Damian Dovarganes / AP
Rodney Allen Rippy poses for a photo outside Compton City Hall in March during his campaign for mayor. He finished 10th among 12 candidates.
COMPTON, Calif. -- Before he suddenly surfaced in the race for mayor of this hardscrabble Los Angeles suburb, Rodney Allen Rippy's name was likely to evoke that question inspired by that class of former child stars who didn't die young, end up in jail or a celebrity rehab series: "Whatever happened to that guy?"
Rippy was just 3 in 1972, when he became the toast of a generation as the pint-sized TV pitchman for the Jack In The Box fast-food chain. When he picked up a hamburger that looked as a big as a hubcap and tried to cram it into his mouth, America was entranced. When he finally said, "Too bigga eat!" a national catchphrase was born.
Soon the cute, chubby-cheeked youngster with the Afro as big as his head was hanging out in Hollywood with Michael Jackson. He made movie cameos and recorded a hit album called "Take Life a Little Easier."
Then the 1970s ended, and so did Rippy's career.
More than 30 years later, he resurfaced as a candidate for mayor in a city known variously over the years as the birthplace of gangsta rap, the murder capital of the country and the home of the drive-by shooting.
Although he got only 75 votes, finishing 10th among 12 candidates, his earnest but futile campaign raised the inevitable question of where he had been.
Rippy never strayed far from Hollywood, it turns out. He simply stepped away from the cameras.
When his Jack In The Box career ended about the time he was finishing high school, he went to college and earned a marketing degree.
"I wanted to continue to act, but at the time acting was a thing that unless you were really burning hot, you better have something on the back burner," he said recently over lunch at a Compton restaurant down the street from City Hall.
Seeing how the adults around him had turned a cute little kid from Long Beach into a national star, he decided marketing was the way to go.
He formed Ripped Marketing Group in 2000 and has promoted everything from smokeless cigarettes to leisure wear to country music. It gave him the idea, he says, that he could promote Compton too. He wanted to change the image of a city that, although financially troubled, has seen crime and gang violence drop precipitously in recent years.
He wasn't the first child star to remerge from anonymity to run for office. His contemporary, the late Gary Coleman, did the same when he launched his quixotic campaign for governor of California in 2003.
Unlike Coleman and many other former child stars, Rippy never got into a fistfight with an autograph seeker. He hasn't been caught in a crack house or drunkenly crashed his car.
"Don't get me wrong, I know the good, the bad, the ugly, but I have sense enough to stay away from it," he said. "My mom always said, 'Rodney, you need to understand this: It's very easy to get into trouble. It's very difficult to get out."
The Afro and the chubby cheeks are gone, but Rippy's appearance often has people scratching their heads, wondering where they've seen him before. Their reaction when they find out is sometimes like that of Saudia Pearsall's.
"THE RODNEY ALLEN RIPPY?" the waitress shouted with glee after she spotted him at a back table.
"Ahhhhh! I might vote for you just because I like you," she added, laughing. "That little Afro. 'This burger's too bigga eat!'"
A day later, she was having second thoughts, realizing she didn't know much about his campaign.
Her reaction — delight at meeting a celebrity but wondering what the heck he's doing here — is something Rippy says he sees often.
Rippy lost out on a marketing job once, when the person he was to work for started to believe he was being punked for a reality show: "He thought it was some kind of game, like I had some sort of hat-cam on."