The legendary comedian and advertising creative director, who died one year ago this week, and who has been called an inspiration by everyone from Stephen King to Weird Al Yankovic, was widely known in the industry as “the father of the funny commercial.”
Freberg was also, however, the father of some actual people, one of whom is a beloved creative professional in his own right: Los Angeles-based portrait photographer Donavan Freberg.
If you were watching TV in the early 1990s, you’ve seen Donavan. As a teen actor, he enjoyed onscreen fame starring in Stan’s last iconic commercial hit, the Enyclopædia Britannica campaign — yes, Donavan was that nerdy blond kid who “had a report due on space.” He also voiced Peanuts’ Charlie Brown and Linus in assorted commercials and PSAs, as well as characters in The Littles and The Weird Al Show.
In adulthood, Donavan moved to the other side of the studio, doing a stint as a copywriter at ChiatDay before eventually settling into his enduring career as a photographer.
Whether shooting for L.A. lifestyle magazines or for private commissions, Donavan makes gorgeously honest pictures of interesting people: actors, musicians, models, executives. This month, he chatted with us about his work, his father’s legacy, and what it was like growing up creative in Stan Freberg’s house.
Donavan, you’ve taken sort of an unorthodox life path on the way to being a full-time photographer, haven’t you?
It’s true, I’ve done so many different things that led up to this. I was an actor from the age of 7, in my 20s I went into alternative medicine, and later I pursued writing — but all the while, I had a camera with me. It was my lifelong hobby. And then, one day, somebody said to me, “You know, you could probably make some money doing that.”
I calculated it and realized I’d put in well more than Malcolm Gladwell’s infamous 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.
Does that breadth of experience contribute to the way you approach your work and your clients today?
My two primary kinds of clients are people who want a commissioned portrait of themselves for their wall at home, and actors looking for headshots. I do think my own acting experience enters into how I relate to my subjects. What I learned is that people really want to be seen. We want to connect.
I talked to somebody on the phone the other day, and they said they didn’t like having pictures taken. I could see immediately they were dealing with issues of self-esteem. We talked for a half-hour, and they ended up booking, and they said, “You’ve made me feel so much better about myself just talking, I feel like the photographs are almost a side note.” And I thought, wow, that’s fantastic. That’s how I want to make everyone feel.
That’s what my father always used to say about advertising, too — you want to talk to the consumer like they’re a person, not just a consumer. Because guess what? They are a person. This was a revolutionary idea back in the ’60s; you hope it’s obvious now.
When you put it that way, it points out the similarities between the collaborative process shared by a creative pro and their client, and the collaborative process shared by a therapist and their patient.
I’m a natural branding person, especially when I’m working with actors on headshots. They’ll ask, “How do you want to photograph me?” And I’ll say, “It’s not about that. What do you want to say about you?” There was one guy who told me, “I’m always going out for comedy roles,” and I asked, “Do you get a lot of work?” And he said, “No.” [Laughs.] I said, “Maybe you should try something a little more dramatic.”
So I shot him in a range of moody, dark photos. And he got a job. When he called to tell me, he said: “Thank you. I never saw myself that way.”
As much as I have great respect for documentary photographers, I’m not one of them. I’m someone who creates the magic fantasy that my subject may not even realize they’re imagining.
These days, I find I’m actually starting to lean away from shooting so many actors. Headshots are a little transient. You know how, in castles, you see paintings of past generations hanging over the mantle, immortalized there? That’s what I’m out to do for people. Why does that experience have to be just for the super rich and famous?
Well, you know a little something about castles, so to speak. You’ve written before about what it was like growing up in the ’70s in your parents’ over-the-top Hollywood home-slash-recording-studio.
You’ve described it as a Wonderland-esque Spanish mansion filled with a sensory overload of secret passageways, scary clown paintings, and TVs and coffee machines running in every one of the seven bedrooms. Not to mention that the place was purportedly haunted by the ghost of its previous owner, the Wizard of Oz screenwriter who’d died tripping over his dog.
How did that environment shape the ways your creative mind works?
When you’re a kid, of course, you don’t know any better. So I thought it was all just normal: Ray Bradbury over for dinner, and my sister hanging out with Shaun Cassidy, and an entire room only for wrapping gifts, and me not having a first name other than “Baby” until I was 5.
It’s interesting to look back and realize that, at a young age, I internalized the idea that there are no limits.
When I was 4, I took my box of crayons and drew all over the wall of my room. My dad walked in and didn’t say anything, just looked. Then my mom walked in — the moment of truth! And… they just let me go ahead and do it. They bought me more crayons.
