WASHINGTON, D.C. — A study from the Pew Research Center released on Tuesday revealed the United States of America has forgotten actor Ken Wahl.
The third largest country in the world by population, the United States has no recollection of the one-time heartthrob and former “Wiseguy” star, who has not acted since 1996, when he reprised his star-making role of “Vinnie Terranova” in a made-for-television “Wiseguy” movie.
The study, which included surveys and experiments in which more than 1,000 participants were shown episodes of “Wiseguy” and other iconic television shows from the 1970s and 1980s, indicated that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population remembers Ken Wahl’s name or would be able to recognize him on the street, at a Department of Motor Vehicles office or if he were to ask them for spare change on a street corner or subway platform, something one study participant insisted Wahl had done as recently as 2012.
Lead researcher Diana Melendez explains that the study, commissioned by NBCUniversal in an effort to explore the potential marketability of stars from yesteryear, produced some surprising results.
“We really felt this was going to be a groundbreaking study into the fleeting nature of celebrity,” explains Melendez. “While I can say with certainty that the study was groundbreaking, ultimately some of the results turned our initial theory on its head.”
Though Melendez admittedly did not expect many participants to remember Wahl, the researcher notes that the nearly universal amnesia of the study group with regard to the tall, dark and once-handsome Chicago-born actor was somewhat surprising to the study’s authors. But the surprise at Wahl’s transformation from leading man on a popular and critically acclaimed television show to wholly unrecognizable and forgotten afterthought paled in comparison to that of the study’s other findings, most notably that celebrity is not as fleeting as the case of Ken Wahl might suggest.
“My fellow authors and I concluded that Ken Wahl is the exception and not the rule,” said Melendez, citing the study participants’ considerable familiarity with other aging actors whose time in the limelight has long since expired. “For example, more than 70 percent of our participants instantly recognized Gregory Sierra, who played third fiddle to Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson as Fred and Lamont Sanford’s Puerto Rican neighbor, Julio, on ‘Sanford & Son,’ a show that aired its final episode in 1977. By contrast, barely anyone remembered Ken Wahl, even though he was still starring as the lead in his own show as recently as 1990.”
Perhaps most telling was that more than 80 percent of participants fondly recalled a handful of Wahl’s “Wiseguy” costars, including Jim Byrnes, William Russ and Ray Sharkey. Neither Byrnes, Russ nor Sharkey, who passed away more than two decades ago, are considered household names, yet participants still widely recalled each actor’s name and face while drawing a collective blank with regard to the 59-year-old Wahl.
“Science cannot explain everything,” admits Melendez. “But in this case it’s almost as if Americans have made a nearly universal and conscious effort to forget Ken Wahl.”