The name “Colonel Sanders” is one of those nom de plumes that carries a particularly strong connotation of folksy Americana, an immediate visual pastiche of a chipper-looking old southern gentleman in a spotlessly white suit, bedecked by a coif of wavy, equally white hair. To the millennial consumer, it’s a face they’ve seen on every bucket of KFC chicken they’ve ever been served, but they simultaneously have less connection with the idea of the man behind the logo.
Because yes, for the record—Colonel Harland David Sanders was indeed a real human being, for those who need the clarification. He was born in 1890 Indiana, and was made an honorary Kentucky Colonel (the most awesome state-based title one can have bestowed upon them) in 1935 by Governor Ruby Laffoon, five years before he finalized and began selling the “secret recipe” for what would become KFC. A savvy businessman with an innate understanding of how franchising could make him rich, Sanders built his chicken empire into a national force by the 1960s, before cashing out in 1964 and into semi-retirement.
However, that was hardly the end of “the Colonel” as a pop culture figure. In reality, the terms of his buyout of the company stated that Sanders would continue to appear as the product’s mascot in perpetuity, which included continuing to film KFC television commercials up to his death in 1980.
But wait, it’s not over! As it turns out, death could not claim this man’s image. KFC revived the Colonel as a character in 2015, in a move that was criticized by some for turning a real-life figure into a cartoonish spokesperson. However, given that the living Sanders family reportedly praised Darrell Hammond’s initial portrayal of Harland Sanders, I hardly feel that’s worth getting worked up about.
What we SHOULD get worked up about are all of the increasingly ham-handed Sanders characters that have come about since, including the announcement of actors such as Rob Lowe and Jason Alexander as a few of the latest to wear the white suit.* Watching some of the new commercials, I was struck by their exuberant awfulness. Lowe in particular doesn’t appear to be trying in the slightest to put anything into his Sanders performance, which got us to thinking in the Paste office—of the 18 comedians, actors, characters and wrestlers who have portrayed the man in a series of commercials since 2015, who did it best? And who did it worst? Read on, and find out.
*This even includes a computer-generated, non-physical representation of the original Colonel. Seriously, I can’t believe how many times I’ve had to update this list.
This recent Colonel also happens to be the worst of them all, mostly because he makes no effort to hide how blatantly he doesn’t care about making an attempt to portray the character. Even Dolph Ziggler, the pro wrestler ahead of Lowe on this list, makes the world’s most basic attempt at mimicking the Colonel’s famous southern accent. Lowe, on the other hand, just handwaves that duty away and rattles on in his everyday speaking voice. He sounds exactly like his slick characters from Wayne’s World or Thank You For Smoking in this spot, as if they ambushed him on the street, dressed him up as Colonel Sanders and put some cue cards in front of his face with no time to prepare. Which is a shame, because the “sending chicken sandwiches to space” premise is pretty amusing on its own.
To reiterate: Rob Lowe is being beaten on this list by a full-time WWE wrestler. If it was John Cena, you’d give him a pass. But Dolph Ziggler? Ouch.
This other recent version of the Colonel, replacing Rob Lowe, is an unsettling CGI composite of the original man, Harland Sanders. To quote the KFC bigwigs: “We’ve had some amazing celebrity Colonels over the past two years, and each of them has put their own twist on our original Colonel Harland Sanders,” said George Felix, KFC U.S. director of advertising. “But no one can play the Colonel like the Colonel can play the Colonel. Unfortunately, our original Colonel stopped making ads in the 1970s, so we utilized technology to bring him into the 21st century to sell modern-day offers like our $5 Fill Up and $10 Chicken Share himself.”
Because yeah, I’m sure that’s what Harland Sanders would have wanted—to be dragged out of the grave so he can do more $10 Chicken Share commercials in defiance of natural law. Coming soon to the Uncanny Valley: roadside KFC locations.
This one barely counts, but considering that they filmed a two-minute short film to sell chicken to wrestling crowds, we’ll still include it. Ziggler gets a few points for at least portraying an amusingly youthful and buff version of the Colonel, but his impression mostly sounds like your basic Foghorn Leghorn treatment, no more and no less. This is still enough to surpass Rob “give me my chicken check right now, please” Lowe, but that’s not saying much. If this was a superkick competition, Ziggler would probably come out on top (unless Jim Gaffigan is surprisingly nimble), but this guy’s strength is as a physical performer, not a chicken spokesman.
