August 19, 2015
Rob Thielke was the face of Vern Fonk Insurance in dozens of eclectic commercials since 1995. Thielke died Sunday after a battle with colon cancer. Steve Bloom Staff file, 2010
by Coral Garnick, Tacoma News-Tribune
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.
Thielke died in his Snohomish home Sunday after a long battle with colon cancer. He was 50.
“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.
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.
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.”