Fred Thomas Jr. didn’t think appearing in the short film “True,” directed by his friend Charles Stone III, would amount to more than just a favor.
He just thought he was helping out a friend.
Thomas, a 2000 master’s of film and media arts alumnus, took a day off work in 1999 and caught a train to New York City with his friends to act in Stone’s film. Stone, Thomas, Paul Williams, a 1994 theater alumnus, his brother Terry Williams and Kevin Lofton, a 1991 journalism and advertising alumnus, were all featured in the film saying “Whassup?” to each other while watching a football game.
Months later, the short film caught the attention of DDB Chicago, an advertising agency. It then transformed into an infamous string of Budweiser commercials, each one a variation of characters yelling the friends’ signature catchphrase.
After the commercial gained popularity, the “Whassup?” greeting inspired countless internet parodies in the early 2000s. It was also parodied in popular television shows and movies, like “The Simpsons” and the horror-comedy film “Scary Movie.”
The exaggerated “Whassup?” catchphrase originated when the friends were in high school in Philadelphia. Stone, Paul Williams, Terry Williams and their friend Kim King, whose nickname was “Dookie,” began saying “Whassup?” to greet each other.
“It was just a bunch of guys in high school who were crazy,” Paul Williams said. “We just kind of grew up around each other just doing wacky stuff.”
At the time of making “True,” Stone had mostly directed music videos. Thomas said Stone wanted to add a narrative film to his portfolio.
Thomas was almost finished with his degree at Temple when Stone called him to say Budweiser wanted to make a series of commercials out of the film. But the group of friends — except Terry Williams and Lofton who didn’t want to participate — had to audition for their parts like everyone else.
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute, did you just say audition?’” Thomas said while laughing. “‘So I gotta audition to play myself?’”
“I asked [Stone], ‘Did the people see the short film that you made?’” Paul Williams added. “He said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Tell them that’s my audition.’”
The day of the audition, which Paul Williams ended up attending, he said about 50 people tried out for his role. When he told the other actors that none of them would get the job, they were silent.
“Me and Paul were in that day,” Thomas said. “And we were laughing because we’re hearing people on the other side of the wall saying ‘Whassup?’ and they’re not doing it like we do it.”
Paul Williams, Thomas and Stone, who also directed most of the commercials, got their parts.
The first commercial won two international advertising awards, the Grand Clio and the Cannes Grand Prix, in 2000.
At its peak popularity in the early 2000s, people would often mimic the commercial and yell “whassup?” back and forth to each other while sticking their tongues out.
Thomas said it was fun to witness other people adopt “Whassup?” in person and share the same camaraderie he and his friends had, especially when people didn’t recognize him. When he was recognized, people often asked him to say the catchphrase, he said.
In addition to filming the commercials, the actors traveled around the United States and other countries for more than two years making media appearances with Budweiser at restaurants, clubs and conventions.
“We would walk up and posters would be plastered with our faces,” Thomas said.
They were also guests on well-known TV shows, like “The Tonight Show,” and even got tickets to the 2001 Super Bowl and NBA All-Star Games from 2000 to 2002.
“I would be home maybe four or five days out of the month,” Paul Williams said. “Sometimes not even in a row.”
Most recently, the “Whassup?” commercial was featured in the beginning of the 2016 movie “Central Intelligence” when Dwayne Johnson’s character messages Kevin Hart’s character on Facebook to hang out before their high school reunion.
“What’s so wild about it is something that was just ours became so popular,” Paul Williams said. “Because who would ever think that the [things] you do with your friends would catch on like that.”
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