From White Cloud toilet paper to Lowcountry living: Hollywood actor brings talents to Purim spiel

loberle@islandpacket.comMarch 14, 2014 

Gobby Cohen, who has written and directed a 10-minute play, "What's It All About, Esther?" for the Jewish holiday Purim at Congregation Beth Yam, is photographed at home on Tuesday.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

  • WHAT IS PURIM?

    Purim is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the ancient Persian Empire and the plot to destroy them. It is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther, in which the story of Purim is recorded. A public celebration is also customary, which includes dressing up in costume, eating a festive meal and drinking wine. Many synagogues put on a spiel -- a short play that tells the Purim story in a comedic way.

  • IF YOU GO

    WHAT: "What's It All About, Esther?"

    WHEN: 6:45 p.m. March 15

    WHERE: Congregation Beth Yam, 4501 Meeting St., Hilton Head Island

    DETAILS: 843-689-2178

He was the White Cloud in the popular 1980s toilet paper commercials, played the TV station manager for a presidential debate on the show "The West Wing," and served Michael Jordan a hot dog in a Ball Park Franks ad.

Now, Hilton Head Island resident Gobby Cohen is using his theatrical talents for his synagogue, Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head. In celebration of Purim, which begins the evening of March 15 and ends the evening of March 16, Cohen has written and directed a 10-minute play, "What's It All About, Esther?," starring members of the congregation, including his daughter Cassie.

It is customary for synagogues to put on a spiel, or short play, telling the story of Purim -- of how the Jews escaped the ancient Persian Empire, where a plot had been made to destroy them -- in a comedic way.

"It's a good, meaningful story for the Jewish population to understand the plight has been there all the time," Cohen said. "The interesting thing here was trying to write something that was both keeping to the story and funny for 6-year-olds and the oldest people in the congregation. I'm trying to reach a family from littlest and youngest to the oldest.

"(The play is) funny. Well, I'm hoping it will be funny. That was certainly my goal."

As a writer and comedic actor, Cohen had never called on his Jewish heritage before, saying he'd "written pretty generically goofy stuff."

"In Second City, you just write. You're not worried about offending someone, because that's half the point of it," Cohen said. "With this one I had a few jokes that didn't pass."

The play is jovial and fresh, keeping in line with the family-centric holiday.

"Purim is a really kid-friendly holiday, not the story itself but the way the story has been used in the community," Cohen said. "Most kids dress up and there's Hamentaschen (a three-cornered pastry) and carnivals. It's fun. It's a way to be involved as a family."

Cohen's Purim spiel comes in retirement after decades of hobnobbing in Hollywood.

In 1977, after college, Cohen enrolled at The Second City in Toronto. After his second class he was pulled aside and asked to join the touring company as John Candy's understudy, he said.

"I was quite surprised," Cohen said. "I thought I was just going to class."

Candy, an actor known for his roles in "Uncle Buck" and "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," was Cohen's first director at Second City. Cohen later worked with a slew of household names -- Catherine O'Hara, Tony Rosato, Andrea Martin and Martin Short, whom he refers to as "Marty."

Leaving Second City in 1981, Cohen moved to Los Angeles for a short time before going back to Canada to star in the TV sitcom, "Snow Job." When the show ended after three seasons, he returned to Los Angeles and lived as a working actor, starring in commercials and theater, and landing small TV roles.

He starred in hundreds of commercials -- for McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Kellogg's, Volkswagen -- but his most notable role came when he portrayed the White Cloud in the toilet paper commercial for six years.

It was a Proctor and Gamble advertising campaign in the 1980s, in which a fluffy, talking cloud would engage with bystanders, conversing about the softness and thickness of White Cloud toilet paper.

To film, Cohen would be covered head-to-toe in white, wearing a spandex suit and full white makeup. Then an animator would draw over Cohen in the commercial. One evening, after a full day of filming, Cohen stopped at a 7-Eleven to pick up something to eat. Everyone looked at him fearfully, and he didn't know why. Then he realized he'd forgotten to wash off his makeup.

"It was the best job in the world," Cohen said. "I did get some free toilet paper. Not as much as I'd hoped. I would give toilet paper to friends as Christmas presents, signed, 'The White Cloud.' "

The brand was discontinued in 1993 and replaced by Charmin Ultra.

"They made me do my own demise commercial, where they told everyone there's not going to be White Cloud anymore," Cohen said. "It was hard. That was a great gig. I was hoping it would last forever, then I'd never really have to work again."

After White Cloud ended, Cohen moved on to other acting gigs. He and a friend opened Hollywood Actors Theater, where he was the artistic director for four years before it burned down in 1991. From there, he went on to land small TV roles in shows such as "Goosebumps" and "Bones."

He starred in "Kvetch" at the Odyssey Theater in West Los Angeles for seven years, and then taught acting classes at Esaeln, an intellectual and creative retreat center in Big Sur, Calif., before moving to Hilton Head with his wife and two daughters two years ago.

Life is quieter now for the Cohens. "What's It All About, Esther?" is his first project in retirement. He said he'd like to teach adult acting classes, and do some writing as well, but for now, he's enjoying the Lowcountry lifestyle.

"I need to do more," Cohen said. "We're getting settled here. I'm starting to look and see what there is to do, so (Purim) came at a good time."

Follow reporter Laura Oberle at twitter.com/IPBG_Laura.

RELATED CONTENT

White Cloud commercial

Congregation Beth Yam website

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