VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — “I was retired for 30 years, until at the age of 90 I got swept up in this commercial bit,” Morty Kaufman said.
He was referring to the popular TV spots for Swiffer, the maker of household-cleaning products, which he stars in with his wife, Lee. In a series of unscripted 30-second ads, the couple discuss their blissful 44-year union and their division of household labor (Lee does the cleaning; Morty the napping), and marvel at the Swiffer Sweeper and other supplies that have been left on their doorstep.
In one ad, Morty addresses the camera, saying: “There’s only two of us. How much dirt can we manufacture?” He and his wife answer in unison — “Very little” and “More than you think,” respectively — in a perfect encapsulation of the male-female cleaning divide that has no doubt existed since before the invention of the broom.
After the commercials began airing six months ago, the Kaufmans became Lee and Morty, TV personalities. The couple, whose names and alternating one-liners have the ring of a Catskills comedy duo, have appeared on the “Today” show and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”; have been interviewed by the local PIX 11 weatherman Mr. G (“A hell of a nice guy,” Morty said); and were recently honored by the Senior Pops Orchestra of Long Island.
Last week, they greeted a visitor on the set where the commercials were filmed: their tidy one-story ranch house on suburban Long Island.
“I bought it 62 years ago,” Morty said from his favorite leather recliner in the living room. “It was new. I paid $15,000 for the house and another $1,000 for the garage.”
He had dressed for the interview in gray pants, a white shirt and a tie. Lee wore a sparkly purple ensemble and sat near her husband on a floral upholstered couch. Daughter Myra Allen, 62, whose friendship with a casting director led to the couple’s unlikely late-life career as pitchmen, looked on affectionately.
The commercials were filmed over two days last winter.
“Two days of work,” Morty said, shaking his head. “After that, it was all residuals and personal appearances.”
He remains mystified by their popularity.
“I look at commercials very casually,” he said. “It’s very hard to let it sink in that people are interested. My reaction was, ‘Why?’ ”
For her part, Lee found it strange to be recognized when she and her husband would go to Woodro kosher deli and other local spots.
“I didn’t understand why people would be looking at me, I really didn’t,” she said. “I looked down. I thought my pants fell off.”
The ads’ success lies less with the magic of the Swiffer WetJet than with the Kaufmans, who project an appealing picture of marriage and old age. They are both 91 and still in their home, and they appear loving and physically spry on camera (to demonstrate her chandelier-dusting method, Lee scales a chair).
“Well, on the TV we look viable,” said Morty, who has twice battled cancer. “They’re not going to show me hobbling around.”
Nevertheless, he drives two days a week to Nassau Community College, where he helps supervise a seniors learning program. And Lee said she is active in the alumni association of Hunter College, her alma mater.
“Make no mistake, we are goers and doers,” she said. “We are not stay-at-homes. We see a lot of opera in Manhattan.”
Morty pointed out that they have slowed down in recent years, and Lee agreed.
“We used to do a lot more, that’s very true,” she said.
Though the Kaufmans come across as lifelong companions, they married in their 40s, after their previous spouses died and left them with children. He had four; she was raising a son and daughter and was the reading teacher for his youngest son, Scott. They met at a school parent-teacher conference, Morty said.
“The second time I went I said: ‘I didn’t come to discuss Scotty. Would you care to go out with me?’ ” he recalled. “From there it blossomed. We fit like gloves.”
Lee smiled at hearing the lines again.
“It’s exactly how he said. He remembers every word.”
Of their courtship, she added: “We had very strange date hours.”
Morty explained that he owned a pharmacy in Brooklyn he had taken over from his father. It was open seven days a week, often late.
Lee said: “He was a man with four children, a store in Brooklyn and rotten hours. That was how we started.”
These days, they are asked as often about their relationship as they are about the Swiffer ads.
People see them as oracles who hold the secret to a happy marriage.
Willing to compromise
Allen, who is Lee’s daughter (although the couple doesn’t differentiate between his and her children), said she has observed the way they readily compromise.
“Each one at any given moment is willing to let the other one take the day,” she said. “I don’t think anyone has a vested interest in standing their ground.”
Asked for his take on lasting romance, Morty said: “We’re in love with each other. That’s essential. You have to be compassionate, caring.” Then he turned to his wife and, almost embarrassed, said: “We’re revealing an awful lot about ourselves.”
She cheered. “It’s an evaluation of our lives.”
When the two married, she moved into his ranch house and set about sprucing up the place and making room for their blended family. But where once the house was busy and a little cramped, it now seems calm and the right size for a nonagenarian couple. The living room, with its burnt-orange shag carpet and artwork from their world travels, has the decades-long constancy one associates with grandparents’ homes. The only nod to this century is Morty’s new recliner.
Are there plans to appear in more commercials?
“Well, we’re waiting,” Morty said.
Lee said she would be happy either way. “I have nothing to complain about. We’ve had our day in the sun.”