What Really Became Of Mikey, The Life Cereal Commercial Kid?
John Gilchrist who played “Mikey” on the famed Life cereal commercial; Pop Rocks. Source: pinterest.com; amazon.com
In the 1970s, it was one of the most frequently-aired advertisements on TV: the Life cereal "Mikey Likes It" TV commercial. The spot starred a very cute youngster with a round face and freckles named Mikey, who is a picky eater. The commercial spawned the catchphrase "Mikey Likes It," and ran for over 13 years; later, Quaker Oats (the company that makes Life) tried to hawk its product with sequels and remakes. But most curious of all was the story of Mikey -- specifically, the tale that the most famous picky eater in teeveeland had died from consuming a volatile mixture of Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola. If you were a kid in the late '70s or '80s, you no doubt heard this rumor from your peers:
"Remember Mikey, the kid on the Life commercial? He ate Pop Rocks and drank Coke and his stomach exploded. Pop Rocks and Coke will kill you."
The story had the allure of art imitating and then obliterating life: a young boy who is known for reluctance to try new healthy foods meets a grisly end because he foolishly mixed two volatile junk foods. Mikey was played by an actor named John Gilchrist, and whether he survived the '70s after shooting to fame in the Life cereal "Mikey Likes It" commercial was a hot topic of debate.
In the commercial, it's breakfast time, and Mikey's two older brothers are confronted with a new cereal. They go back and forth about who is going to try it first because it's supposedly healthy, and therefore unappealing. “You try it,” says one, and the other replies, “I’m not going to try it. You try it.” Then they say, “Let’s get Mikey (to try it). He hates everything.” While they are prodding each other and conspiring, little Mikey, played by three-and-a-half year old John Gilchrist, digs into the heaping bowl of Life cereal on the table, and clearly enjoys it. His brothers exclaim, “He likes it! Hey, Mikey!”
It's a classic, unforgettable commercial, albeit one with a dark post-script. Well, maybe. What's the deal -- did John Gilchrist, better known as Mikey, really die in a bizarre junk food accident? Or was it all just one of the greatest urban legends TV commercials have ever known?
Mikey's TV Brothers Were Really His Brothers
John Gilchrist was cast as little Mikey in the Life cereal commercial with his two real-life brothers, Tom and Mike. The commercial was filmed in 1971 when he was just three and a half years old, and by 1972 it was being aired nationally, and ran through 1986. Not too bad considering that little Mikey never uttered a single word in the commercial.
Gilchrist and his six siblings got into acting as children at the suggestion of a family friend. The family was at a Long Island beach for the day when they were told that their kids and their freckled faces were just the all-American look producers were looking for. Eventually, all of the siblings ended up acting making more money in one day than their father made at his job all week. The money they brought in put the kids through college.
The Gilchrist kids didn’t see themselves as special. For a family of seven kids who all acted at some point, it wasn’t unusual to see themselves on television. It was just part of their lives. They thought all kids acted.
Gilchrist’s first Life Cereal commercial was an easy gig for everyone. The kids were not only comfortable acting, but they also had a natural dynamic being real-life brothers. It was a dream come true for producers. The commercial was a huge hit with kids and parents alike. Not only did it help to sell a lot of Life Cereal, but it ended up being ranked as the No. 10 commercial of all time. Still today, little Mikey is brought up in conversation when someone is a picky eater.
Rumors Of Mikey's Death: Greatly Exaggerated
Pop Rocks is an effervescent candy containing pressurized carbon dioxide gas. When it comes into contact with saliva, the solid candy dissolves and the gas is released, emitting a fun popping sound and causing a tactile sensation on the tongue. Pop Rocks were introduced in 1975 by General Foods, and were a hit with kids, though their signature trait dealt with chemistry your typical pre-teen could hardly understand.
Rumors about Pop Rocks, and what they might do if combined with soda, and what they actually did to John Gilchrist, surfaced around 1979, and eventually reached Gilchrist's family. One day, his mother received a call from a family friend who said, through tears, "I’m so sorry to hear about your son," explaining that she'd been informed of his death by Pop Rocks and Coke.
Gilchrist's mother had soothing news: John was just fine. "He just came home from school!" she said, but then called him in from playing just to make sure.
John Gilchrist, Mikey from the Life cereal commercial, is alive and well.
