Beyond Repairman

At the moment, Gordon Jump really does look like the Maytag Repairman. It isn't just that he's wearing the outfit -- the blue jacket, the cap, the bow tie. He's also sitting, all by his lonesome, surrounded by Maytag appliances, with nothing much to do.

He's been embodying this particular icon of American advertising -- the repairman for the appliance line supposedly so reliable that it renders repairmen superfluous -- since the late '80s, taking over for Jesse White (who in turn had taken over the role from character man Tom Pedi).

"Thirteen years," says Jump. "It just seems like yesterday."

The decision to assume the mantle of "Ol' Lonely," as he calls the role, wasn't easy. "I knew if I got caught in this, very few producers would consider using me later for other things," says Jump. "I thought, 'That's silly, if I were plying my craft like this in England, it would just be another acting role.' But we have very shortsighted producers in this country."

Jump is present to sign autographs and otherwise meet-and-greet as part of the opening festivities for the sparkling, spanking-new west-side Maytag dealership at 63rd Avenue and Bell. But it's around lunchtime on a Friday, and not many folks are appliance shopping at the moment. So Jump and I are undisturbed as we sit and shoot the bull over cake and coffee, and he chats away as casually and genially as if he's known me for years.

I've certainly known him for years, and so, probably, have you, though you may not know him by name. He's the veteran film and television actor best known for his portrayal of Arthur "the Big Guy" Carlson, the easygoing station manager on the long-running '70s-era sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.

His curious name comes from old English -- a "jump," he says, was a recess in a castle wall in which guards concealed themselves, and out of which they would, well, jump. Born in Dayton, Ohio, and raised in Centerville, Jump broke into show business in Midwestern broadcasting, doing a children's show and the weather at a TV station in Topeka, Kansas. But his big-time ambitions were activated when Gary Cooper, in the area on location, made a visit to the station where Jump worked.

"Our paths crossed there in the studio," Jump says, "and for whatever reason, he just looked me in the eye and said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'I wanna do what you're doing.' He said, 'You can't do it here. You gotta go to New York or California. If you come to California, look me up.' What he saw, I will never know. . . . He died before I went to California. But on the basis of that inspiration, I bit the bullet and came to California. I've never regretted it."

His first Hollywood acting job was in a commercial for Adolph's meat tenderizer; guest shots followed on TV series ranging from Daniel Boone and Get Smart to The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch, and in movies ranging from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes to The Fury. But it wasn't until WKRP, which ran on CBS from 1978 to 1982, that he attained anything like celebrity.

"The reason I got that job was that I looked like somebody the character was based on," says Jump -- he reminded WKRP writer/producer Hugh Wilson of a radio vet Wilson had worked with at a station in Atlanta.

But Jump was a broadcasting veteran himself, and knew the type. To make the role his own, he says, "I worked off of three general managers I knew. Whenever I had to come up with a take-charge attitude, the one guy I used was a guy from the station I worked at in Kansas. He was that kind of guy, no-nonsense: 'I don't care what you want, this is what I want, and this is what we're going to do. Got anything to say about it?' That was the attitude." He grins. "His wife shot him to death."

More often, however -- perhaps because of this cautionary example -- Arthur Carlson wasn't "take-charge," he was soft and sweet and bumbling. Along with McLean Stevenson's Henry Blake on the early episodes of M*A*S*H, Jump provided one of pop culture's all-time great Accidental Alpha Males. When fans approach Jump, he admits, it's most often to remind him of the classic TV moment in which Mr. Carlson, having arranged for a flock of unfortunate turkeys to be thrown out of a helicopter as a Thanksgiving promotion, enters the room and declares: "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!"

After WKRP had run its course, Jump took a calculated professional risk when he played a child molester on a 1983 episode of the kids' sitcom Diff'rent Strokes.

"It was a tough decision to make to take that," recalls Jump, who says he asked the advice of his three daughters on the matter. "But you know, I was in a store the other day, and a girl, probably in her mid-20s, came up to me, and said, 'Mr. Jump, I don't know exactly how to tell you this, but you changed my life.' . . . She said, 'I come from a family where child molestation was a problem. Your program helped to open the door to that whole situation, and it brought closure to things in my life that I would never have otherwise been able to get to the bottom of.'"

Jump worried a little about the career repercussions, however. "About a week after it was on the air, I was in the hardware store, and this elderly gentleman said, 'Well, you really screwed up your career. . . . You played that nice guy on WKRP, and you played that horrible role on that kids' show. You'll never work again.' I said, 'You really believe that?' He said, 'I know it!'" His raspy impression of the old man makes me laugh. "And for the first four weeks or so," he says, "I thought maybe he was right, because nobody called."

No permanent damage to Jump's nice-guy image was done, however -- since then, he's had recurring stints on shows ranging from Baywatch to Seinfeld. And, of course, he's become the Maytag Repairman. Between bites of superb chocolate cake -- prepared for the occasion by Kim Cummings of Affordable Catering -- I ask him if he could, in reality, fix a Maytag appliance. He proudly tells me that he was once able to correctly diagnose a minor installation problem with the Maytag dryer of a neighbor who had called him. The guy later asked him to sign the door of his appliance.

But, like a loyal company man, Jump hastens to add: "I wouldn't want to mess with one, not while it was under warranty. But I would tinker with my own, 'cause they're not that difficult. There's not that much that can go wrong with them."

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead