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The Pain Train

Two years later, a digital-video short film became an overnight ad sensation

Rawson Thurber has been so busy the past few days that by the time he finally returns a reporter's phone call, he does so at 1:30 in the morning--and he doesn't even realize the late, or early, hour till he hears the groggy croak on the other end. He's sorry as hell--"Aw, dude, you were asleep, weren't you?"--but all things considered, you understand a man with a packed schedule has only so many spare minutes to waste on the phone with a journalist. It wasn't like this January 25. Back then, way back then, you could have gotten him on the phone any time, for any length of time. But all those days ago, before the Bucs went to San Diego and tossed the Raiders out to sea, the world had yet to meet Rawson Thurber's baby boy: office linebacker Terry Tate, a man who will clothesline a colleague for making long-distance phone calls on the company dime or tackle a co-worker for failing to make a fresh pot of coffee. "You kill the joe, you make some mo'," Terry hollers at one quivering sucker stupid enough to catch a ride on the Pain Train.

Two weeks ago, Thurber's filmography was just wishful thinking: a student short film even he will tell you is awful, another digital short that remains little more than a rumor and a script in the hands of a movie star who says he can't wait to star in it. He had more going for him than most 27-year-old wannabes, including a deal with Ben Stiller's production company, but Thurber still existed in that frustrating state of Hollywood limbo, where success teases and taunts but seldom delivers. Today, he is the unknown sensation of Super Bowl Sunday, the man who conceived, wrote and directed the four-minute film Terry Tate, Office Linebacker, the first of several shorts Reebok is rolling out to introduce its new Vector line--as though anyone really notices the product in between Terry's bruising tackles of guys in ties who take pens off his desk or forget to put cover sheets on their TPS reports or thoughtlessly toss aluminum cans in regular trash bins sitting alongside recycling containers.

Since Reebok introduced the spot, a 30-second "trailer" for the longer online film, during the second half of the Super Bowl, more than a million people have logged onto terrytate.reebok.com. Lester Speight, who plays Terry, granted by his own estimation some 40 radio, print and television interviews in the days after the Super Bowl--including one on the Todayshow, where he treated Matt and Katie and Al to a few slices of "pain cake." Last Friday, he even rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange--not as Lester or The Mighty Rasta, the name under which Speight acts, but as Terry Tate.

"He's a fictional character," Thurber says, his voice still registering disbelief. "We aired the commercial once, and this is like past surreal. This is into the bizarre. But bizarre great. Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought any of this would have happened."

In other words, Terry Tate, Office Linebackeris easily the most successful ad campaign the athletic-wear company has ever launched--even if, for now, most of those who have seen the short have no idea what it's selling.

"Nothing compares to this," says Denise Kaigler, Reebok's vice president of global communications. "Absolutely none of us comprehended how big this would be."

That includes Thurber, who conceived of Terry Tate long before Speight started draping golden Reebok jewelry around his thick neck and over pecs that appear made of molded metal. For God's sake, Terry Tate, Office Linebackerbegan not as an ad campaign for a multimillion-dollar company, but as a joke, something that would fill out a tiny demo reel, amuse Thurber and his pals and maybe, if he was really lucky, get into a few film festivals and attract a little attention. This wasn't supposed to happen: the overnight success that comes only with years' worth of waiting.

"It's a little bit like South Park," says producer Stuart Cornfeld, who runs Stiller's Red Hour Productions, for whom Thurber will direct his first feature, the dodge-ball comedy Underdogs, later this year. "Those guys were just doing something to amuse themselves, and suddenly America catches on...Rawson gets a tremendous amount of credibility out of this."

Precisely how this happened is a fairly improbable tale, as you will see. Precisely why it happened is far less inexplicable, because if you see the short film once, you will want to see it again and again. It's a surreal and not a little violent bit of wish-fulfillment for any 9-to-5'er who's ever been stuck holding the empty coffee pot or found their co-workers playing solitaire on a busy day. Terry Tate lurks among the cubicles to wreak vengeance on behalf of all those hard workers dumped on by those hardly working. That's why his co-workers at the fictitious Felcher & Sons (like you didn't know a company named for a Felcher was made-up) love him, and that's why audiences adore him: Terry leads the league in tackles of the rude and thoughtless.

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