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updated: 1/3/2012 6:26 AM

Des Plaines native evolves into Geico Caveman

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  • Jeff Daniel Phillips makes an appearance as the Caveman we know and love from the Geico Insurance commercials.

      Jeff Daniel Phillips makes an appearance as the Caveman we know and love from the Geico Insurance commercials.
    Associated Press photo

  • For an on-line performance, Jeff Daniel Phillips created a character named Eugene S. Van Dekak, showcasing his versatility.

      For an on-line performance, Jeff Daniel Phillips created a character named Eugene S. Van Dekak, showcasing his versatility.

  • Another view of Jeff Daniel Phillips, a headshot illustrating his chameleonic ability to play a variety of characters.

      Another view of Jeff Daniel Phillips, a headshot illustrating his chameleonic ability to play a variety of characters.

  • Jeff Daniel Phillips makes a charity appearance as the Caveman we know and love from the Geico Insurance commercials.

      Jeff Daniel Phillips makes a charity appearance as the Caveman we know and love from the Geico Insurance commercials.
    Associated Press photo

  • Des Plaines native Jeff Daniel Phillips prefers the fine arts to the performing kind, but it was his performance as the caveman in the Geico Insurance commercials that made him a household face -- even though it wasn't his.

      Des Plaines native Jeff Daniel Phillips prefers the fine arts to the performing kind, but it was his performance as the caveman in the Geico Insurance commercials that made him a household face -- even though it wasn't his.

  • Video: Phillips turns into a caveman

 
 

Jeff Daniel Phillips didn't just evolve from a caveman like the rest of us.

He became one for a series of popular TV commercials that put Geico Insurance on the American media radar.

Yep. The Des Plaines native is that caveman in a business suit who's ready to explode at anyone who stereotypes cavemen as dumb.

"I kept a lid on it for a long time that I was the Caveman," Phillips told us. "Only recently have I been letting people know it's me because you always worry about being pigeon-holed. I am proud of the work. But it blows me away and surprises me how many people love that character."

Including "The Rock," Dwayne Johnson.

Phillips worked on the feature film "Faster" with Johnson, who had no idea his co-worker was The Caveman.

"I spent a week with him driving around in a car," Phillips recalled. "He was very polite and we worked well together.

"It wasn't until the last day I brought some autographed (Caveman) pictures for the director's kids. You would have thought I was Clark Kent to (Johnson). He flipped! He turned into a little boy. He couldn't believe it was me and he knew all the commercials. He was quoting them!"

What's the secret to the Caveman persona?

"It's about trying to be refined, but having the underlying anger that threatens to go off at any second," Phillips said.

So, kind of like channeling your inner Incredible Hulk?

"I guess," he said. "Let me put it this way. I like to make people laugh, but usually in a very uncomfortable way. The Caveman wants to be taken seriously and wants everyone to know it."

Phillips got the Geico gig after a couple of commercial directors spotted him in a Los Angeles play. He played an angry, over-the-top character that impressed the directors, who eventually auditioned Phillips for one of several caveman roles.

The Maine West High School graduate returns to the Northwest suburbs a couple of times every year. His mother Juanita Phillips resides in Hoffman Estates.

When Phillips was a teenager, his father Chester Phillips, an excavator, died in the collapse of the under-construction Rosemont Horizon, now the Allstate Arena.

Young Phillips wasn't totally without a father figure to help him in his teenage years, though.

Phillips said that Maine West art teacher John Wood became a mentor who guided him into the arts.

"He let me know about the possibility of a career in the arts," Phillips said. "I wasn't really involved in theater. I was more into the fine arts, photography, printing and drawing. He was constantly sending my work out and getting awards for it. He gave me confidence that I could do this."

We should point out that Phillips' road to the Geico Caveman was a long and winding one that started with a two-year stint at Michigan State University studying computer graphics.

Then came a year in Rome where Phillips studied at Temple University's Tyler School of Arts. Eventually, Phillips wound up at the University of Southern California with degrees in both art and film.

"Even when I got there, I had no idea what I was about," Phillips admitted. "I didn't quite fit in because I was still in the arts and everyone at USC was talking about the comic book movies. That didn't jive with me. I was just figuring out things as I went along. I still am."

After USC, Phillips moved back to Chicago before returning to Los Angeles to study acting and work in art departments for several years. He decided to try acting so the experience would make him a better director.

Phillips recently completed an acting job on Rob Zombie's latest horror film "The Lords of Salem," shot in Los Angeles and Salem, Mass.

He said it's the best film acting he's done. He plays a DJ at a radio station where a mysterious package arrives containing a shipment of pure evil.

It was a better experience than the one he had while working on the short-lived TV sitcom "Cavemen" where he resurrected his signature Geico character.

"It was crazy," Phillips said. "They loved the idea of the show, but didn't want the people who did the commercials involved. They wanted to change the very thing that people liked about the caveman commercials."

Once Phillips got on the set, the writers took a liking to him and used him in eight of the show's 12 episodes.

"You know, I've worked in a theater with 20 people in the audience," he said. "One commercial is seen by millions. Definitely, working on TV is a high."

At heart, Phillips remains a Northwest suburbanite who married a Homewood/Flossmoor woman he met on a blind double date -- but they were actually with other people on the date.

Now Phillips is the dad to a 7-year-old daughter who doesn't quite know yet what her father does for a living.

"The funny thing is, we don't watch TV," Phillips admitted. "My acting stuff tends to be non-kid friendly. Someday I may let her see some of it."

The best thing about being Jeff Daniel Phillips?

"Being able to pursue a career in the arts and be able to do it happily with my family," he said. "I guess I'm just so grateful for the way things have turned out so far."

-- Dann Gire

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for suburban people in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a good feature, send a note to dgire@dailyherald.com and jsotonoff@dailyherald.

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