General Foods was so vexed by the rumors about its famous (or infamous) candy that the company issued statements to parents' groups and school, and ran newspaper advertisements, that tried to assure the public that Pop Rocks were safe. In 1983, General Foods stopped making Pop Rocks, explaining that it just wasn't a successful product. For gullible kids, the disappearance of the product only confirmed the rumors about Mikey -- Pop Rocks had been taken off the market, they figured, because they had killed a kid.
The Pop Rocks formula and brand was licensed to the company Zeta Special S.A., which still manufactures and sells Pop Rocks today.
The fame that John Gilchrist garnered for the portrayal of the character Mikey on the Life Cereal commercial beginning in the early ‘70s has followed him his entire life. Unlike many child actors, Gilchrist has fond memories of his childhood and acting career. He reports that he led a very normal life, despite the acting gigs and doesn’t regret the time he spent doing it. He eventually moved on from acting but not before he had been in about 250 commercials. He acted outside commercials as well, although he was passed over for some that he auditioned for in favor of the likes of Rodney Allen Rippy, Haywood Nelson, and Ricky Schroder.
Gilchrist didn't die in real life, and Mikey lived to sell again in commercials as well. In the mid-‘80s, the Quaker Oats Company sought to create excitement for the Life brand by reviving the public’s emotional attachment to little Mikey. Gilchrist reprised his role as Mikey in new ads, entitled, “Today’s Mikey.” These ads depicted grown up Mikey as a college student. Let’s just say that it wasn’t the same. He wasn’t nearly as cute as he was as a kid. In 1996, Quaker created an ad that digitally imposed a bottle of Snapple into the original Life ad. This particular ad had a twist in that Mikey only liked some of the flavors and snubbed the others.
Mikey: Where Is He Now?
Gilchrist eventually left acting to pursue a communications degree at Iona College. His love of the New York Knicks led him to a position at Madison Square Gardens where he landed a job in ad sales as director of media sales. His primary function is negotiating with TV advertisers.
Gilchrist reportedly still enjoys Life cereal and always has it on hand at home. Sadly, he didn’t get a lifetime supply for his spot on the famous commercial. He also reports that he was not and is not a picky eater. He told New York Newsday that "[Mikey is] who I am, but it's only a part of who I am; I have a lot of great things in my life."
He also admits he doesn't remember making the commercial -- after all, he was just three and a half.
Gilchrist now lives in Pelham, NY with his wife and three children. He regularly gets requests to sign autographs and does so happily. He appreciates the ongoing fascination with the commercial and his character although he has said, "I just never looked at it like some huge, big deal. Maybe that comes off to some people like I don't want to talk about it. Totally not the case. I love talking about it. It's a part of me."
What Really Became Of Life Cereal?
The original Life cereal as formulated back in 1961 was comprised only of whole grain oats. Original ads for the breakfast cereal coined the slogan, “Life is full of surprises.” About the time advertisers realized they were actually marketing to children, who had no interest in vitamins and minerals, they wised up. Not only did the company change its slogan, but now Life Cereal has loads of sugar in it which it didn’t before.
Since the original Life, there have been multiple varieties of the historically popular cereal. In 1978, Cinnamon Life emerged followed by Raisin Life. Not surprisingly, Raisin Life wasn’t a huge seller and was finally discontinued. Baked Apple Life was released in 2002 and then Honey Graham Life in 2004. 2005 brought Life Vanilla Yogurt Crunch to the market and Chocolate Oat Crunch was introduced in 2006. All of these varieties were discontinued because they just didn’t sell.
In 2008, Maple & Brown Sugar Life hit the shelves which eventually took a back seat to Vanilla Life. Canada and parts of the U.S. have included Multigrain Life in the mix. Newer Life Cereal varieties include Pumpkin Spice Life, Gingerbread Life and Strawberry Life which was a huge hit.
It's hard to improve on perfection. At one point, Quaker introduced what they called a “new and improved” version of Life Cereal. After consumers balked at the new formula, the company quickly went back to the original one that everybody loved. Since 2018, Quaker has been billing the breakfast cereal based on the claim that “Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods and low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may help reduce the risk of heart disease."
Mikeys That Weren't Really Mikeys
The late ‘90s brought us two other Mikey campaigns. In 1997, Quaker initiated a nationwide quest for the “next Mikey." Marli Hughes, then 4 years old, won the spot out of over 35,000 applicants. The next Mikey was a girl! This new campaign was called, “Better Life.” Not only was the new Mikey a girl, but she talked!
In 1999 Quaker remade the original epic Life commercial, word for word, with an all adult cast acting like kids. This Mikey was portrayed by actor Jimmy Starace.
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