Note: Everything I just said also applies to the WWE’s second Colonel Sanders portrayer, Shawn Michaels. I can’t give this one a full rating, considering that he never actually speaks and just makes a single entrance, but here you go anyway.
Extra note: Okay, everything I just said also also applies to all of the OTHER WWE wrestlers who portrayed versions of Colonel Sanders in the 2018 “KFC Colonel Rumble.” Props to Rusev, whose entire Colonel costume is just a pair of glasses and a bolo tie on top of his normal wrestling gear. Ric Flair, on the other hand … that man was born to win this Colonel Rumble.
Another recent addition to the Colonel Sanders oeuvre is the so-called “Value Colonel,” the idea being that casting an unknown actor will buck the comedian-driven trend in the rest of these TV spots by adding a version of Colonel Sanders who represents the chain’s value menu. In performance, he’s … fine? He doesn’t really seem to be trying very hard to do the whole “Colonel” character, but that might be part of the idea itself—it’s hard to tell when we’re being this meta. He’s portrayed by “unknown actor” Christopher Boyer, for what it’s worth.
Also briefly appearing in ads alongside the “Value Colonel” is former Seinfeld and Jurassic Park actor Wayne Knight, who I absolutely refuse to accept as a “celebrity” in any format. The press release for this ad hilariously claims that although Knight was “too much of a celebrity, he still decided to be on set during filming in search of free chicken.” This seems much more accurate.
Mad Men’s young Pete portrayed the heartthrob “Nashville Colonel” as a parody of Buddy Holly-era rockabilly stars, which was a great idea except for the fact that Kartheiser really doesn’t appear “in the flesh” in any of the commercials. It’s almost impossible to rate his performance as a result—he’s just a youthful face on an album cover, useful for making a joke about young girls going wild for Nashville hot chicken, but of all the Colonels he’s obviously the most inconsequential. You can only shrug and move on to the next one.
Jason Alexander is handed the somewhat cringeworthy task of being the so-called “Sitcom Colonel,” which leads to the sad state of being described as “sitcom funnyman Jason Alexander” in official KFC press emails. The family sitcom parody below is stylishly executed, if completely informed by (and ripping off) the satire of Adult Swim’s “Too Many Cooks,” but what we should really be taking away here is that Alexander is completely wrong for this kind of portrayal. After all, the one sitcom he’s truly known for, Seinfeld, was literally designed to be the antithesis of the kind of happy, hugging family sitcom depicted below, and what other sitcom could one possibly associate with Alexander? Bob Patterson, which he starred in before it was canceled after five episodes? I don’t think so. As for Alexander’s actual portrayal of Sanders, you can’t tell much from the commercial below, but the other spots make it clear he’s not putting much effort into accent and characterization. This is one of those cases where I’m not saying the choice of actor was wrong, but the choice of how that actor was supposed to portray the Colonel ended up way off-base.
The ever-bronzed George Hamilton took on the role of the “extra crispy Colonel” over the course of last summer, becoming by far the elder statesman of the KFC spokesmen at 77 years old. His performance is fine—he has the vibe of a weathered, globe-trotting “most interesting Colonel in the world” from a KFC/Dos Equis crossover—but the entire campaign with Hamilton is simply based around a single physical joke. Equating the actor’s famously tanned face to “extra crispy” chicken isn’t a bad idea, but that’s all Hamilton’s take on the character has going for it, and he’s happy to saunter his way to a check for making the same joke he’s been making for decades. It’s fine, but low-effort.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Colonel?” Ray Liotta was a particularly surprising choice to take on the Colonel, and his portrayal is … interesting, at least. He seems to be rocking some kind of schizophrenic, dual personality angle here—the “Georgia Gold” Colonel is the classic, genial Colonel you know and love, and the “Nashville Hot” Colonel is a snarling psychopath who’s ready to bite your face off and wear it like Jim Carrey’s chicken skin in The Cable Guy. It’s easier to grade the impression in terms of the Georgia Gold Colonel—not exactly “accurate” in terms of the accent, but Liotta is full of vim and vigor, and that’s probably more important. It’s a high-energy reading, and I can respect that. And “I will warsh your mouth out with sweet ‘n tangy chicken!” is a great line.
