Photos courtesy of Brett Stevenson
On August 16, actor Rob Thielke, best known to Northwest viewers as the eccentric “Vern Fonk” in the Vern Fonk Insurance TV commercials, passed away after a long battle with colon cancer. Here, Brett Stevenson, owner of ad agency Stevenson Advertising, expounds on his friendship with Thielke and the legacy he leaves behind:
My friend, Rob Thielke, spent most of his life with the world thinking his name was Vern Fonk. For 24 years, Rob played the character on TV that everyone knows as Vern. Rob died Sunday, August 16, after a battle with cancer. He was just 50 years old.
When I first met the real Vern Fonk, a larger-than-life insurance agent on Stone Way in the Fremont area, he said he wanted to do TV advertising and sent me to his daughter, Rene. Rene hired my brand new ad agency and we dreamed up commercials for Vern’s insurance agency. One of the first commercials required someone to play the role of Vern Gump, a takeoff on the Forrest Gump movie.
One of Vern’s salesmen, Rob Thielke, volunteered to play Vern Gump. I met Rob and Rene at Green Lake with my cameraman, Trent Woolford. Trent and I were shocked to see that Rob had shaved the sides of his head to look just like Forrest Gump. I remember saying to Trent, “Man, this guy is really committed to this little role!”
What followed was the first of hundreds of commercials that have shocked, offended or delighted Northwest television viewers for over 20 years. The commercials created a large cult following of Vern Fonk fans. It was impossible to go anywhere with Rob, without people yelling, “Vern!” or stopping him on the street for an autograph or selfie. I could tell that Rob loved the attention but was always amazed that so many people recognized him and loved him.
The other part of the Vern Fonk phenomena was the success of the company due to Rob’s performance in the commercials. When the real Vern Fonk passed away in 2006, the company was one of Washington’s most successful insurance agencies. After Vern’s death, his daughter and son-in-law, Rene and Kevin Mulvaney, ran the company until it was acquired a few years ago by a large international holding company, Confie, for millions of dollars. Rob Thielke was appointed President of Vern Fonk Insurance, by Confie, and continued in that role until his death.
One of the unique things about Rob Thielke was his fearlessness when it came to playing the Vern Fonk role. If the script called for us to shave the letters V. F. (for Vern Fonk) in Rob’s back hair, he did it. If he had to dress in a loincloth like Tarzan, no problem. Rob even wore a fake chin to be Jesse Ventura, and he dressed up like a strange version of Liberace. He danced on cars, shot zombies, and threw giant fake rocks at a Sasquatch like the Six Million Dollar Man. Rob did ‘70s dating videos, was arrested by fake policemen, and sang rap songs like a Hollywood rap star.
During all of his adventures, Rob’s actor-brother, Joel Thielke, was always by his side participating in every cornball, quirky skit that we dreamed up. There was something about Rob’s presence on the screen. His unusual look and speech patterns were hypnotic and addicting. He developed raving fans among both young and old, both white collar and blue collar television viewers. His uninhibited movements and stares into the camera left you muttering, “What was that?” when the commercial was over. To this day, people “honk when they drive by Vern Fonk” because of the power of Rob Thielke.
There will not be another, and the loss staggers both my mind and my heart. Rob was both the weirdest guy, and the most kind-hearted guy I knew. Giant hugs to his wife Kathy, their five kids, and his brother Joel. Here at the agency, Tim Grand, Shawn Sergev and I will be reeling from this loss for years to come. How can Seattle be Seattle without Rob as Vern Fonk on TV?
Please visit www.StevensonAdvertising.com/Vern and share your thoughts about Rob Thielke and Vern Fonk. Rest in peace, Rob. We will miss you, my friend.
Media Inc. readers wrote in with their thoughts and memories of Rob Thielke and what his loss means to the community. Here is just a small selection of those comments.
So very sorry to hear of this wonderful man’s passing. He will be greatly missed. I’ve enjoyed his crazy stupid commercials for years. Even when I was down his commercials could make me laugh. RIP “Vern Fonk”. Honk, honk! – A J
Rob brought joy to sooooooo many people with his whit, crazy facial expressions and wonderful sense of humor. May the FONK be with him!! I will HONK each time I pass his old ofice. – Jeff Ruffner
I love his commercials, seems like a guy you want to have a beer with. this is sad. – David Koppenhofer
Very sad day. Rob was my insurance agent years ago. He always spoke of his family, wife, children and step children, his Brady Bunch. A great guy. I love his commercials, but to just know Rob was an honor. Prayers to his family and friends. Rest in peace Rob. – Bryan Hurley
This is heartbreaking. My sympathies to his family. He always made me laugh. His commercials, his delivery of the message made you remember the product… and HIM! He was very talented and fun. I am so sad for his family and friends. Stupid cancer… Again… a huge loss to everyone. – Trudy D’Armond
Your family is in my thoughts and prayers as you celebrate the life of this very funny and nice man. His commercial always made me chuckle. – Kristine
I am so sorry to hear of his passing. His commercials were so fun, stupid, and hysterical! He will be missed. Good thoughts and prayers to the family. RIP. – Janet
Honk If you miss Vern Fonk – Kristen