

Where ever Señor Bueno goes, Brian Jacobs is sure to follow. But unlike most such situations involving a big celebrity and somebody you've never heard of, Mr. Jacobs is neither Señor Bueno's publicist nor his stalker.

Señor Bueno, of course, is the star of an ongoing series of television commercials for Addison-based Taco Bueno. And Mr. Jacobs? To paraphrase the old saying, behind every great hand . . . Brian Jacobs is Señor Bueno's right-hand man. It's the perfect relationship, since Señor Bueno is Brian Jacobs' right hand.

"It's nice to have that security," says Mr. Jacobs, a 29-year-old actor living in Los Angeles. "At least I know that no matter how big a star Señor Bueno may become, he's not going leave me behind. That's rare in this business."

Since that first unforgettable commercial aired four years ago - a hand with plastic eyes and a felt-tip mustache guzzles soda and then exclaims, "This stuff, it goes right through me!" - the television campaign and its leading hand have become one of the brighter spots on the pop-culture landscape.

The story of the little hand that could started with plans for a new ad campaign for Taco Bueno - something fresh, something fun. "We wanted what every advertiser wants," says Kathy Wan, Taco Bueno's senior vice president of advertising. "To break through the clutter."

Working with L.A.-based agency Mendelsohn Zien, the Taco Bueno think-tank came up with two imperatives: "an irreverent, campy guy and the fact that all of our food is handmade."

Thus, a star in the shape of a hand was born.

"I practiced for a few days before the audition. You know, stretches and exercises, trying things out in the mirror," says Mr. Jacobs, who at the time was just another young actor/hand model in Glitter Town eager for work.

"I had my hand made up - not many others that I saw did, which surprised me."

But what, besides a little make-up, was it about Mr. Jacobs' hand that made it stand out above all the other hands? ("I know they auditioned dozens of people," Ms. Wan says.)

"I think it was the subtleties of what I was able to do with my hand," Mr. Jacobs says. "Before the audition started, as we were just talking, my hand yawned. And I could talk in sync with my hand. And when we finished, my hand and I smiled and looked around the room at everybody."

That's right, you read correctly: Mr. Jacobs' hand smiled. As Señor Bueno, through nearly 20 commercials so far, Mr. Jacobs' hand has laughed, cried, flirted, fought and swallowed fish whole. An impressive range for any actor, not to mention one who has only four fingers and a thumb with which to work.

The results have been what folks in show business used to call kismet and now call synergy: The moment was right for Mr. Jacobs' hand, and Mr. Jacobs' hand was right for the moment.

Señor Bueno has been a starring combatant in the Great Taco Wars being fought on television. Taco Bueno has Señor Bueno and Taco Bell has the chihuahua. Back and forth, the two campaigns have sparred in a hand-to-paw fight for the title of funniest fast-food mascot.

Regional conflict

Of course, most of the country knows only the dog since Taco Bueno is a regional business with 124 restaurants in Texas and Oklahoma, while Taco Bell is a fast-food giant with hundreds of units just about every place. That means most folks have missed out on the most entertaining duel in the media outside of professional wrestling.

"It's like the great cola wars, only it's happening in the privacy of your own back yard," says Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture, of the competing taco-chain campaigns.

"We don't have Taco Buenos up here," Mr. Thompson says, speaking by phone from his home in Syracuse, New York. "I wish we did. From the sound of it, my students would love Señor Bueno."

That's the idea. Señor Bueno's target audience is 18- to 24-year-olds, that prime demographic of fast-food consumers. And here in Texas and Oklahoma, Señor Bueno is a big hand in his one and only marketplace.

"I think the campaign has really connected with younger adults, which is who we wanted," Ms. Wan says. "And I say that not just based on mail and survey results.

On a recent evening, she says, when a waiter discovered she works for Taco Bueno, "he did his whole presentation as Señor Bueno. That sort of thing happens more often than I ever expected."

A quick query at a recent high-school journalism workshop confirmed Señor Bueno's celebrity status among "the youth market." When some Dallas-area juniors and seniors were asked whether they were fans, nearly every hand not only shot into the air, but they also began reciting favorite lines.

But what of the dark side of celebrity spokespersons? As a high-profile public figure, Señor Bueno is potentially the target of all sorts of backlash, scandals, negative publicity. History holds its cautions. Back in the 1970s, for instance, the cartoon mascot known as the Frito Bandito ran into a problems when complaints of racial stereotyping started flying.

Any similar problems with Señor Bueno, who, after all, is a mustachioed hand that talks with a strongly accented voice?

"Honestly? No," Ms. Wan says. "There were a few phone calls in the beginning, but an overwhelming majority of the response has been really positive.

"I think that's because we made sure that Señor Bueno wasn't stereotypical and he doesn't say dumb things. He's just a goofy guy who says and does unpredictable things."

Life is unchanged

Back in Los Angeles, where Señor Bueno is an unknown, life hasn't changed all that much for the Man with the Famous Hand. Viewers - especially Seinfeld fans who remember the hilarious episode in which George became a hand model - may be surprised to learn that Mr. Jacobs doesn't keep his precious hand in a velvet glove and carry it around on a pillow.

"No, I don't take any special care or precautions with my hand. Having a hand in show business just means that if Señor Bueno is in a tank of water, I'm in a tank of water. And if he's sitting on a couch, then you can be sure I'm stuffed under it."

Probably the biggest difference is all the hand jokes.

"I think I've heard them all at this point," Mr. Jacobs say. "And most of them are dirty, so I don't have many occasions when I can repeat them."

While Mr. Jacob's hand is the body of Señor Bueno, the voice is provided by another actor.

"I've never met him," Mr. Jacobs says. "I'm working by a script and a click track [something like a metronome used to keep time]. It's funny - I've never met the voice of Señor Bueno, but I'm good friends with the guy who's the voice of Taco Bell's chihuahua."

In his four years as Taco Bueno's spokes-hand, Señor Bueno has had plenty of competition, and not just from that bug-eyed little dog. What with introducing its talking sock-puppet, the market on silly-hand celebrities has gone through the roof.

But Señor Bueno takes it all in stride. He knows that beneath all the drama and glamour, success is all about long hours and hard work.

"On a shoot, we'll work from five in the morning till after midnight," says Mr. Jacobs.

"First, there's makeup, which takes about two hours. It's a funny process because you have to get him exactly right. If the eyes are too low, he looks depressed, and if they're too high, he looks manic. If the mouth is too big, he either looks scary or like a transvestite.

"So there will be like eight people gathered around, squinting, looking at my hand, comparing it to pictures from other commercials, making sure that Señor Bueno always looks like Señor Bueno."

And as everyone crowds around Señor Bueno, powdering and pampering him between takes, does Mr. Jacobs ever feel left out?

"I'm fine with it. I mean, my hand has its own makeup artist and I don't, but I'm happy for him.

"The important thing is we have the same agent."