On the surface, Riggle seems more or less like a perfect casting for a loud, aggressive, sort of hyperbolic take on the Colonel. In my mind’s eye, I can picture him harnessing the angry douchebag sycophant he played in Step Brothers and somehow bringing that kind of furious energy to Colonel Sanders in a funny way. In execution, though, Riggle is just okay. He seems to be holding back somewhat from completely unleashing his inner fire—I kind of want to see him just snap and go berserk on the players of his fictitious, chicken-themed football team, The Buckets. There’s a spark of something great here, but it didn’t quite get harnessed. If they’d taken the leash off Riggle, he probably could have been great.
In a lot of these portrayals, I’ve criticized whether or not the actor in the role made any sort of attempt to “be” Colonel Sanders, but Hafthor Bjornsson’s “Double Colonel” character is essentially immune to such criticism. Here, the fact that The Mountain sounds like a Scandinavian muscle man is the whole joke, and it works—I enjoy the fact that they claim he traveled from his home in Kentucky “to the frozen mountains of Iceland” exclusively for the purposes of training, which gives him the strength he needs to pull 700-pound sleds full of chicken. It’s incredibly stupid, but in the correct way, summed up by the shot of Bjornsson holding the brand’s new Double Crispy Colonel and screaming “SANDWICHHHHH!” at it, like he’s The Heavy from Team Fortress 2. Still, I’d like to note that nothing in this commercial made me laugh as hard as the image of the sandwich itself, which is the very definition of unwieldy excess. How do you even fit that in your mouth?
This entry represents the odd case where the person portraying Colonel Sanders is being referred to not as their actual name as a performer, but by the name of a famous character they once played—the commercials say “Rudy” is the Colonel, rather than “Sean Astin.” Regardless, our former erstwhile Samwise Gamgee does seem to be giving it a good attempt at the Colonel accent and mannerisms, but the joke runs a bit on the thin side, coming off as if it was the result of a board room full of stoned writers working exclusively around the final punchline: ”_____. He’s Colonel Sanders now.” Still, it’s nice to hear that Rudy theme once again, and the production values are certainly on point, but this seems like an entry that could have been even higher with a few tweaks.
Who else could upstage The Mountain as this series’ best stunt casting than ROBOCOP himself, portraying Colonel Sanders? This makes such a delightful lack of sense that it’s impossible not to love. The stated reason, delivered with wonderful straight-facedness by the KFC PR team, is that Robocop has been called on “to ensure the secret recipe is never compromised.” “Colonel Robocop” has done this by transporting “a heavily encrypted digital copy of the secret recipe to the Bahnhof maximum security nuclear bunker, Pionen, located in Stockholm, Sweden.” Why it was necessary to upload the consciousness of Colonel Sanders into Robocop in order to make this happen, I’m really not sure. His commercials, meanwhile, earn a few points for use of the iconic Robocop theme music, but lose points for the fact that he never shoots anyone in the junk. Still, he does ignore a crime in progress in one of them in order to feed a “hungry boy” a chicken tender, so that’s something. Overall, this ranks somewhere just below that time Robocop marched down to the ring in World Championship Wrestling to save Sting.
This actually isn’t the first time KFC has resorted to a computer-generated Colonel Sanders—see the entry on “CGI Colonel” above—but it’s a much more effective take on the joke. Here, they’ve created a nearly pitch-perfect satire of Instagram influencer culture—a Colonel with an infuriatingly self-satisfied smirk and a fake model girlfriend to boot. Appearing entirely on the company’s Instagram account, he dishes out humble-brags like “I may be a restaurant mogul and international inspiration, but I’m still just a kid who loves being in the kitchen.” We can’t deny that the parody rings entirely true, although it’s not exactly the first time the joke has been exploited in the post-Fyre Festival internet. We have to dock him a few points for not being a literal human being, and thus having no TV commercials to assess, but for an Instagram-only Colonel he’s actually doing quite well in the rankings.
Now, if this was a list of the “most punchable” Colonels, he would surely be the #1 draft pick. Just look at that face.
Well, KFC finally did it. The most recent Colonel shatters that more than century old standard by daring to imagine the Colonel as—gasp—a woman! This they’ve decided to do with a honky-tonkin’ spin on the character played by country legend, sitcom actress and former Tremors star Reba McEntire, which was a rather inspired choice. To be frank, McEntire looks weirdly right in some Colonel Sanders drag, and her commercial is high energy and fun. This one is obviously less about trying to preserve any kind of authenticity or channel the spirit of the original Colonel, but it scores better than some of the others on sheer energy and chutzpah. It’s hard not to chuckle at lines like “please ignore any likeness to a famous country singer,” and “I swear I’m not a famous woman!” The only confusing thing in this commercial is the chicken itself—you’re just calling it “Smoky Mountain BBQ,” KFC? Despite the fact that it’s still chicken, rather than pork? Alright then.
