Food History

Why Does the KFC Man's Face Keep Changing?

October 11, 2016

Whoa—did someone "turn the heat up" in this kitchen? I've just happened upon Vincent Kartheiser, the Mad Men veteran who's KFC's newest choice to play Colonel Sanders to promote the return of its Nashville Hot Chicken. In his latest avatar, Sanders, normally a cheery old man, has been Benjamin Button'ed into a green 37.

My husband. Look at him. Goatee on his chin like a white sprinkle of snow, the rims of his glasses grazing his temple, studded cardigan blazer the hue of heavy cream, fingers massaging the tight strings of a guitar.

"Like KFC's Nashville Hot Chicken, I'm a bit of a rebel decked out in authentic Nashville flavor—a perfect combination of classic and cool," commented Kartheiser of his casting. Oh, baby!

This mascot is based on an actual man, Colonel Harland David Sanders, who was the founder and public face of KFC from its inception in 1952 until his death in 1980 at age 90. Sanders' gently grinning face was smacked on the company's logo, too, to ensure his immortality, with other hand-drawn attempts at keeping his memory aflame. For a brief period in the late nineties and early aughts, a man drawn in Sanders' likeness was voiced by Randy Quaid (whom I loved in 1973's The Last Detail and nothing after it) in a series of animated commercials.

Thirty years after Colonel Sanders' death, though, KFC surveyed American millennials aged between 18 and 25 to get a read on their understanding of the company. The results were startling! Six out of 10 of these silly kids couldn't identify the man in the logo as Colonel Sanders; five out of 10 believed this supposed "man" was fiction!

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Fast to act, KFC waited five whole years (uh, what's the hold-up, guys?) before re-introducing Colonel Sanders to consumers, mounting a $185 million brand makeover campaign replete with commercials starring popular actors as Sanders. And then they re-introduced him again. And another time. Once more, too. Also, another time. Now, KFC can't stop re-introducing Colonel Sanders.

It all began in May 2015 with Darrell Hammond, the Saturday Night Live alum perhaps best known for parodying Bill Clinton. Hammond went method for the role, undergoing intense research and spending time with Sanders' real family to sink into this man's tortured mind. But the strain was too evident in the final product. You can see the wheels turning in Hammond's interpretation. I don't like it at all. Next!

Let's mosey on over to Norm Macdonald, another alumnus of SNL. Macdonald succeeded Hammond, and it was something of a scandal. In August of 2015, KFC changed course with Colonel Sanders for indeterminate reasons, and the scorned Hammond has been smarting about being replaced ever since. "To build me up like, you're going to bring back the Colonel, he's an American icon," Hammond said on Opie Radio, "And then there's five others." It's not as if Macdonald's Sanders is much better than Hammond's; Macdonald is fine, neither here nor there. I've forgotten that I even watched this commercial.

In comes traipsing Jim Gaffigan! In February of this year, Gaffigan shimmied his way into the shoes of this long-gone Colonel. Gaffigan's take on the role is showboating and inelegant, his diction strained and off-puttingly nasal. His presence we've come to know and tolerate with such shows as...uh, The Jim Gaffigan immutable underneath Sanders' gruff exterior. This recalls what my mother once told me about Madonna as Eva Perón; no matter what role she is playing, she is still Madonna. Jim Gaffigan is always Jim Gaffigan.

Lest we forget that in June, Gaffigan bowed out temporarily to make way for George Hamilton, tanned "to a crisp" for just one product—KFC's Extra Crispy Chicken. There's Hamilton, the man I remember most fondly from his few days on Dynasty, glacially ambling on over to a bucket of crunchy, cooked birds. I like Hamilton the best out of all the Sanders thus far, so it's quite a shame that KFC, that corporate tease, only wanted him for the Extra Crispy product and nothing else!

In September, KFC had a dalliance with broad-shouldered, brooding former Lieutenant Colonel Rob Riggle, who's now a comedian. Riggle "fell into the bucket" of men who played Sanders by playing Coach Colonel, head of a fictional football team called the Kentucky Buckets. Riggle's casting was a real coup—not only was he an actual Colonel, he was also from Kentucky. Crazy. He's very watchable.

And—oh, wow! Look at this. It's suddenly October, and we've chanced upon Vincent Kartheiser, the once-"mad man" who's now channeled his anger into the flames of Nashville hot chicken. You can even see his face at the beginning of the thirty-second "spot," his crooning jams playing on the young woman's record player. "They're back," this young woman wails. "KFC spicy smoky crispy Nashviille Hot Chicken tenders!" Clearly a euphemism for this hunk. It's but impossible to tell whether Kartheiser makes a passable Colonel Sanders; he does not talk, reduced to mere eye candy throughout the commercial's duration—continuing our rather disturbing cultural trend of objectifying men.

Who's next? The fact that this character's been cast and recast so many times isn't lost on KFC's ad team; it's become a self-referential current that runs through some of the commercials, akin to what Becky once was to Roseanne. The real life of Mr. Sanders is an oblique, complicated tale—one of the better pieces of writing I've read this year is this from Damn Interesting outlining his life, and the portrait is warts-and-all. I wish the commercials above were as stellar as this piece; I don't think it's unreasonable to demand the scope of a biopic from my 30-second fast food ads. Do you?

Who's your favorite Colonel Sanders? Let us know in the comments!

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Diane H. July 18, 2018
Please try to get someone to play the colonel's part. You all have done so well thius far. I say, keep trying to get that person. I know that you all can do it! Keep up the Good Work!! Yay!! Sincerely, Diane Harmon of Longview, Tx. 75603.
cd April 10, 2017
Sanders is probably rolling over in his grave
Moshee October 12, 2016
George Hamilton is the only choice for Colonel, but I have to admit I enjoy the jump scare aspect of a new Colonel every commercial. Who will it be next???
ChefJune October 12, 2016
I thought they changed the name to "KFC" from "Kentucky Fried Chicken" too remove any need for the Colonel after his death. Why don't they just leave well enough alone and go for some other gimmick in their advertising?
Betsey October 12, 2016
No, they renamed to remove the word "fried" from the advertising.
plevee October 12, 2016
He visited a specialist children's hospital I worked in. Brought a copy of his autobiography and not so much as a chicken wing for the kids and staff.
Betsey October 11, 2016
George Hamilton as the Extra Crispy Colonel is GENIUS casting.