Bill Kelly’s first acting experience was at Madison Central High School in the 1970s, when for kicks he auditioned for the school’s production of “The Beverly Hillbillies” and won the lead role as Jed Clampett.
That was it for acting for about 30 years, through college at Eastern Kentucky University, then a long career in radio in Florida. Then he got the bug again. On Sunday night, at age 55, Kelly will have the biggest night of his second career — a spot playing Eberhard Anheuser in one of the most talked-about Super Bowl ads this year and, after the game, a role on the season premiere of “24: Legacy.”
“I can’t wrap my head around it,” Kelly said in a phone interview Saturday while taking a break from cleaning out his garage. “I’m very honored and blessed.”
Although Kelly was raised in Richmond and went to becoming a broadcasting major at EKU, he has lived in Tallahassee since 1986, where he started on-air for iHeartRadio before moving into sales. One day in 2003, the station had a public service announcement from the Florida State film school, which was holding open auditions for student films. Kelly was cast right away, and he continued to act in about 30 student films.
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About five years ago, he got an agent, and not long after that he got a part in his first film, Michael Bay’s 2012 “Pain & Gain.” He’s had roles on TV shows like “Burn Notice,” “Graceland” and “Ballers,” and a recurring role as DEA agent Clay Grunwald in the Netflix series “Bloodline.”
Kelly tends to get roles as an authority figure, whether in the FBI, DEA or the police officer he will play on “24.” The show shoots in Atlanta, a relatively easy drive from Tallahassee, he said. “It’s an amazing cast with a great set of writers,” he said.
He’s not allowed to say much about the Budweiser ad, “Born the Hard Way,” which has become a talker since it was released last week. It depicts the arduous immigration journey of the young Adolphus Busch, who came to the United States from Germany in the 1850s. The commercial shows him landing in New Orleans amid virulent anti-immigration sentiments, where one man yells, “Go back home!” Then Busch rides a steamboat up the Mississippi to St. Louis (not before it catches on fire, sending everyone into the river), where Anheuser/Kelly welcomes him to America and buys him a beer.
The ad has been seen as a repudiation of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. But the ad’s creators have explained that the ad was made eight months ago for the Super Bowl as an inspiring story about the beginning of one of this country’s most popular beers.
“It was a huge opportunity for me, and I’m very honored to be in it,” Kelly said. “It looks great.”
Kelly’s only regret in his new life is that it leaves him even less time to get back to Kentucky.
“I wish I could get home more. It seems like it should be easier, but with this stuff happening, it seems to get harder and harder to work everything in,” he said.
Kelly will start his Sunday with church and end it in front of the TV with his girlfriend and three children. There will be only one thing missing: He recently ran out of Hall’s beer cheese from Hall’s on the River restaurant. A niece sends it to him from Lexington.
“I was sitting there thinking today, ‘The Super Bowl is on tomorrow and I don’t have any beer cheese,” he said, only partly joking. “That’s a travesty.”