To see Jim Coari around the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center you would never mistake him for Don Draper of “Mad Men”. Coari is short, bald, Italian and 70 years old. Nothing waspy about this guy.But underneath his deceptive appearance Coari is way cooler, way smarter and infinitely funnier than Don Draper, the troubled, paranoiac, womanizing paladin of the big time advertising world. If they had made the show about Coari instead of Draper the producers would have called it “Funny Men,” because Coari can make you laugh the moment you meet him. Now that is funny.
What’s more, Coari could portray himself, because among his many accomplishments is acting. Look under IMDB and you can find him in the casts of “The Gilmore Girls” and “Scrubs” and in the leading role of the independent movie “Way Station,” an homage to “Twilight Zone” in which a group of people wait in a surreal café for a better world.
Ever the showman, Coari has also done many stage productions and even standup comedy. And the guy playing the monk in a Quaker Oats commercial? That was Coari. He wore a strange leather skullcap and held up a sign that read “Silence Please.”
All of these things stem from Coari’s briliant career as an ad man in Chicago in the 1970s. He was extremely convincing, and he often got clients’ names on the dotted line while they were laughing.
“It was 100 percent like ‘Mad Men,” Coari said of his years in the big city advertising jungle. “There were bars in offices, three-martini lunches, expensive wines. It was a fun business.” There were bars in offices, three-martini lunches, expensive wines. “It was a wild business.”
Unfortunately, there was also lots of sexism. An entirely different era from today, women were nowhere to be found in the top ranks. “There was always a women like Christina Hendricks character who was ‘mother hen” to all the female employees,” adds Coari, “but was never allowed in on the big decisions. In later years, however; advertising was one of the first industries to boast female-owned agencies and women in senior management positions (mostly in the creative departments and working on female-oriented products).He made out very well indeed convincing companies to buy his ideas, even the most stubborn, hard-headed executives. When clients became hostile his comrades would send for good old Jim. He melted a lot of ice.
Coari was never speechless. Except once. He was at a television production session when an elderly gent sat down beside and said, “Howdy.”
“I looked at him and it was Roy Rogers,” Coari said. “He was my boyhood hero. It was like the presence of God. I couldn’t say word.” Yes, Coari used to watch “The Roy Rogers Show” every Saturday while growing up in his home in Chicago.
He was never lonely, because while he, his mom and dad, twin sisters, and grandfather occupied the third floor of their apartment, his grandfather’s family was on the second floor and his cousins were on the first floor. His great uncle also lived in the basement. It was a warm, happy life full of family and under the utter dominance of Coari’s mother. “She was like the mom in ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’" Coari said. Among her superlative talents was cooking, not just pasta and sauce but all dishes, like her awesome egg-fu-yung. The only trouble was she made gourmet food all of the time. Coari said, “I used to gripe that she never made hamburgers and hotdogs like my friends’ moms.”
Coari’s mind is packed with memories of his big warm Italian family. One of the most unforgettable is his grandfather’s parrot. Grandfather was a native of Italy and never lost his heavy Italian accent, which he passed on to his parrot. “The parrot spoke just like him,” Coari said. “He was a real talker. He’d say things like ‘I’m a nica boy’ and ‘Whosa pretty bird.”
As the only son, little Jimmy was the golden child of the family, and he repaid all of this attention by being an extremely entertaining kid. He was prone to saying inappropriate things (“I still do that.”) but he would make up for it by doing something hilarious. He gave a preview of his future acting career with his many performances.
“I had a character named Mrs. Wilson,” Coari said. “She was an old bag lady who visited the building. My cousins still ask about her when I go back to Chicago for a visit.” When not keeping his family in stitches, Coari was a fine young scholar and earned a master’s degree in journalism at prestigious Northwestern University.However, instead of joining the legendary newspaper scene in Chicago (see “Front Page”) Coari heard the siren call of the ad world. It wasn’t entirely smooth going at the start. He was very un-"Draperlike" at his first three-martini lunch.
“They insisted that I drink three martinis,” Coari said. “After the first one I went into the men’s room and threw up. I gradually got used to martinis.”
As for his life, though, Coari was just warming up. He eventually left the Windy City and took his wife and two sons to San Francisco, where he became a partner in an ad agency just as the dot.com boom was starting. He was still there when the dot.com bubble burst. Tiring of the ad game after so many years, Coari moved to Los Angeles and re-invented himself as a college teacher. He was still a great communicator, imparting his knowledge of business at schools that included the University of Southern California and Long Beach State.
As if Coari’s life wasn’t busy enough, the acting bug bit him badly. He was active in community theatre in San Francisco, and his performances received such acclaim that he was urged to become a professional actor. So when he moved to L.A. he took the plunge Coari said.
“I got an agent, took acting classes, joined the actors union, the whole bit.”Coari may have been the oldest beginning actor in Los Angeles, but he stuck with it and had some success, even if the big bucks eluded him.
“Every time they run the episode of the ‘Gilmore Girls’ I was in I get a check for $23.18.”Of course, Coari has lots of stories about his time in the Hollywood Shuffle. One time he was on the set of the hilarious homicidal comedy “So I Married An Axe Murderer” and asked a bystander to point out the movie’s star, Mike Myers. The guy he asked was Mike Myers.
When he finally decided to slow down (just slightly), Jim and his wife moved to Lake Oswego two and a half years ago. He loves the city and he loves the ACC. He also loves living near his son Kevin and his family.
Coari has also gotten deeply involved in an activity that has always been part of his flamboyant life: helping out his fellow man. As an ad man, Coari encountered some of the shiniest suits in the USA, but now he helps men who wear ragged clothes, are penniless, hungry, overwhelmed by addictions to alcohol, drugs or both, and totally estranged from their families.
“I volunteer at the Union Gospel Mission in Portland,” Coari said. “I answer the phone, I greet people. Some of them have lived lives that are hard to believe. Some used to be doctors and businessmen. Others have lived on the streets their entire lives. The best thing is to see the ones who become a new person and change their lives.”
Then there was the man who was totally empty. His goal in life was to get through the day. “He was young, he came from a nice middle-class family, but he just didn’t care about anything,” Coari said.
Meanwhile, Jim Coari still gets the most out of life. After moving to Lake Oswego he became active at the ACC, participating in meals-on-meals and showing a real flare for dishwashing in the kitchen. He is as irrepressible today as he was as a kid growing up in Chicago.
“I never want to grow up,” he said.Yet Coari is also quite a sage. He gives out the best advice.“I always tell young people you can do anything you want to do,” he said. “Just be sure to surround yourself with the things you love and you’ll be successful.”
Jim Coari may not be a Mad Man. But he is a Wise Man, and a very funny one.