I drew on the walls until I was 14 or 15, when we finally painted over it. I guess what I learned was to question what we think is “normal.” All this was so strange, and yet these people weren’t so strange.
I still sometimes write on my walls. My dad had a whole wall in the kitchen that was covered in phone numbers he’d written on it. Obviously he had a Rolodex, a phone book — he had a secretary, for god’s sake — but this was what worked for him.
So I gained a sense of limitless possibility from this: “Who says you can’t do that?”
That was my reaction when, for example, a guy at an ad agency where I worked informed me that you can’t write an ad with an ellipsis in it, because it gives the customer “too much choice.” And I was like, come on. That just made me want to write ads with ellipses.
Could the advertising industry today stand to learn more from your father’s example?
My father had a wonderful sense of timing. He didn’t develop that making ads — he developed it earlier, making comedy records. He sold millions of comedy records. Then, when he first went into advertising, he was told ads had no place for comedy. When he pointed to all those people out there who obviously wanted comedy, he was told, “Those aren’t consumers, those are record buyers.” And he said, “What?”
He didn’t write with the intention of selling anything. He wrote the truth about the product — with humor, candidly and transparently. One of his campaigns that people still remember today was Sunsweet prunes. The client came to him and said, “We want to make prunes exotic and exciting!” He said, “No. People think of prunes, they think of constipation.” They were horrified, but he said, “Look, let’s talk about the wrinkles, let’s talk about the pits — and then say, you know, they’re good when you get used to them.” Miraculously, they signed off on it.
My father held incredible creative control. I’ll tell you the secret of how he managed that: He had already made enough money doing records to be able to turn down clients.
For instance, one laundry detergent company came to him for an ad campaign. He asked, “OK, so what’s your problem?” They said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You’re coming to me for some reason.” They said, “There’s no problem, it’s just that we’re number two in the market. We want to be number one.” My dad said, “That’s it? I’m not going to take your account. That’s piggy.”
My dad had ethics. He didn’t take cigarette clients; he didn’t take alcohol. He turned down one of the big Hollywood cemeteries because they insisted on a funny commercial, and he didn’t think people dying was funny. He wouldn’t play comedy shows in Vegas, either, because he didn’t want anyone coming to see him and losing all their money on the blackjack table.
A lot of the clients he turned down eventually came back on his terms. But he lost more clients than he got, and he still managed to make millions of dollars.
It’s like when you have a day rate. You tell people what it is, and they try to haggle. But the fact is, you should stay true to what you charge. That’s what you’re worth.
My dad took risks — risks based on being willing to lose a client. And what I found working in advertising was, everyone was terrified of losing the client. Better give them what they want! What my dad did was totally unheard of. He said, “The client doesn’t know what they want. They don’t know how to sell themselves! That’s why they’re hiring a professional.” He’d say it was like asking a gall bladder surgeon, “So where are you cutting? Can you cut a little lower? Maybe use a different anesthesia?” The doctor would think you’re crazy.
Creatives should learn the power of saying no to the wrong kind of work and yes to the right kind of work. Be more fearless. If you’re going to do something, rock the boat. Challenge the status quo.
I’d also note: My mom, Donna, was the producer who collaborated in the creation of all of my father’s work through his whole career. I try to interject that whenever people talk about my dad, because otherwise it’s like talking about Paul McCartney without talking about John Lennon.
Donavan, you’ve written a lot over the years about being very conscious of your father’s larger-than-life presence in the formation of your own identity. It’s been a year now since he passed away. What’s it been like, beginning to process the idea that you’re the one who carries his legacy forward — that “Mr. Freberg” now means you?
Somebody did refer to me as Mr. Freberg the other day, and I looked behind me. (Laughs.) What the hell? It’s very strange.
First of all, it doesn’t seem like it’s been a year. Second of all, sadly, we’d been estranged for many years, after he remarried following my mom’s death. The estrangement certainly wasn’t my choice, and it wasn’t just me. He wasn’t in contact with my sister, with his granddaughter, with his friends… So in a lot of ways, I felt I’d lost my dad not long after I lost my mom. It’s a sore subject, but important to address, I think; I had to eventually make peace with that, or I’d have gone insane.
As terribly sad as his death was, he’d lived a great life; he was 88, he died very quickly, and he left an incredible legacy, not only with the world but with his family. In a way, his physical death provided closure that I hadn’t had. I’ve spent the past year finally being allowed to grieve his loss.
I’ll say this: My father picked me up when I was born and didn’t put me down till I was 30. He loved me more in those 30 years than most fathers will ever love their kids. It may be a world without my father now, but I’ll never be without that.
Hanlon Creative contributor Stephen Segal is the coauthor of the new book Geek Parenting.