Few people know his name. But for millions he is immediately recognizable, even to the president of the United States.
As the surprise guest at President Obama’s private birthday weekend at Camp David, he was snuck onto the archery range — where multiple arrows were placed in the bull’s-eye — to wait for the guest of honor to arrive.
When Obama approached from behind and marveled at the mystery archer’s astonishing aim, Jonathan Goldsmith turned and quipped, “You’re late.”
The leader of the free world took one look at him and doubled over in laughter — and later insisted he sit next to him at every meal.
Goldsmith is “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” the gray-maned, debonair adventurer who stars in a series of deliciously satirical commercials for Dos Equis beer that have won him a cult-like following. Equal parts Don Juan, James Bond, and Indiana Jones, his aristocratic bearing, feats of daring, and irresistible magnetism for man, woman, and beast have made him an Internet sensation.
Now the 75-year-old journeyman actor — who lives a mostly quiet life in Manchester, Vt., with his wife and agent, Barbara— has decided to leverage his notoriety as chief spokesman for a Mexican beer brand to pursue a higher purpose: raising money for humanitarian groups struggling to remove old land mines from forgotten battlefields around the world.
He considers it a redeeming endeavor after an eventful, if obscure, career as a Hollywood character actor and later a business executive.
“I fell off more horses in Hollywood than anyone else. There was very little of societal value,” Goldsmith recalls of his long list of mostly forgettable film and television credits that included countless appearances in television series such as “Dynasty,’’ “Charlie’s Angels,’’ and “Knight Rider.’’
He has joined forces with Clear Path International, a de-mining group with offices in Vermont, and the British-based Mines Advisory Group, which both work with the US State Department to minimize the risk of leftover bombs that continue to kill and main people.
Goldsmith recently traveled to Vietnam to see the efforts firsthand, sharing the experience with millions of fans via YouTube who are more accustomed to seeing him surrounded by beautiful women, uttering, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”
In a recent interview, while smoking a pipe next to a crackling fire and his pair of beloved Anatolian shepherds, Goldsmith described his reaction when he was approached to help: “I could make some sort of a gesture and in some way elevate this,” he said. “I’d be giving back a little.”
He said he is even more driven after having met some of the farmers and children being victimized by wars that long ago disappeared from the front pages — like a young boy in Vietnam who had been burned by a phosphorus grenade two weeks earlier.
According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, in 2012 there were 3,628 reported casualties caused by land mines or other so-called “explosive remnants of war,” in 62 nations around the world. That is nearly 10 per day.
Advocates for land mine removal are placing high hopes in Goldsmith, especially since they can no longer rely on some of the big names who previously helped raise awareness, including the late Princess Diana and Beatle Paul McCartney.
James Hathaway, cofounder of Clear Path, said the movement is confronting “a crisis of interest.”
“In the late nineties and early 2000’s people really cared about this issue,” Hathaway said, “but over time we have lost a princess and a Beatle. This loss of high visibility advocacy has had a serious impact on grass roots support as well as support from private foundations.”
McCartney’s former wife was deeply involved with the land mine issue, Hathway said, and McCartney has been less visible since their divorce.
Hathaway says he is banking on Goldsmith to “introduce our cause to a new audience.”
Goldsmith already seems to be having an impact.
When he was featured on “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit.com to share what what he learned in Vietnam, more than half a million people logged on to the news and pop culture website to participate.
“It really struck a chord with people,” said Victoria Taylor, a spokeswoman for Reddit. “It shows people are extremely interested in what he has to say.”
Goldsmith was an unlikely choice for the role of The Most Interesting Man in the World, which was created by the marketing firm Euro RSCG Worldwide in 2006.
He was up against, in Goldsmith’s retelling, hundreds of mostly “Juan Valdez types.” He was not Latino, nor did he speak Spanish (though he is now learning). In his late 60s, he was also quite a bit older than what the creators were looking for.
Much to his surprise, however, he rose to the top of the pack.
His inspiration, he says, was the late Fernando Lamas, his friend and fellow actor.
Barbara Goldsmith said she thinks one thing that helped her husband clinch the job was her response to the concerns about his age: “How can you be the most interesting man in the world if you’re young?”
Eight years and dozens of commercials later — Goldsmith currently is in California shooting a new batch — the persona continues to be wildly popular, measured by not just by beer sales but the steady number of Internet users plugging in the search term ”most interesting man in the world” to watch the spots.
A few of “the most interesting man’s” calling cards? He can parallel park — a train. Sasquatch takes pictures of HIM. He rides a wild rhinoceros. His passport requires no photograph. The circus ran away to join him.
“He’s helped transform the character into an icon that’s now woven into pop culture,” said Gwendolyn Boyce, the brand director for Dos Equis, which is owned by Heineken.
Goldsmith clearly relishes the role. Indeed, sometimes it is difficult to tell him apart from his character.
When a reporter asks what makes his portrayal so magnetic, he whispers, “Magnetic?” Then he leans over, and with a devilish grin, pretends to gently caress the questioner’s hand.
But the truth is Goldsmith really has seen it all. He has gone from rags to riches and then done it again.
In the early years, he co-starred with some silver screen legends, such as Burt Lancaster and John Wayne, and caroused with literary icons and playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.
But he never really broke through, sometimes barely earning a living.
He was once so down on his luck he painted houses with fellow out-of-work actor Nicholas Colasanto, later known as the irascible barkeep Coach in the hit television series “Cheers.’’ For a time he drove a garbage truck.
When he finally quit Hollywood in disgust — he said he was tired of being told he was too short, too old, or too “swarthy-looking” — Goldsmith managed to remake himself. He launched a successful venture selling waterless car wash products.
Then he says he lost it all, going from a jet-setting millionaire with a palatial 122-acre retreat in the Sierra Madres to a nearly penniless drifter living in a campground outside Los Angeles.
“I ended up busted,” he recounts, blaming a series of ill-advised moves by him and his partners.
It was after reaching retirement age — and facing an uncertain final act — that he reinvented himself again, into his current incarnation.
At this stage, he says his goal is to leave behind something beyond simply fortune and fame.
There is little in his professional background he is proud of, he acknowledges. But when he looks back on the span of his career two previous roles stand out — and coincidentally, both were about the war in Vietnam.
One was in “Go Tell the Spartans,’’ in which he played a veteran Army sergeant suffering from battle fatigue who commits suicide. The other was in the award-winning TV movie “Green Eyes,’’ about a disillusioned Vietnam veteran who returns in search of his orphaned son.
“I thought about Vietnam my whole life,” Goldsmith says. “I was very concerned about it.”
He now sees his land mine work as a way to help try to do something about that sad chapter in history — “giving back a little of the heart of America, to apologize in a way,” he puts it.
“We ruined an agrarian society,” he added. “For what?”
Goldsmith is planning more travels to highlight the plight of victims in other countries and is also taking up other causes, such as canine cancer, through his work with the Morris Animal Foundation. He plans to take part in an upcoming USO tour to visit American military personnel overseas.
“No one knew who I was,” he says of much of his 50-plus years on stage and screen. “The ‘most interesting man’ campaign has really changed that. . . . I have a platform. I want to help those who don’t have a voice.”
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.