Ben Curtis on “The Dell Dude” by Uinterview

It seems like ages ago that a young teenage boy was on television begging his parents to buy him a Dell. For Ben Curtis, the actor who played “The Dell Dude” in one of Dell’s most successful ad campaigns, it feels like forever ago too, but still, the actor remembers that pivotal moment in his life very clearly.

It all began when Curtis was studying acting at New York University and his friend, who studied business, was going on several auditions. Curtis asked his friend for his manager’s contact and soon after, Curtis booked the commercial with Dell.

“It just took off, Dell didn’t even really know how big it was going to be,” Curtis, who currently stars in the off-broadway play The Crusade of Connor Stephens, told uInterview.

The campaign took off, Dell’s stock prices soared, and Curtis quickly became famous as the first ever spokesperson for the computer giant.

“I was being interviewed every day, I was on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Good Morning America, auditioning for Terminator 3.” But quickly, everything caught up with him.

Curtis moved downtown to New York’s financial district several months before the terror attacks of 9/11. Being so close to the horror gave Curtis an undiagnosed case of PTSD.

“I was really sick, I didn’t even really know it. I was using drugs and alcohol to try to cope, I was a mess,” he said.

The young actor was arrested while buying marijuana from a weed delivery guy by an undercover cop who had been following the delivery guy. Now, more than a decade later, Curtis has a good sense of humor about the situation.

“Getting arrested was also a little traumatic because I knew I had quite a bit of fame and I’d never been arrested before. And I was in a kilt with no underwear – proper Scottish style,” Curtis joked. “If you’re proper Scottish you don’t wear underwear.”

As the story goes, Curtis and his friend were both dating Scottish women and the two couples had just returned from the Edinburgh Festival. For his friend’s birthday, they thought it would be as good a time as any to wear the kilts they had bought. Unfortunately, it happened to be the outfit he was arrested in.

Dell, who has a zero-tolerance policy for drug use, dropped the “Dude” campaign and parted ways with Curtis unceremoniously.

Still, Curtis feels the arrest, and the termination that followed, were worth it, as far as his mental health is concerned.

“The arrest really helped me get better, and make everything stop, so that I could get better.”

“I learned from it and that’s the most important thing. We make mistakes but it’s how we learn from them.”


Q: How did you get cast in the Dell commercials? -

I was at NYU as a freshman on an acting scholarship and one of my best friends was in business school and he started getting all these auditions. So I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm the actor here, why don't you hook a brother up?' So he introduced me to his manager and within several auditions I book my first job and so she said, 'We'll work together, I see you!' And so she got me this audition for this national commercial for a company called Dell which was doing pretty well at the time. But this was their first ever consumer commercial campaign, the first time they were using an actor as their face. I was the only kid there without my mom. I was 19 going on 20 and they were looking for someone 12-17 years old. So I had to be a little younger and I'm naturally kind of quirky and silly and I was really great at manipulating my parents so, as far as getting someone to buy a computer – because that was the whole first commercial, me talking to my parents on my home video like, 'You gotta buy me this, and here's why'. This character, Stephen the Dell Dude has all these graphs and forms and pictures and he's prepared. I could relate to that. I think having the age a little bit above the range they were looking for gave me the ability to know how to objectively play this with form. It just took off, Dell didn't even really know how big it was going to be. So, they launched in Christmas and it just was huge and the rest was history.

Q: You suffered from PTSD after 9/11. What happened? -

Yeah, after I made a little bit of money, I moved out of the dorms and moved downtown and the World Trade Center was a nice, fancy place to live and it used to be affordable. Unfortunately, I lived a few blocks away from Ground Zero and I moved in several months before 9/11. I had a view of the towers from where I was and I went through a very traumatic experience there, as a lot of people did. What a lot of people don't know is – well, we will probably get to this – I was arrested as the Dell Dude, well Ben Curtis was arrested but the Dell Dude was arrested too because that campaign stopped, and what people don't know is that I had severe PTSD, undiagnosed at the time. I was trying to go to school full-time, I was acting full-time, I was being interviewed every day, I was on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Good Morning America, auditioning for 'Terminator 3' and I was really sick, I didn't even really know it. I was using drugs and alcohol to try to cope, I was a mess. So the arrest really helped me get better, and make everything stop, so that I could get better. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry kind of blacklisted me.

Q: What was the impact of getting arrested? -

Getting arrested was also a little traumatic because I knew I had quite a bit of fame and I'd never been arrested before and I was in a kilt with no underwear – proper Scottish style, they don't, if you're proper Scottish you don't wear underwear. I was at my best friend's birthday and he was dating a Scottish woman so was I. We had just come back from Edinburgh festival in Scotland and I had a Scottish girlfriend, well she was English but she lived in Scotland. I thought it would be really cool to have a kilt because he had a kilt so we wore the kilts for his birthday. I was trying to get some weed for his birthday party and unfortunately my delivery guy – as we have here in New York – was being followed by undercover cops. So the taxi driver I saw watching us, you know normally they are probably getting high too, but this taxi driver happened to be an undercover cop. So he got a two for one, I happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I see my friend coming at me with weed in his hand saying, 'No! I have weed for us!' but it was too late. And yeah, I came out and my friends came down and even warned me how much press was outside, so that was unfortunate. My agency sent a lawyer, thank god, I got out with a slap on the wrist for a first time misdemeanor. But it was a learning lesson. I didn't need to be buying illegal things outside, I didn't need to be smoking weed, but I was young, and I learned from it and that's the most important thing. We make mistakes but it's how we learn from them.

Q: What was Dell's reaction to your arrest? -

Dell's reaction was 'OK, thanks, see you later.' They had a no tolerance drug policy with all of their employees so technically I was an employee and technically that was a one-strike-you-are-out. I think they are probably kicking themselves today because their stock went way down and they've never come back. And America disagreed with it as well. I don't think anyone has ever thrown a spokesperson into the garbage can for some weed. Including Michael Phelps, he lost his deals, but he's back now.