The legendary TV pitchman for Vern Fonk Insurance died Sunday.
Robert Thielke created and played in the outrageous late-night Vern Fonk commercials for the last 20 years, spoofing “Star Wars,” “Back to the Future,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “X Factor” and even rapper Eminem.
While many people thought the man in the commercials was Vern Fonk himself, it was Thielke, president of Vern Fonk Insurance, the high-risk auto and homeowners insurance company founded in Seattle in 1952.
Thielke died in his Snohomish home Sunday after a long battle with colon cancer. He was 50.
Moving with his family from California to Washington when he was 3, Thielke grew up on the Eastside and graduated from Juanita High School in 1983.
“Vern hired him right out of the store and said he’d teach him the business,” said Joel Thielke, Robert’s younger brother who helped him film many of the commercials.
With only a high-school diploma, Thielke started at Vern Fonk Insurance in 1989.
The original idea for the crude commercials came from Fonk, and they began shortly before Fonk retired in 1995, with the “Forrest Gump” parody as one of the originals in 1994. The real Vern Fonk died in 2006.
While at Vern Fonk, Thielke joined a pantheon of other Northwest TV pitchmen, often the owners of the businesses, who made their mark with over-the-top commercials: Dick Balch, Jack Roberts, Glen Grant.
Every regional market seemed to have its version, often for car dealerships, but also for appliance stores and insurance companies.
The pitchmen appeared crazy, but they were crazy like foxes. Business boomed, although some eventually ended up in financial trouble.
Between 1995 and 2010 when the company was purchased by California-based Confie, six new locations opened around Washington and the commercials played a role in the success of the Vern Fonk brand. In a statement, Confie said Thielke was “instrumental in the company’s growth,” which now has 23 locations throughout Washington and Oregon.
Cathy Thielke, Rob Thielke’s wife of 13 years, said he was worried when Vern Fonk was purchased because it would no longer be a family-run business. But, he quickly saw the possibilities and in 2013 was even named president of the company.
Thielke couldn’t go anywhere without getting recognized. He has photos with the Sea Gals; he loved both the Mariners baseball and the Seahawks football teams. Once, while hiking in Los Angeles with his brother, a couple of girls recognized him, screamed “it’s the Vern Fonk guy” and asked for an autograph. Someone even recognized him while in a Mexican airport.
“He was involved in drama in high school and loved being in front of a camera,” said Eric Matson, a longtime friend and best man at his wedding. “So the fact that he became a local celebrity, he just loved it.”
Surprisingly, outside of work, Thielke was actually a more quiet, reserved man, his wife says. He still, of course, had his goofy moments, breaking into dance at the airport or filming himself making funny faces, but he was more serious than what people saw in the commercials, she said.
Thielke was a dedicated Christian and was passionate about helping children. He sat on the board of Hand in Hand, a safe place for displaced children entering foster care.
In addition to his wife and brother, Thielke is survived by his mother, Carol; sister, Lynne; and five children. He was preceded in death by his father, Robert Thielke Jr.
The service will be private, and in lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Hand in Hand.
In the next few weeks, Confie said it will air TV spots featuring a montage of Thielke’s commercials. And in a statement, it asked fans to further honor Thielke’s memory with the insurance firm’s slogan, “Remember to honk when you drive by Vern Fonk.”
Seattle Times staff writer Erik Lacitis contributed to this report.