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10 Famous Actors Who Started Out in Commercials

Actors' relationships with TV jingles are sort of like that old riddle: What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon and three at dawn? (Or maybe more like how we start in Pampers and end up in Depends.) Lots of well-known actors wind up paying the rent at the end of their careers doing commercials (think: Orson Welles "We will sell no wine before it's time"), but just as many, if not more, get their first big breaks doing them, too. The good news for us is, whether it's hawking dish soap or expounding on the wonders of Castrol motor oil, these slightly embarrassing moments are never more than a click away.

1. Lindsay Lohan

Her career may have fizzled in recent years, but there was a time when Lindsay Lohan appeared in just about every commercial calling for a preteen girl with freckles. Although she initially had little success landing roles, when it came time for an audition for a Duncan Hines commercial, Lohan told her mother that she would quit acting all together if she did not get the job. Her can-do attitude proved effective, and she was hired. She eventually went on to appear in over 60 commercials, including this Jell-O spot with Bill Cosby.

2. John Travolta

For a brief period in the early seventies, John Travolta seemingly made a living out of singing with men in the shower. He starred in a pair of athletic-themed commercials, one for Safeguard and the other for Band Aids, which feature his grinning self enjoying a well-deserved rinse with his teammates. BTW: the famous Band Aid tune was penned by none other than Barry Manilow.

3. Farrah Fawcett

Like countless other starlets, the late Farrah Fawcett was discovered when a Hollywood publicist saw her photo in a magazine and urged her to move to Los Angeles. It would be many years before she would receive a similar call from Aaron Spelling, producer of Charlie's Angels. In the meantime, the only work the Texas native could find was in commercials. And boy did she do plenty, from Ultra Brite Toothpaste to this now classic Noxzema shaving cream spot with Joe Namath.

4. Dakota Fanning

She may only be fifteen, but Dakota Fanning has been acting pretty regularly for most of her life. She attended a juvenile playhouse near her home in Georgia, where the children put on a play each week to show to their parents. Dakota immediately stood out and her parents were advised to take her on auditions in Los Angeles. Within six weeks of arriving in sunny California, the ambitious five-year old had beat out countless other children for a starring role in this national Tide commercial.

5. Leonardo DiCaprio

Unlike the majority of his A-list counterparts, who'd rather forget those loathsome days as lowly commercial actors, Leonardo DiCaprio continues to make a lucrative side living by appearing in Japanese car commercials. In this early spot for Honda, an enthused Leo declares, "It's a miracle!" before he and his Japanese girlfriend embark on a road trip. The techno version of "You Are My Sunshine" is priceless.

6. Tobey Maguire

Before he was battling the Green Goblin as Spiderman, Tobey Maguire considered becoming a professional chef. He enrolled in a drama class instead and booked his very first commercial for Doritos while still in eighth grade. Maguire recalled the experience: ""¦there were four days in a row of eating them, and I will tell you, I have not eaten many Doritos since." Perhaps his love of cooking came in handy after the shoot.

7. Wesley Snipes

Few actors desire to work exclusively in TV commercials. But that was certainly the case with Wesley Snipes when he was starting out. Rather than hone his acting chops in movies and TV, the star of Major League and the Blade movies simply wanted to act in commercials. "When it came to doing films, my biggest goal was to do a commercial," he recalled. Here's a parody of Snipes in a Levis commercial from the 80s.

8. Jodie Foster

The Academy Award winning actress began her career at the age of three as the Coppertone Girl. She would go on to make dozens of more commercial appearances before landing her breakout movie role as a teenage prostitute in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Here she appears with Henry Fonda in a 1971 spot for the GAF Viewmaster.

9. Keanu Reeves

One would be hard pressed not to see Keanu Reeves in a commercial during the 1980s. His most memorable role was a spot for Coca Cola. The teenage Keanu played a biker who falls behind in a race but comes back to make a valiant second place finish. As Reeves recalled, he became frustrated during the shoot when the director asked him to take huge gulps of the soda on multiple takes. "I had the classic experience of having to drink the drink, like, six times with the director saying, 'OK, now grab the drink. You're the thirstiest guy in the desert and this is water.'" The coaxing paid off and Reeves was cast alongside Rob Lowe in Youngblood shortly after.

10. Tom Selleck

After a couple of failed appearances on The Dating Game in the late sixties, Tom Selleck turned to commercials. The star of Magnum P.I. never shied away from meatier roles in film and TV (he starred in six failed pilots before hitting it big with Magnum), but realized he had to supplement his income somehow if he wanted to continue acting. He appeared in commercials for Pepsi and this spot for Close Up Toothpaste.

Of course, there are so many more. What other jingles do you remember with young, soon-to-be stars in them?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Weird
Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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iStock

Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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