Isaiah Mustafa is simply known as “The Old Spice Guy”, the half-naked beefcake best known for riding a horse backwards as part of the product’s “manmercials.”
You’ve probably seen less than a minute of the actor’s life, but Mustafa’s story has so many heart-breaking twists and serendipitous turns that Jay Leno compared it to “Slumdog Millionaire.”
That’s not far off.
Born in 1974 as the youngest of seven children to a Muslim family, he moved from Portland, OR, to Mission Viejo, CA, during his youth. His dad set up a limousine service but tragically died when he fell asleep at the wheel driving late at night.
“I think my optimistic spirit and nature come from him,” Mustafa said. “He never allowed me to say can’t – which was frustrating for a seven-year old… But that must have stuck.”
The family moved north of Los Angeles to Oxnard, CA, where Mustafa attended Santa Clara High School and stayed busy with acting and basketball. A 6-foot-3 center that was part of two state championship teams, Mustafa dreamt of playing for mighty UCLA, the school his older brother had attended.
But Division I colleges weren’t interested in guard-sized big men and he didn’t have the ball-handling skills for the backcourt. So Mustafa headed to Santa Monica College, where his hoop dreams fizzled out.
He wound up at Moorpark Junior College and competed in the decathlon after picking up track as a senior in high school. His first year at the JuCo, he finished second at the state’s junior college championships.
But knowing he wouldn’t be able to pay for college himself and that track wouldn’t lead to a scholarship, Mustafa looked for another sport to compete it. That led him to try football. Naturally, he became the team’s starting safety that fall without any prior experience.
But one day in practice, Mustafa was needed in emergency duty on the other side of the ball.
“For whatever reason, our receivers on our team decided not to come to practice because they were protesting our offense,” Mustafa said.
Oh, those crazy diva wide receivers.
Mustafa showed enough as a wideout to get inserted into a game, where his only two receptions went for touchdowns.
He trained the entire next offseason and learned how to play the position, then returned for the 1994 campaign by setting the single- season school records for catches and receiving yards.
With schools drooling over his 6-foot-3 frame and 4.4 speed, he picked up a college football preview magazine and flipped to the Pac-10 section to figure out where he wanted to play. That’s when he read about a scrawny quarterback that was taking the conference by storm named Jake Plummer.
When Mustafa’s dream of playing for UCLA was dashed after the Bruins handed their final scholarship to another player, Mustafa took a visit to the desert and instantly bonded with “The Snake” after meeting him in passing.
Said Mustafa: “We said something and both kind of started laughing. Then he said, ‘I hope you make the right decision. It’d be nice to have a nice, tall receiver to throw to.’ At that moment, I knew I was going to Arizona State.”
So he packed his bags for Tempe, where Mustafa started to see playing time right away – until he wound up in the doghouse with a case of the dropsies. Mustafa spent the majority of his remaining time at ASU on special teams, catching just five balls for 56 yards as a senior in 1996 when the Sun Devils reached the Rose Bowl.
But his raw athleticism enticed NFL scouts so much that after going unpicked in the 1997 NFL Draft, the Houston Oilers called and invited him to camp for $5,000.
“For me, that was like a million bucks,” Mustafa said. “I was like, ‘You want to give me $5,000 just to come to camp?’”
He spent the ’97 season on the practice squad but then became a journeyman with stints in Barcelona as part of NFL Europe, the Raiders and Browns.
Discouraged, he took the money he made in pro football and invested it in a barbeque restaurant he started on Melrose Avenue in 2000. Like his NFL career, the entrepreneurial venture didn’t go according to plan.
“It proved to be one of the worst ideas I ever had. Within six-months time, I fell flat on my face,” Mustafa said. “That’s when I was a bit of a lost soul, I was like sleeping on friend’s couches.”
After one last shot in the NFL in which he was cut by the Seahawks, Mustafa finally hung up his cleats for good.
Months later, Mustafa – a trivia buff – found himself watching a short-lived game show called “The Weakest Link” and thought to himself, “I could do that.” He did, getting each question right until he was one step from the final prize. All he had to do was give Dr. Frankenstein’s first name.
The problem? He had no idea.
Drawing upon the cartoon character “Dr. Doom” whose first name he did know, Mustafa blurted out, “Victor.”
That lucky guess won him nearly $50,000.
He used part of it to take acting classes and eventually landed bit parts in films and TV shows. But Mustafa was still looking for his big break at this time last year after nearly a decade in show business.
On his way to callbacks for the Old Spice commercial, Mustafa called up his longtime friend Plummer and left a message in an over-the-top voice that prompted Mustafa to push his character to the extreme.
He landed the role with that now-legendary voice and the commercial was put on YouTube the week before the Super Bowl. It then hit the airwaves right after the big game, creating more buzz than any of the $2.6 million ads shown as the Saints defeated the Colts.
The hits continued to pile up on YouTube as Mustafa became an instant celebrity.
“Once I went on Ellen, things got crazy,” Mustafa said. “Then I went on Oprah and things got even crazier.”
The video was recently viewed for the 25 millionth time on YouTube.
On top of a media whirlwind that included chats with Ellen, Oprah and Jay, Mustafa’s 2010 has also included an Emmy Award, proposing to the girlfriend of one of his Twitter followers over YouTube (she said yes), being named one of People magazine’s “100 Most Beautiful People,” landing a role in a Tyler Perry movie and another one with the likes of Jennifer Anniston, Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell and Kevin Spacey.
Not bad for a guy that started 2010 as an unknown in Hollywood.
It looks like getting a movie made about his remarkable life is one of the few things Mustafa hasn’t accomplished this year.
“That’s probably the point where I’d be like, ‘OK, who’s behind the curtain?’ ”