J.R. Adduci can measure his 37 years on the planet in two eras: Before Bobby and After Bobby.
The three decades B.B. set him wandering the country in search of jobs, love and self-identity, often blown – literally, in one case – by the winds of chance.
The first days A.B. find him planning the most important journey of his life: An imminent move to Los Angeles with his wife and daughter to reinvigorate his full-time acting career.
In between those sojourns came six years as Charlotte’s most iconic pitchman: Bobby, the sweet-natured Morris-Jenkins employee who turned up everywhere from highway billboards to the satiric show “Charlotte Squawks.” (Dewey Jenkins, who took over the company in 1990 from Luther Morris, appeared as Bobby’s genial boss in those ads. He proved in “Squawks” he could take a ribbing.)
“Mr. Jenkins sat me down when I signed the first two-year contract,” recalled Adduci, sipping coffee at Nova’s Bakery during day two of a sleepless blitz. “He said, ‘J.R., are you ready? I want to make sure you’re ready. We’re going to make you famous.’ ”
Did Adduci smile at that?
“Just to myself, because I wanted to be polite. I had no idea they were going to put so much money behind the campaign and hire a marketing genius (Roy Williams) to create this master plan.”
People who knew James Roy Adduci as a Charlotte teenager might have bet he’d be infamous someday. “I grew up a tough kid – too fast in some ways, not fast enough in others,” said Adduci, the only son of parents who divorced when he was three weeks old. “I didn’t have a problem with authority, but I always questioned it.”
Charlotte Catholic High School gave him walking papers at 16: He’d collected beer money from classmates going on a trip, kept a percentage and given the rest to 18-year-olds with fake IDs to buy brews. “The bus never left the parking lot,” he recalled, shaking his head.
But an epiphany awaited him at East Mecklenburg High School. When alone, he gravitated toward the backstage area of its empty auditorium, which felt homey. Drama teacher Glenda Kale told the intense, questioning young man, “You can do (theater), if you understand it takes a lot of work. You have something special.”
Adduci looks back and wonders whether “she meant it, or she just realized I needed to hear it. She fostered the sense in me of escaping from a dark place.” He found another mentor at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte: Executive director Scott Miller, who let him hang out at CTC and assigned books to read – including Stanislavsky’s theories of acting.
“That seemed like strange stuff for a high schooler, all these ideas about internal conflict and sense memory,” Adduci said. “But it interested me. My goal as an actor is still to stay in the brave, consistent pursuit of the truth.”
He dropped out of East Meck to take a paying gig with CTC’s touring show, “The Ice Cream Man.” Then came 12 years of false starts: living with his dad in Chicago, going to St. Louis and Oklahoma City to stay with his mom. He even made an abortive run at L.A. But when he drove from his mother’s Oklahoma house to the interstate, where he could go west to California or east to North Carolina, the wind blew to the east. He took that as a sign and came back to Charlotte.
Adduci spent most of those years in New York City. There, acting coach Gene Frankel “taught me how to be vulnerable onstage, how to be honest. ‘Wrap your gut around it,’ he’d say.” Meanwhile, Adduci wrapped his hands around bagels and coffee cups as a craft services worker on some 30 films. (He was also the hair stand-in for Peter Dinklage on a 2007 “Underdog,” before Dinklage’s “Game of Thrones” fame.)
Along the way, good things happened: Adduci got a high school diploma through Central Piedmont Community College, married yoga instructor Sumanah Khan and rekindled his love for the stage after landing in Charlotte yet again in 2006. He held a day job as a landscaper for three years, until Morris-Jenkins chose him.
“Kevin Johnson (now a semi-regular on the Netflix series “Ozark”) and I were up for it,” Adduci recalled. “I think they went with me because I was married. Morris-Jenkins operates like a family, so maybe they looked for that.”
Though a steady monthly check seems like Christmas to any actor, he realized he was Santa Claus in this scenario. Everywhere he went, including surprise visits to customers’ homes, he stayed in character.
“People thought of Bobby as a real person,” he said. “They’d ask, ‘Do you really work for Morris-Jenkins?’ I could legitimately say, ‘Yes, I do.’ If they wanted me to fix their heating system, I’d say, ‘That’s not my department. But I know people who can!’ ”
The recurring paycheck let him take varying degrees of reimbursement at local theaters, from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at Theatre Charlotte to “Venus in Fur” at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. He often worked at now-defunct Carolina Actors Studio Theatre alongside lifelong friend J.R. Jones.
The last two years have brought three special pleasures. He and Sumanah had a daughter, Charlie Isabella. Adduci founded The Group Studio, where he teaches free acting classes to share what he’s learned. And his time with Morris-Jenkins immersed him in charity work, notably at Levine Children’s Hospital – where his baby daughter spent two weeks gaining strength – and Crisis Assistance Ministry, whose aid Adduci accepted in his own lean years.
Now Los Angeles beckons again. He’ll go west this time with a family, more confidence and self-awareness, and a generous farewell gift from Morris-Jenkins. He expects to leave within four months and has already lined up an agent at Innovative Artists and work contacts through actor pals.
One thing hasn’t changed: His level of intensity.
“I feel like everything I have ever done, accidentally or on purpose, has put me where I should have been,” he said. “Now I’m going out there as a father, a husband, a son, an actor, a teacher, a teller of stories and a seeker of truth.”