Billy Zane is practically unrecognizable as the “Golden Colonel,” a newer incarnation created to hawk the brand’s recent “Georgia Gold” chicken. Perhaps it’s just the fact that the man is solid gold, but Zane brings an ineffable sense of suave to the role; a low-key aura of competence, professionalism and control. This Colonel seems like he couldn’t be bothered by any of life’s annoyances, and he’ll beat you effortlessly at arm wrestling just to remind you that nothing can tarnish the brightness with which he shines. He loses a few points for not committing to the accent—much like Lowe, he’s mostly speaking with his typical voice—but it’s not as egregious, nor does the source seem to be a lack of interest on Zane’s part. He’s the most successful of all these guys in playing a laid-back, subtle version of the Colonel … ironic, considering that his gold-clad face is the most ostentatious of them all. In general, Zoolander said it best—“he’s a pretty cool dude.”
Norm Macdonald had the most difficult task of these Colonels, because he was the first to replace a previous spokesman, which was inherently confusing to the audience. Still, Macdonald excelled in the role, choosing to portray the Colonel with silliness as his primary ally. He brought some amusing physical comedy to the role, and his commercials often thrust the Colonel into situations where he’s masquerading among the public “incognito”—I especially like the one with him evangelizing about chicken to a bunch of college kids, evoking obvious comparison to Steve Buscemi’s “How do you do, fellow kids?” scene from 30 Rock. He totally goes overboard with the absurdity of the accent, building it into a memorable parody all its own. He’s clearly unafraid to look silly at what he’s doing, and it works really well.
If you did a poll at the beginning of this ad campaign about what comedian should portray a new version of Colonel Sanders, I have to imagine that Gaffigan would have been a clear favorite. His shtick has cycled around unhealthiness and food for so long, it’s almost too obvious. But Gaffigan’s commercials transcend the obvious reasons for choosing him as a Colonel and instead harness some of the aspects that make Gaffigan such a lovable performer in general. His Colonel is gentle and neurotic, a worrier rather than Riggle’s loudmouth or Macdonald’s weirdo. He’s afraid of a world where he won’t be able to bring people delicious chicken, and his inherent teddy bear nature shines through the tropes of the Colonel to create a guy you just want to reassure and say “there there, it’ll be okay.” He’s like Winnie the Pooh as a chicken mascot, and I can’t help but laugh when he observes “Boy, I sure do have a lot of nightmares about chicken.”
Hammond was the first guy brought in to play the new Colonel in 2015, and his initial portrayal received a lot of attention and criticism. He was unexpectedly slammed by old-timers who claimed the commercials were somehow going to “tarnish the legacy” of Harlan Sanders, and the portrayal itself was said by some to be “creepy.” But guess what? It’s also the best and most accurate of all of them—call it creepy or weird if you will, but only if you’re also acknowledging that the original Colonel wasn’t exactly a common character either—that’s what made him an iconic pitchman in the first place!
Hammond’s take on the Colonel is all about subtlety, and he put in plenty of work to make it that way. He was apparently hired by the company without any idea that he would be the first in a series of Colonels, and instead thought he might be portraying the character for years. As a result, he studied books about Sanders’ life and even met with his family to get their blessing and refine his impression. His dialog as Sanders as a result has a twinkling, rather impish sense of mischief to it—he seems like a guy with a screw or two loose, but in that “You have to meet this friend of mine, he’s a riot” sort of way. Who can forget his bizarre little ditty about “chicken in the bucket, chicken in the beans?” It’s the little touches that have always defined Hammond as an actor on his SNL years as well—it should be no surprise that a master of impressions is the best of the Colonel Sanders.
As a result, I can only conclude that Hammond was right to be pissed when KFC unexpectedly replaced him and began the chain of “imposter Colonels.” Even Norm Macdonald, the second Colonel agrees: “In my opinion, KFC made a big mistake replacing Darrell Hammond.” And he’s right.
Between 1998 and 2001, a boisterous, hypkerinetic animated version of Colonel Sanders appeared in TV commercials, voiced by none other than Cousin Eddie himself, Randy Quaid. They’re equal parts frightening and hilarious. I’d like to believe that Quaid was paid entirely in chicken for these performances.
Jim Vorel is a Paste Magazine staff writer and fast food connoisseur. You can follow him on Twitter for more weird food scribbling.